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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.
There's no doubt Bruso uses wildly politically incorrect terms, but people who know him insist he's no racist at heart. His best friend, Junior, who is black, will tell you so, and Bruso attends a Baptist church with mostly black parishioners. Even the bus driver, who is also black, told police that she didn't believe Bruso was making the racial remarks "in a mean way." According to the police report, she said he "didn't know his comments were insulting and ... appeared to have a mental disorder." When the cops arrived after the bus fight and arrested Bruso, he was committed for 72 hours to a psychiatric ward at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He was charged with battery resulting in injury of a transit passenger, but Lovette told police he wasn't interested in pressing charges. Yet as soon as Bruso was released from the hospital, white racists started calling to congratulate him, their salutations turning to threats upon finding out he didn't share their views. Black people called with promises of violence.
Bruso started to worry. In his big-talking moments, he'll say things like, "You're welcome to come to the funeral, girl. I've been threatened 17 times already. It's just a matter of time before they sneak up on me and blow me away." But behind the exaggeration, he got tired of the attention. Soon after the fight, he shaved off his epic beard. But then a video of him without his beard was posted online, too.
I picked up the phone. It was one of Bruso's sisters, calling from Wisconsin. She demanded that I leave immediately: "It's all a bunch of lies!" she shouted.
His sister in Minnesota, whom we'll call Anne because she asked that his family members' names be withheld, feels the same way. Anne says she could bring herself to watch only a couple of minutes of some of the news, man-on-the-street interviews, and documentary clips on YouTube in which her brother embarked on rants familiar to the North Beachers who know him as Crazy Tom, Vietnam Tom, or Touchdown Tommy, one of the neighborhood's most infamous unmedicated kooks: He was stuck in an oven by his mom, he beat up his father, he was a vet who turned into a pimp in Chicago.
Anne ripped the stories apart. No, their mom never put him in an oven. He was never a pimp, nor did he beat up his father. And contrary to what everyone believes, including people raising money online for Bruso, Vietnam Tom never went to 'Nam.
"If he has your attention, he can tell you all types of stories and make himself feel good about who he is for that moment in time," she says. Yet she's tired of him spinning and believing his own tall tales. "We're like, 'You're not going to be rich and famous, you're bullshitting them. And you believe it. You believe you're Vietnam Tom, that you're Epic Beard Man.'"
Anne says her brother, who says he is bipolar, gets out of control because he refuses to take his meds. He says the medication turns him into a vegetable, but she has another diagnosis: "If you're taking meds, and you're calm, you can't act out and blame others. ... He chooses to be in the limelight of negative attention."
Obviously he's getting plenty of it now. "It's a delusional life he's living through this media glittery-type attention," Anne says. "It's wrong to even pick up on it. I'm asking you not to glorify him."
Bruso's glorification isn't confined to the Internet. Tony Turino strode into Bruso's apartment on a March afternoon. Turino is what you can call a true Beard Man believer, a cheerful IT guy with a Beatles moptop who set up a Web site and PayPal account for people to donate to Bruso. He says he decided to help after he learned Bruso was a veteran who "was spit on." "We can all agree Tom is a patriot," he says. (Bruso was lying on his bed, resting his eyes, and remained silent.)
After finding Bruso in the weeks after the bus fight, Turino took him out for barbecue or burgers, gave him a laptop he didn't know how to use, and generally delighted in everything Bruso said with a golden retriever–like enthusiasm. He kidded Bruso: "You're Italian, right? You're a wop like me?"