On Feb. 15, Thomas Bruso's already unpredictable life took an abrupt detour. It was the day he ceased being Thomas Bruso and became Epic Beard Man, Internet sensation.
That day, Bruso pulled on his custom-made "I am a motherfucker" T-shirt, snapped on his fanny pack, and met the pot-smoking buddy he calls Ugly Bob at the bus stop at Fruitvale and MacArthur in Oakland. They boarded a San Francisco–bound AC Transit bus, planning to buy some weed in the city.
The two sixtysomethings sat near the front of the bus, where Bruso announced his plans to get his Stacy Adams shoes shined by a "brother" for his mom's funeral in Michigan. The driver would later tell police that Bruso had said that black people are good at shoe shining, but whatever the wording, it surely came out in Bruso's loud and gruff Chicago tones, and got people to pay attention. As Ugly Bob recalls it (though he says he wasn't wearing his hearing aid that day), an intoxicated black passenger named Michael Lovette said, "Why don't you get your own 'brother' to shine your shoes?"
Bruso is not one to walk away from a challenge — just ask the North Beach cops who drove up to where he was yelling obscenities at cars on Columbus Avenue one day, and billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed the 6-foot-1, 225-pound hulk until he cracked up and cried. Or check out the video on YouTube, Bruso's first taste of Internet infamy, of the police Tasing him after he thumbed his nose at them at an Oakland A's game last August.
Lovette couldn't have known all that as Bruso walked to the back of the bus and sat opposite him. The tension was enough for a young black woman named Iyanna Washington sitting beside Bruso to start recording the exchange.
"Let's get back to business. How much you charge me for a spit-shine?" Bruso asked. Lovette, who is 50 but looks 20 years younger, with braids and wraparound sunglasses, replied in a low voice, "Why a brother gotta spit-shine your shoes?"
"You offered!" Bruso exclaimed, as though he were genuinely confused.
"I didn't offer you shit," Lovette answered.
"What did you just say when you walked by me?"
"I said, 'Why a fuckin' 'brother' gotta spit-shine your shoes?'"
"No, he don't have to!" Bruso yelled back.
"Why a white man can't spit-shine — "
"It could be a Chinaman — it don't matter!" Bruso shouted. "I ain't prejudiced! What? You think I'm prejudiced?"
Lovette pointed to the front of the bus, where Ugly Bob still sat. "Look, dude, take yo' ass back up there and get the fuck out of my face right now," he said.
Bruso stood up and started walking to the front of the bus, yelling over his shoulder at Lovette: "You ain't scarin' this white boy. I'm 67 years old. You ain't scarin' me."
A voice from behind the camera, which many think belongs to Washington, egged them on: "Say it again! Say it again, Pinky! Beat his white ass! Whup his ass!"
Lovette and Bruso continued to talk smack to each other. Bruso grunted, "I'm gonna slap the shit out of ya!"
"What?" Lovette shrieked, striding to the front of the bus. He lunged at Bruso in a sloppy attempt to hit him in the chest. Bruso swatted off the punch, stood up, and loosed a whirlwind of blows with his meaty fists that sent Lovette to the floor, hands up to shield his bleeding nose. Bruso grabbed Lovette's collar and screamed, "I told you not to fuck with me!" and then told the bus driver and Washington's camera, "He hit me! He fuckin' hit me!" before leaving the bus. Lovette lumbered back to his seat, dripping blood, promising to "kill that nigga."
The next day, Washington uploaded "AC Transit Bus Fight I Am a Motherfucker" to YouTube. The 3 minutes and 21 seconds of explosive footage got more than a million views in 24 hours. Web junkies dubbed Bruso "Epic Beard Man," and posted fan art re-creating him as a muscular cartoon character, a pimp in a Stacy Adams ad, or getting his shoes shined by Lovette. Others created videos of the fight as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter parodies; another composed and uploaded an "I Am a Motherfucker" tribute song. Hundreds of people posted response videos breaking down the fight. Comedians used it as skit material, while high schoolers cracked up at the senior citizen's unlikely fighting prowess.
Epic Beard Man was a phenomenon. Of course, his new "fans" knew little about the man himself. Instead, viewers saw what they wanted to see. Some saw an elderly hero. Some saw a racist. And others — well, they saw dollar signs.
Bruso pulled his Chihuahua, Pinky, close to his face so she could lick him. "Would I ever hurt you, my lovely-dovely?" he cooed. The marijuana smoke was so thick in his room at the Altenheim senior residential home in Oakland — one of the nicer places a Section 8 voucher and $11,000 a year in welfare will get you — that you could get high just by walking in. A TV and radio played simultaneously. A note taped on the wall under a Marilyn Monroe poster read, "Tom, I am a local producer from Nash Entertainment. We had an interview scheduled with you for today. Please call me. I have some money for you."
The phone rang, and Bruso asked me to answer it. In the month since he became Epic Beard Man, he has become wary, and not just because of the kids who call to ask him how much he'll charge to shine their shoes. You can't have a gloves-off racial clash of the kind rarely seen by polite society and expect to avoid the fallout. Dozens of black men posted videos on YouTube taking Bruso's side, arguing that he was defending himself against a fool who read racism where there was none. Yet white supremacists commenting on message boards saw an all-powerful white man triumphing over a scraggly thug. The far-right Occidental Quarterly referred to Bruso as a "folk hero to hundreds of thousands of White Americans who are tired of being perpetual victims of violent hate crimes in their own land." Bay Area National Anarchists, which preaches white separatism, attempted to organize a rally to support him.