Jon Gosselin in the Wilderness

As part of the headlining duo of Jon & Kate Plus 8, he ruled the reality-TV roost. Then his life crashed and burned, and five years later he’s working as a maître d’ and living in a cabin in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania.

WE FINISH EATING and head outside so Jon can have a smoke. We’re discussing the shooting-your-pistol-in-the-general-vicinity-of-a-tabloid-photographer incident when the issue of privacy comes up. “Yeah, Twitter,” he says in between drags. “I deleted it last year. Best thing I ever did. I can disappear. Nobody knows where I am.” @Kateplusmy8, meanwhile, is going strong at 174,000 followers. This enrages Jon. “She tweets everything. To the world, all about my children. I think it’s disgusting and awful. They can’t even have a normal life.”

I feel compelled to remind him he volunteered those same children for a five-season stint on prime-time television; Collin, Aaden, Joel, Hannah, Alexis, Leah, Mady and Cara’s formative moments are currently stacked in a pile of DVDs on my coffee table. He thinks this over for a few seconds. “Right. So I made a mistake.”

Jon first had this “epiphany” in 2009, after which he repented on Larry King, days after he walked out on the TLC show, never to return. (For this, and other violations, TLC’s casting partner sued him for breach of contract, which Jon says cost him about $500,000 and explains why he’s working at Black Dog.) But now he’s taking the epiphany to a whole new level. He says he wants to tack an amendment onto a piece of 2012 Pennsylvania child labor legislation known as “the Jon & Kate Plus 8 law,” to make it even more difficult to film minors. In November, Jon told Oprah that the show had given his kids “developmental” issues.

In this autumn of mea culpa, Jon can come across like a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting who’s a little too eager to rehash his exploits. There are aspects of the bad old days he wishes he could have back. After he’s done smoking, one of the empty nesters at the end of the bar mentions the word “college,” and Jon, whose frenetic conversational style can seem like an endless game of word-association, launches into a story about the first time he ended up in the tabloids.

“My mom lived right behind Juniata College,” he recalls. “I was playing beer pong in a sorority house for four and a half hours. And I was winning.” The Juniata College episode came on the heels of another important milestone. “January 17th, 2009,” he says, somberly. “That’s the first time I went out knowing full well that I wasn’t coming home. I got home at four in the morning. And [Kate] said nothing. And then I knew it was over.”

Jon gets antsy and suggests we hit up a different bar. Five minutes later, we arrive at an equally middle-of-nowhere dive that looks like it specializes in late-night automobile fatalities. Jon orders a Paulaner Hefe-Weizen in an absurdly tall glass, and we move out to the patio and sit down at a table, where we’re approached by a 30ish guy and his girlfriend. She, Samantha, very drunk, has convinced him, Greg, a farmer of chili peppers, to ask Jon a question on her behalf.

Greg: Are you Ryan Gosling?
Jon: No, I’m Jon Gosselin.
Greg: My girlfriend was like, “That guy looks just like Ryan Gosling.”
Jon: I wish I was Ryan Gosling. God, that would be awesome. Ha!
Greg: Are you related?

Greg and Samantha peel off. Jon leans back in his chair and smiles, at peace with his relative unimportance. “It’s all human,” he muses, smoking a cig. “They’re all having a good time. You know what I mean? Why can’t the world be like this? Why do we have such an adversity towards each other?” I ask if it can really all be human when he’s famous and they’re not. “Yeah. I wait tables,” he says. “That keeps me normal.”

For a few months, the Waiter & Cabin Dweller redemption tour faced at least one massive obstacle: the federal lawsuit. If Kate was right, and Jon stole the hard drive for the purpose of exposing her already severely compromised private life, all hope of image rehabilitation would be lost. Jon disputed the charge, claiming that he made copies of all of Kate’s files for her on DVD, and that months after she threw him out of their house in October 2009, she then threw out all of those files. His friend, the tabloid writer Hoffman, says he simply nabbed the backup DVDs when he came over to help Jon officially move out.

Throughout the fall, nothing much happened with the case, which Jon’s lawyers repeatedly tried to get tossed. In November, the gossip site RadarOnline reported that Kate was trying to subpoena cell-phone records from Hailey Glassman, the most infamous of Jon’s post-Kate ex-girlfriends. Glassman apparently possessed text messages that, with Danielle Steel-level flourish, seemed to incriminate Jon.

Sent: October 14, 2009 11:02 AM
Subject: Grabbing computer
I’ll be back soon grabbing Kate’s computer before she gets home. I need that hard drive. I will put the nail in her coffin someday from it
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sent: October 14, 2009 11:42 AM
Subject: Calm Down
You need to calm down. I’m doing this because she deserves it! Yet you call me evil. You want me to be honest with you but when I tell you the truth you call me evil. I don’t get you sometimes [redacted].
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

When I ask Jon about these texts, he becomes exasperated. He says he’s the one who wants to subpoena Glassman’s text messages. “I have proof to prove they’re fake,” he tells me, with a level of specificity his lawyers probably would not condone. “I didn’t have Verizon until 2010.” He adds, “Fuck you, Hailey Glassman, you lying piece of shit.”

In November, Kate dropped the charges against both Jon and Hoffman. (This is normally the place where I’d quote Kate’s Philadelphia-based lawyer, but he repeatedly dodged my calls and emails, claiming he was too busy to talk. He did, however, find time to post selfies to his Twitter account.)

In truth, Kate had put herself in a precarious position by suing at all. Jon’s lawyers say that if Hoffman’s book indeed “contained defamatory and untrue information about Kate Gosselin,” as she claimed, then she’d undermined her own claim that he stole her actual journal. On the flip side, if he did steal her actual journal, the information from it that he printed in his book would appear to be true, not “false” and “defamatory.” Jon’s take: “She’s admitting the child abuse. That’s her intellectual property. It’s her journal.”

A couple weeks before Kate dropped the case, Hoffman sent me a copy of a Microsoft Word file titled “Mommy’s Journal.” It totals over 100 pages. It begins on July 2, 2006, and ends on July 23, 2007. There are a lot of exclamation points and biblical verses. Hoffman says I’m the first journalist to see it, and has urged me to “independently verify” it. I’ll say this: If Hoffman did fabricate this diary, he has a real gift for creating the mundane parenting anxieties that consumed Kate’s thoughts in the mid-aughts.

As far as Hoffman’s allegations go, suffice it to say their veracity depends mostly on whether one considers spanking abusive behavior or not. At the bar, when I begin to ask Jon pointed questions about the alleged abuse, he wises up, goes off the record, and says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Then he looks around the patio, motions toward the bar, and yells: “Let’s do a shot!”

Post-shot, Jon tells me to trail his beige Ford Expedition back to Reading, where he can lead me to a good motel. On our way, he stops at a gas station to pick up a can of Monster for himself and a pack of cigarettes to bring to his friend Carey. When we get to Carey’s, I get out of the car and find Jon standing in her unpaved driveway, driver-side door wide open, taking a piss. After a few minutes of standing around Jon’s puddle of urine and making small talk, we get back into our cars. My phone buzzes. It’s Jon. All he says is, “We’re taking back roads.” He kicks the Expedition into gear, and I follow.