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Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: The Noize on the Bus
  • December 26, 2013 : 15:12
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“To write orotund critical phrases about TMZ for a magazine is easy and contemptible.”—VICTOR HUGO

Thank you for reading this terrible piece about TMZ’s New York City bus tour and my father’s shingles. It is an unforgivable insult to your intelligence (and to TMZ and the varicella-zoster virus, which is sometimes called VZV). It begins with a pretentious reference to the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin and ends with a disgusting scene in the men’s room at the Port Authority. (There are actually two scenes in the Port Authority men’s room, both gratuitous, the second of which adds the insult of being completely redundant.) It’s really just a hodgepodge of disconnected fragments clumsily strung together. The whole thing is awful, and if you find any of it the least bit edifying or entertaining, I’d be shocked. Pick any smug, effete novelist in pricey eyewear from Park Slope or Los Feliz and he would have done a substantially better job on this essay than I have. Trust me on that. Among unassuming men of genuine accomplishment, I stand out as a preening failure. For writing this piece of tripe that I lay before you, I should be dismembered and my body parts dissolved in the caustic posole that Mexican cartels use to dispose of their enemies. Yet, instead, I ask you to read this. Forgive me.

(Based on the patently disingenuous apologies—“backward bragging”—that Inuit etiquette requires hosts to make before serving their guests traditional delicacies such as narwhal blubber and fermented eider duck, as described by the Danish polar explorer and anthropologist Peter Freuchen.)

PART ONE

I’m in the middle of Times Square on a summer’s day, engulfed in a slow-motion stampede of tourists in M&M hats and Hard Rock Cafe shirts, and I think of Hölderlin, who frequently wrote about a world that the gods had abandoned (“Why is the sacred, holy dance no longer celebrated? / Why, as never before, is the brow of man unmarked by a god?”). Across the street, the bright red TMZ tour bus idles impatiently, and I have to piss, so I duck into Ellen’s Stardust Diner (“Home of the World Famous Singing Wait Staff”). Almost immediately, I’m confronted by a waitress, who tilts her head and clasps her hands together. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to be sung to, and I’m paralyzed with embarrassment. My worst nightmare is about to come true. She looks into my eyes and starts singing “If I Loved You” from Carousel—“If I loved you / Words wouldn’t come in an easy way / Round in circles I’d go.” Then I realize that if I close my eyes and split into multiple personalities, I can survive this. Before I get on the bus, I dash off a tweet: “Reading Jeff Guinn’s new Charles Manson bio. Will always love Ed Sanders’s The Family. But in Guinn, Manson has surely found his Kitty Kelley.”

A psychotically cheerful blond guy with a clipboard says, “You must be Mark,” and I have a sort of PTSD flashback that I’m getting on a bus to a summer camp in the Adirondacks.

The TMZ tour bus is half full at best. A series of television screens are cantilevered over the seats as on an airplane. The loud, thumping dance music cuts out, and the psychotically cheerful blond guy introduces himself as Mathew, the tour guide. He says he’s Australian. He introduces the bus driver as Jacques and compares him to Jacques Cousteau (in the same way, I suppose, one could compare me to Mark Wahlberg or Mark Rothko).

My initial feelings about the tour are very negative. I assume it’s going to be one of the most miserable experiences I’ve ever had, that I’m about to spend two hours during which the indescribable horror of meaninglessness will be interminably described. I feel as if I’ve broken out over every inch of my body in oozing pustules of psoriasis and impetigo and am suffering from tertiary-stage anal pruritus, and I’m convinced I will never see my family again. But I decide to try to keep an open mind.

Mathew assures everyone that this will be an interactive experience and that the TMZ tour bus is a “loving sharing friend zone,” and as we head into Times Square he warns us against “catching an STD from a scary Elmo.”

We’ve hardly been in the bus for two minutes when we bag our first celebrity. It’s Mariska Hargitay, filming an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She’s not stumbling out of a club drunk or huffing glue or punching a police horse or dangling a vomiting baby over the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa or anything. She’s just doing her job, so it’s slightly disappointing. Mathew suggests that she seems taller in person than she does on TV. And then, just like that, we have our first interactive moment. Mathew muses out loud that Mariska Hargitay is “related to someone famous.” And a passenger yells out, “Jayne Mansfield!”

