Mathew tells us he has a degree in pop culture, specializing in pop music, and that he’s on TMZ on TV every Tuesday. “You could not ask for a better boss,” he says, speaking of Harvey Levin. “He’s extremely short. Well, maybe it’s just that I’m very tall.” And then, after a story about how Al Roker shit in his pants at the White House after undergoing gastric-bypass surgery, Mathew discloses that he was a finalist on Australian Idol. “I just finished my album today. Harvey is going to help me promote it!” And then he reveals for the first time his full name: Mathew Chadwick.
We play one more round of Celebrity or Homeless Person (this time it’s Sylvester Stallone), and as the bus pulls up to our original port of embarkation across the street from Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Mathew asks for tips. We file out, and some passengers pose for pictures with Mathew.
Accompanied by Andean panpipe music and the aroma of sweet nuts and hot pretzels, I make my way back toward the Port Authority, passing en route the figure of Samuel L. Jackson in front of Madame Tussauds and a live sword swallower in front of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
I have to piss (I never had the opportunity back at Ellen’s Stardust), so before catching the 126 bus back to Hoboken, I dart into the men’s room. You wouldn’t think the overpowering stench of sodden urine cakes, flatulence and rancid body odor, plus a general ambience of degenerate anomie, would seem like a breath of fresh air, but it is. Oh, it is. It shows you how salutary—as a kind of aversion therapy—an inane scam like the TMZ bus tour can be. Dare I say it? It’s real in here, yo.
The man at the urinal next to me is expressing some sort of white liquid from one of his nipples. It’s disgusting but absolutely fascinating. Is he lactating?
Male lactation is extremely rare, occurring most notably in the Dayak fruit bat. It just goes to prove how easy it is to find someone genuinely exotic. After two hours on a celebrity safari, the best we came up with was Mariska Hargitay and Mathew Chadwick, and then I just duck into a men’s room in a bus terminal—and here’s a lactating man who’s half human, half fruit bat.
And after two hours of Mathew’s relentlessly cheerful drivel, I’m oddly buoyed by the crush of sad men in here. Bald, toothless, sallow men. Palsied, limping, exhausted, abjectly sad men. Men whose brows are unmarked by a god. They make me unaccountably happy. I feel tremendous solidarity with them.
Several days after the TMZ bus tour, I take a train out to the country to visit my father. I don’t know the actual name of the town. It’s somewhere out in western New Jersey, and I usually just refer to it as “Ker-munk-a-chunk” or “Lake Little Lake.”
I spend a considerable amount of time studying hummingbirds. My dad’s got a little hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water hanging off his back porch. (When I get back to Hoboken, I find the following turgid observation in my notebook: “I much prefer the insouciant wit and punkish gesturalism of the hummingbird to the strenuous solemnity of, say, the dung beetle or the weevil.”) And it’s while gazing at a hummingbird hovering mid-air that I make the momentous decision to take the TMZ tour again, to conduct a sort of shot-for-shot remake (à la Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), to try to rigorously recapitulate every moment of the original.
All in all, it’s an exceptionally productive, pleasant visit. But there is one ugly incident. After my father comments that the untrimmed hair on the back of my neck makes me look slovenly, I explode in oedipal rage and launch a volcanic profanity-laced diatribe about his supercilious carping that lasts for several hours. I stop only when I realize how disoriented and frail he looks. (Later, he tells me he felt perfectly fine and that I was the one who looked disoriented and frail.)
I think that in my personal life I behave very much like North Korea. I am almost always desperate for cash. And it’s my timeworn tactic to raise tensions—to remind my “adversaries” (i.e., my family and friends) that I’m an unstable menace who needs placating—by sending wildly mixed signals, sometimes belligerent and at other times conciliatory.
I make good on my commitment to scrupulously recapitulate, in every detail, my first TMZ bus tour and return to Ellen’s Stardust Diner for another abortive attempt to urinate. This time the singing waitress who obstructs my path to the men’s room looks into my eyes and intones “Love You I Do” from Dreamgirls.
I board the bus, taking the exact same seat I’d occupied the first time, though this time around two exuberant Australian sisters-in-law are seated across the aisle from me, and behind them, with her dad, is an extroverted little girl who bears an amazing resemblance to Honey Boo Boo.
Mathew doesn’t disappoint me in how extraordinarily consistent he is in his rote spontaneity, though there are several notable variations. Instead of almost immediately seeing Mariska Hargitay filming a scene from her show in Times Square, we almost immediately see Dr. Mehmet Oz filming a scene from his. This time Mathew says, regarding Elmo, “When bad drugs happen to good puppets.” Regarding Tim Gunn’s asexuality and celibacy, he appends, “Serious case of blue balls.” He randomly predicts that Madonna has a shelf life of 65 and says of John Mayer’s Borat bikini, “It’s disgusting. It’s all hairy down there.”
