What can you say about a 50 year old alleged pedophile who died?
Quite a lot, it turns out. The internet almost an hero'd Thursday as news spread of Michael Jackson's untimely but not unexpected demise. People were trying to log onto news sites to get information, then were logging onto networking sites to express themselves. There was a lot to say about Michael Jackson. He was so influential and all-encompassing that when he died, he almost took the Internet with him.
Unlike some, I've never had a problem separating Jackson's art from his life. But then, I grew up watching Woody Allen movies--I've got a well-honed talent for the separation of art and life. Turns out to be a very useful skill; without fail, the person you most admire will do the thing you most hate. Don't believe me? Consider this: Steve Martin almost married Anne Heche.
I rest my case.
Michael Jackson was background noise for me. I mean certainly I went through what most people my age went through in the early '80s, to an extent, but I never owned a copy of Thriller, or a sequined glove, or a tacky bright red jacket with zippers in odd places. I tried to moonwalk a few times, with disastrous consequences, and have done my fair share of crotch-grabbing (but probably not because of Jackson's influence--I'm pretty sure I'd've been crotch-grabbing even if Jackson had been born without hands). But I never really got into Jackson the way others of my generation did.
Here's what I remember most about Michael Jackson circa 'Thriller': Jamal's older sister.
Jamal was about my age, and lived just down from me on Prospect Street in Florence, AL. Poor black family living in a duplex, five kids, a father out of work, a mother who... I don't know. I saw the mother a few times. She reminded me of Florida from "Good Times," but probably only because Florida was the only other black woman I had regular contact with, besides my third grade teacher, who also reminded me of Florida. Or Weezy Jefferson. Depended on what reruns I was plopped down in front of.
Mom would take me to school in Dad's truck, and sometimes Jamal and his four siblings would pile in and ride to school with me. Two could fit in the cab with Mom and me, and the other three would, no matter the weather, climb into the open bed.
The day after the video for Thriller was released, Jamal's sister squeezed into the cab. She'd been the last to leave the house, after a few horn-honks from Mom. She apologized for making us wait. "The video was on. I just had to finish it."
Jamal shoved her. "You've seen it fifteen times already."
There was a huge mark on Jamal's sister's arm. A circle of flesh the size of a nickel bubbled up from her skin. I asked her about it, and Mom did that mom-thing that means 'Be quiet,' where she touched my head while pressing her lips together. A slight shake of her head.
Jamal's sister looked at the nickel-sized bubble while Jamal looked straight ahead. "I got bit by a spider," she said. "Last night. In bed."
"Size of a cigar," Jamal added, still looking off at what was coming at us.
"But the video," Jamal's sister continued. "He's looking so fine. And those moves!" She did the best approximation of a dancing zombie she could manage within the confines of my dad's truck's cab.
Mom had been driving Jamal and his siblings to school now, off and on, for several months. This was the first time Jamal's sister had said anything at all. Now we couldn't get her to shut up. During the 10 minutes from her door to the schoolhouse door, Jamal's sister delivered a monologue about Michael Jackson's Thriller, and acted out scenes for us--she already had the dialog memorized--and sang bits and pieces of the song. I kept staring at the nickel-sized scar as her arm waved excitedly in front of my face.
Jamal, by the way, had straightened his hair a few weeks earlier. He'd had a pretty impressive afro, but now it was swept back over his head and combed down in wiry-wet strands. Like, yeah, Michael Jackson. A few weeks after 'Thriller,' he came out of his house wearing a bright red leather jacket.
That's my Michael Jackson memory. Or not the only one I have of course, but the one that I think about the most. Before Michael Jackson, the only black person I understood was Florida Evans. After Michael Jackson, I suddenly understood Jamal's sister. Art and life intersect no matter how much you try to keep them separate.
Last year, I rediscovered Michael Jackson. Got into him in a way I never did when I was growing up. That man was an amazing talent.
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