Of all the actors who’ve appeared on all the many-splendored Law & Order spin-offs, my absolute favorite is Kathryn Erbe, who, from 2001 to 2011, starred as Detective Alexandra Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And my absolute favorite episode is season six, episode one, in which Eames is kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged and hung by her bound hands from a meat hook. For anyone who has ever had sexual fantasies about Kathryn Erbe, this is one of the finest examples of episodic television ever.

Mathew flicks on the TV screens, which show a TMZ story about Chris Brown appearing on Good Morning America and, after being questioned by Robin Roberts about his 2009 attack on then girlfriend Rihanna, storming off the set, trashing his dressing room and breaking a window with a chair. Mathew flicks off the TVs and asks us if we’re aware that Chris Brown recently had a seizure. “He claimed it was from too much publicity.…” There’s a beat. Then a campy, incredulous guffaw.

As we pass Parsons the New School for Design, Mathew does a Tim Gunn impersonation: “Designers, make it work.” Then he adds, in his own Australian accent, “Tim Gunn is asexual and celibate. His only boning is in a corset.”

It dawns on me that the TMZ bus tour is a quaint exercise in anachronism, like a buggy ride through Amish country. Who really needs TMZ when we’ve got drone-mounted biometric optical surveillance systems? In this age of ubiquitous panoptic domestic espionage, aren’t we all notorious reality stars? (The tour ticket itself states that TMZ “may record you in conjunction with the tour. And air footage on TV, web or other media. Who knows,” it speculates, “it might even make you a star!”) And in this DIY world of selfies, isn’t everyone his own worst paparazzo? So many of us have had minor and fleeting brushes with fame (which has been in a deflationary tailspin for decades now) that we’re all celebrity manqués in one way or another, though some of us are more resentful and embittered than others. (When I see red carpets, I dream of bloodbaths.) As for TMZ on TV, no one is sitting in his living room watching TV anymore. The kids are soaking tampons in digital emulsions of programming and sticking them up their asses.

My notes simply say, “Justin Bieber pees in a yellow mop bucket.” In all honesty, I can’t remember if that’s something Mathew mentioned or if it was something from the TMZ on TV clip that popped up on the screens, or if it was perhaps just the beginning of a new poem I’d started writing. Anyway, then Mathew says, “Did you guys see Justin Bieber naked this morning?” and he walks up and down the aisle of the bus showing everyone a photo of Bieber’s butt on his cell phone.

Mathew calls Flo Rida “my good friend” and then, as we pass Madison Square Garden, tells us Taylor Swift sold out the venue in 60 seconds, which he says “is longer than most of her relationships!”

We’re now in front of Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise’s apartment building, the Chelsea Mercantile at 252 Seventh Avenue. Mathew informs us that Nick Jonas also lived here and that Anderson Cooper and several members of the Jersey Shore cast have patronized Beach Bum Tanning across the street, and then the TVs flash on, and there’s John Mayer addressing the camera, saying, “Harvey Levin, I’ve got pictures of your nuts,” and then an announcer declares, “He’s boned some of Hollywood’s hottest talent!” And then Mathew walks up and down the aisle, showing everyone a photo on his cell phone of John Mayer in what he calls a “Borat bikini.”

Identifying the apartment building of Tiger Woods’s ex-mistress Rachel Uchitel, between 14th and 15th streets, Mathew says, “Tiger offered her $10 million, but she blabbed and went on Celebrity Rehab,” and then quips, regarding Tiger’s current romance with alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn, “I hope that relationship doesn’t go…downhill!”

As we enter the Meatpacking District, Mathew reminds us that it “used to be a crap hole with drugs and transvestites.” He enumerates several of the area’s most notorious gay bars and sex clubs of yesteryear—the Manhole, the Mineshaft, the Ramrod. “You know what kind of meat they were packing there,” he says darkly. Then he has one of his weird mood swings, suddenly all bright and chipper: “Now it’s one of the trendiest neighborhoods in NYC!”

Mathew continues jabbering to himself in a private nonsensical language that only he (and apparently everyone else on the bus) understands, as I work on a couple of tweets: “Reading about Achilles defiling the corpse of Hector gives me a hard-on. Does this mean I’m a fascist? Gay?” and “Anyone know how to remove white stains from hyena excrement from black leather jeans?”

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read more: entertainment, Celebrities, issue january 2014

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