Eight months have passed since a knock awoke him and his girlfriend, Abby Ballin. He had ignored two calls on his iPhone around 7 a.m., assuming it was the girls calling to share what Santa had brought them. He and the girls had spent the week in the city, decorating his Christmas tree, ice-skating, and swimming in the pool in his building. It had been 24 hours since he’d dropped them off in Stamford. The knock persisted, and he stumbled past the tree and opened the door; there were two men in police uniforms who wanted to know if he was Matthew Badger.
Today, it is difficult to read his affect. He is short, attractive, and noticeably aging. He is aggressively smoking a Marlboro Red and preparing to light another. He wears necklaces around his neck, some leather, some metal, one a miniature version of Himalayan prayer flags.
He tells me that seeing children can sometimes make him feel better and other times worse. The last photo ever taken of the girls—of the three of them in brightly colored winter coats, lined up with him in front of the Hudson around sunset—was taken right over there. He speaks slowly, sometimes stuttering, not always in complete sentences. He has a diluted British accent, a vestige of his childhood in England. He says he needs caffeine.
We go to a coffee shop in the neighborhood. He orders a scone, a double cappuccino, and an iced tea. We sit in the sun. In between cigarettes, he chews Nicorette gum. He talks about the girls. He would take them to museums, parks, toy stores, dinner at the local diner, late movies, allowing them to run up in front of the screen to dance as the credits were rolling. He says he was too loose with them. Madonna had called him her fourth child; he says that she was right. He will not say anything else about her. She is struggling and trying to deal in her own way, and he does not want to hurt her.
He wants to talk about the foundation, the LilySarahGrace Fund, that he started in the days that followed the fire, days when he stalked his apartment like a lunatic, threatening to end his life, and others’: the town officials, Borcina, Madonna. Abby and his friends did not leave him alone, fearing for his safety. One day, sobbing in the shower, he came up with the idea. Like Matt, his daughters had all had dyslexia, expressing themselves first in art, so he would create a fund that would distribute money around the country to promote arts-based approaches to early education. His friend Kevin, a hedge-fund manager, believed this would be good for Matt and helped start the fund. It has since become all-consuming. It is his job. It is what keeps his children alive. It is what keeps him alive. So far, it has distributed more than $430,000 in 48 states.
But he has experienced a terrible weekend. Last week, he was invited to participate in a fund-raiser in Norwalk, Connecticut, and though the event was not a perfect fit, the location, near Stamford, seemed meaningful. It was held in a beautiful mansion. There was wine and cheese and music and people of local prominence. He’d gotten up and told them his story—their story. The event raised $1,200. The amount was pitiful, offensive even. He is devastated by it.
We walk toward Battery Park. It is the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and helicopters are flying overhead. He points out various things, including the original battery and the building where he and Madonna were married. He stops to talk to a young man wearing a suit and carrying a sign that reads F*CKED BY THE FED. This goes on for some time. He says he does not know how he feels about the rich. It is the rich who are helping him with his fund.
He’s taken out a cigarette, and, realizing he’s out of matches, he steps over a black lacquered chain and leans down to light his cigarette with the eternal flame adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial. Along Trinity Place, there are young people lying on mattresses, others selling art, hundreds of police officers, some of them on horses. Wall Street is totally barricaded, and he jokes that the Occupiers have picked a poor day to occupy it: Rosh Hashanah. We walk past the statue of a businessman riffling through his briefcase. Construction cranes move far above. He asks aloud whether this might be narcissistic—the foundation, our conversation, all of it. He has been writing a diary on a Facebook page started not long after the fire called Friends Who Love Matt, which has almost 1,000 followers. He was once a successful commercial director, but he has not returned to work. He is running out of money, spending down his personal savings, and redirecting everything he had saved for his daughters’ college education to grow the foundation.