ARMED WITH HIS trusty BlackBerry, Albert bunkers in at his sidewalk table. He exudes a casual air in black jeans, lavender sneakers and a brown flat cap, his eyes radiating a steady glitter. His boyish good looks are offset by a certain wary unknowability.
Albert is so thin that he appears almost not to exist. The gauntness, he says, is a result of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder. “I’m supposed to avoid coffee, cigarettes and stress,” he says, chuckling. “I never have, which may account for my stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. No pun intended: This disease is a pain in the ass.”
Then again, so is Albert. “Josh has very little tolerance for what he perceives as the world’s injustices, whether they are against him or someone else or lots of people,” says Moraff, a freelance writer who on August 24th bought Albert the domain name StaphMeal as a birthday present. “He’s been acting on that emotion for a while, as far as I can tell.”
In May, after a drink or two, Albert flipped off a cop outside Barbuzzo and was charged with public drunkenness. In August, after a drink or five, he was punched out at the Barbary after flipping the turntables on a DJ he deemed homophobic. “For better or worse,” Moraff says, “my little gift allowed him to flip much bigger tables and flip off bigger and more important people.”
Opinions on Albert ping-pong from one extreme to the other. “Josh is a sweet, likeable kid,” says Joyce Parr, the fifth of his six foster mothers. “Very few young people I’ve met are so open and up-front.”
“Joshua Albert is a lost, troubled guy who literally terrorized the Philadelphia restaurant scene,” says Jonathan Cohen, the attorney for Perrier and Olunloyo, and an object of considerable StaphMeal ridicule. “He terrorized anonymously, which required no courage or risk.”
Albert has elevated false personae from simple avocation to art form. Last year he called himself “Scott” in a Web post offering his services as an escort. He went by “Eli” in the eight online porn films he made while living in New York. “I had sex with men in half of them,” he reports. “But I never had anal or kissed a guy. I’m straight, so the homosexual stuff had to be Viagra-induced. Strictly gay-for-pay.”
Albert’s pugilistic prose and numerous noms de guerre are dwarfed by his history. It’s his history that has made him, that informs StaphMeal and propels the online eye-pokes. “Josh has long had temper and attachment issues,” says Parr. “Relationships are hard for him. He has no sense of family.”
No wonder. He never had much of a family. Albert was born in High Point, a North Carolina city sometimes referred to as the Furniture and Hosiery Capital of the World. He and his younger brother lived with his mother, Elizabeth, who Josh says was a stripper. “My father was a heroin addict,” he says offhandedly, as if his old man had been a plumber or an insurance salesman. “He and my mom split up when I was a toddler.”
Josh was six when he and his brother were taken into state custody. Josh remembers once calling the police during a home visit because he found pot in his mother’s apartment. At age 10, he witnessed her being brutally assaulted.
Parr shudders at the memory of reading the casework compiled by a therapeutic foster-care agency. “Josh’s mother wasn’t just raped,” she says. “Her throat was slit.” The beating triggered Elizabeth’s steep descent into hard drugs. She suffered a fatal overdose when Josh was 12.
Josh moved out of group care into a foster home, while his brother went to live with their maternal grandmother, whom Josh hated. Seven years later, his estranged father died of AIDS. Until he was 18, Josh was passed like an umbrella from foster home to foster home. Parr met Josh while she was an assistant principal at Chestnut Grove Middle School in King, North Carolina. He was a tightly wound preteen. During a visit with his grandmother, he caused a rumpus by upending a table of food. Still, Parr found the boy endearing. She and her husband even tried to adopt him.
Josh moved in with the couple just before his 16th birthday. “He was always testing boundaries,” Parr says. “Increasingly, he became unmanageable.” The tipping point was a confrontation she had with him about downloading porn on the home computer. Parr, then pregnant, told him he could only stay if he went to family counseling. His refusal begat Foster Home Number Six. “Josh is a great kid—he really is,” Parr says. “But he angers quickly, and when things get tough, he tends to run away.” (For his part, Albert still keeps in touch with Parr and doesn’t dispute any of this.)
Albert was 14 when he worked in his first restaurant, a Chick-fil-A in Burlington, North Carolina. After graduating from R.J. Reynolds High in Winston-Salem, he rappelled from job to job, state to state, making a pit stop here in 2005 on the suggestion of a girl he met in Cape May. Along the way he was arrested and convicted a half-dozen times, for everything from vandalism to credit-card theft (not the greatest crime for a waiter to have on his record).
He returned to Philly in 2010 and worked in the galleys of a half-dozen restaurants, including Zavino, Amis and A.Kitchen. “I’d quit because I didn’t like a place or felt unappreciated,” he says. “A few times, I got fired.” He had just been hired as a runner at Bistrot La Minette when he started StaphMeal. “One reason I decided to be anonymous was that I was afraid I’d get fired,” says Albert. He had been booted out of his apartment and was crashing on Moraff’s couch. “Another reason was that I didn’t want to get my ass kicked.”