He claims, “Yesterday we almost saw Gaga.” (I’ve taken the TMZ bus tour twice now, and I still don’t understand what it means to “almost see” someone.) When he says, “Kim Kardashian was married to Kris Humphries for…?” the Honey Boo Boo look-alike yells, “Seventy-two days!” Apropos of Hogs & Heifers, Mathew says, “Tyra Banks is horrific in Coyote Ugly,” and concerning the bus restroom, he reassures everyone that there are “no homeless people in there!” He repeats his characterization of Drake as “a rich Canadian Jew” and expertly identifies Food Network star Anne Burrell exiting Da Silvano.
Meanwhile, I’m just whiling away the time, stewing in my own rancid solipsism, morbidly leering at the two sisters-in-law, who, it seems to me, haven’t showered or eaten anything other than Doritos since arriving in New York and who dizzily giggle at every single thing Mathew says.
After reprising his story of getting wasted with Lady Gaga in Japan and slapping her across the face with an adult toy, Mathew adds, “It was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me.” Approaching the store Dash, he cites Paris Hilton’s comparison of Kim Kardashian’s ass to “a garbage bag filled with cottage cheese” and says, musing upon the death of Cory Monteith, “Heroin is the opposite of Glee.” After his homily about how we should remember Michael Jackson for “the good stuff,” he adds that “his butt was so scarred that the syringes were just breaking off.” Then he says, “This is the best tour I’ve done for a while!”
Then he divulges—and this is a major revelation—that he lives in Hoboken. Hoboken! I don’t know exactly what I’m doing at the time (a series of potholes has made my notes illegible at this point)—probably still morbidly leering and whiling away the time stewing in my own rancid solipsism—but when he says he lives in Hoboken (Hoboken!), I jerk forward in my seat as though I’ve been tasered.
Somewhere between the Ritz-Carlton and the Plaza, Mathew says, “I met Suri Cruise. She’s a little brat.” And he tells us an anecdote that involves calling Donald Trump a douchebag and Harvey Levin reprimanding him and saying, “Don’t call Donald Trump a douchebag.” Then Mathew tells us he said to Levin, “You’re the smallest man I ever met in my life,” though it’s not completely clear to me that this remark about Levin’s stunted growth was made during the same conversation as the one about calling Donald Trump a douchebag.
I receive a text from my father informing me that he is suffering from an extremely serious, painful and debilitating case of shingles. The outbreak presumably began several weeks ago and certainly overlapped with my visit. Now I feel a hundred times worse for having berated him with such disproportionate, bombastic combativeness. It never ceases to amaze me how sons—and especially the sons of successful and doting fathers—can become trapped in such endless cycles of resentment and guilt.
Like the dismembered head of Orpheus that floats down the river still singing of Eurydice, Mathew prattles on and on.… I had somehow forgotten from the first time that Al Roker shat his pants at the White House.
With the tour almost complete, Mathew asks, “Have any of you seen any celebrities?” And someone yells, “You!” Again, the allegorical implication of Mathew’s celebrity (that the true celebrity was among us all the time) hits me like a thunderbolt, and I’m roused from my drowsy captivity. I had been unable to leave the bus, like a guest in Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, but now my imaginary shackles fall away. “Mathew, please sing!” pleads the Honey Boo Boo doppelgänger as we begin to file off. “Please, Mathew, sing!” Mathew demurs. “Help me stay off the stripper pole,” he says, soliciting tips.
Again, the smell of hot pretzels and sweet nuts and the sounds of Peruvian panpipes as I tramp through Times Square. I stop at Champs to get an A-Rod T-shirt and then head to the Port Authority.
And again, I duck into the men’s room. This time there’s no lactating man. I piss and then pause to look at myself in the mirror.
It’s a great relief, after squinting at the apparitions of pseudo-celebrities for two hours, to look at yourself in the mirror, to look at your own anonymous, moribund face. In my own eyes, I can see tiny nuns floating across the boulevard; perhaps it’s just the degenerative debris that floats in the vitreous humor of the eye, but to me it’s tiny Jersey City nuns.
There is something unspeakably consoling in one’s own smile. In your reflection, you can discern the face of yourself as a child and the face of yourself as a corpse. And in this moment, all the fundamental antinomies are reconciled—the voyeur and the narcissist, the father and the son, the sacred and the profane, the celebrity and the homeless.
I get off the 126 on 14th Street in Hoboken to do some errands. I think I see Joseph Stalin buying condoms at CVS. But when he turns around, it’s just some kid in an overcoat.