Thursday, February 24, 2005


by Max Gordon
February 24, 2005
With the announcement that the jury had finally been selected for Michael Jackson’s trial on charges of child molestation came this memory: when my friend Douglas and I were twelve, Douglas was the first to have Michael Jackson hair. He came to school one Monday morning with a clear, disposable shower cap over his head. Over the weekend, his mother had taken him to get a jherri curl. He’d been begging her for months. A jherri curl was a serious expense in 1982 and cost between eighty and a hundred dollars; a big difference from the ten dollar haircuts Douglas and I got once a month at the barbershop. It was a luxury that required a beauty parlor and an entire afternoon. I’d wondered on Saturday why Douglas hadn’t been able to go bike-riding, why he hadn’t answered the phone all day. When I finally reached him on Sunday, he told me he’d see me the next morning at school with a big surprise.

In the hallway, beside his locker, Douglas unveiled his hair. It wasn’t exactly the same as Michael’s, but it was the nearest equivalent he and I were going to ever find. Michael probably paid a thousand dollars for his jherri curl and had access to the best stylists and haircare products that money could buy. He probably had two or three people who worked on his hair at the same time and never left his side, unlike our town, where you could sit under the dryer for too long in the back of a shop because a greedy beautician had scheduled too many jherri curls on the same day, or your hair could fall out because an assistant used too much chemical. We knew two twelve-year-old black boys (almost thirteen) from Lansing, Michigan could easily be burned getting a jherri curl, but no one would dare burn Michael Jackson.

We had no context for Douglas’ new hairstyle, or Michael’s, no conversation about the history of blacks straightening their hair in America. On TV sitcoms we’d heard the expressions: “My hair was fried, dyed and laid to the side” and “If your hair is short and nappy, Conkaline will make it happy.” Old movies and record albums offered glimpses of big-band leaders like Cab Calloway whose bone-straight hair flipped and bounced in his exuberance and jazzy hysteria, or that helmet of black-angel-food-cake that sat on James Brown’s head which, in our opinion, looked ridiculous on him and belonged instead on a white housewife in Texas; but James Brown was unimaginable without it. Our mothers used hot combs and relaxers on our sisters and on themselves, and we knew the creation of that beauty was an arduous, sometimes hazardous process. The only man I knew personally with straightened hair was my uncle on my mother’s side who lived in Florida; Uncle Jerry, an alcoholic who was rumored to exclusively date white women now that his first marriage to a black woman had bitterly ended. His permed hair looked like a poodle’s and complemented shirts opened to the waist, gold chains, and a new playboy’s life, as he frequented bars where Southern white women with towering stacks of blonde hair did slows drags with their arms lazily crossed over the shoulders of drunk black men. Douglas said his cousin Shawn down South, who’d been in jail twice, had always processed his hair. While Shawn’s face occasionally revealed his hardness, his layers of brown hair were always windswept, feathered and light, like Farrah Fawcett’s, and the white women who were always shaking out their slow motion hair in shampoo commercials on television. We didn’t know why these black men were attracted to the styles they wore, but what we did know was that Michael Jackson’s hair was different from theirs, and we wanted to look like him.

Douglas wouldn’t let anyone touch his hair; he barely let anyone see it. He wore his plastic shower cap the entire day. I was his best friend, so he told me I could look at it, but not for too long. He didn’t want too much air to get at it and ruin it. In the boys’ bathroom, he carefully pulled back his shower cap and revealed his wet, reddish bangs. His hair was brown to match his lighter skin, and although it wasn’t the same color or shape as Michael Jackson’s, we knew that if he was patient, he would soon have Michael’s length. He’d even gotten it parted on the side like Michael’s, with a small slicked down patch on the right. Douglas jerked his head in a quick dance move, and his tiny bangs bounced against his forehead, just as Michael’s did in Beat It.

I was a better student than Douglas and decided early on in our friendship that I was smarter than he was, but it didn’t matter, because in seventh grade we weren’t interested in being better students or smart, we wanted to be Michael Jackson. Douglas did everything first. He’d gotten Michael’s album Thriller first, he learned to spin like Michael and end up on the tips of his toes, he would eventually learn to Moonwalk first, and now he had Michael’s hair. It had been his idea to let our hair grow out so we could get it permed, but I hadn't been sure at the time if he would really go through with it. I went home right after school, strategizing the whole way. Operation Jherri Curl, my campaign to convince my mother to let me get my hair straightened too, had to start immediately, as it might take weeks to convince her.

My mother sat on the edge of her bed and considered me carefully over a second cigarette. When she’d gotten home that evening, I’d met her with a cup of her favorite tea, talked to her through the door as she used the bathroom, and followed her into her bedroom, pleading my case the entire time. The key to parents was stamina. Asking a parent for something right after they’d come home from the office was risky, but often fruitful: recovering from the torture of a work day where the world had beaten them down from nine to five, and still slightly delirious from emotional pain, they usually agreed to anything. The risky part was that a tired parent could have a moment of clarity and recoil from a child who wouldn’t even let “his poor mother” get in the door and take off her coat before “you start asking me for something.” The request was permanently tainted with the idea of a thankless child who was so greedy and selfish, he only thought of himself. The chances of getting the desired object were close to zero. Convincing a parent to give you something you wanted that was more expensive than your allowance covered, especially when it wasn’t close to Christmas or your birthday, was a begging, pleading affair as stylized as an Egyptian ceremonial rain dance.

I tried to read her face and discern my chances, but as she still seemed unmoved I finally resorted to the pathetic, but occasionally effective, “Douglas’ Mom let him have one,” which made me feel slimy and opportunistic, but in a community like ours where white people could go broke competing with their neighbors, I knew it might work. We’d only lived in the wealthier neighborhood for three years, and my white friends had mastered the extortion game: they knew that their parents would give them whatever they wanted rather than have them go to school and tell their friends “My Mom probably said no to a new bike because we can’t afford it right now.” I was to find out that the “keeping up with the Joneses” shame tactic didn’t work as easily on black mothers, specifically on mine.

“I don’t care what Douglas’ mom does,” she said. “I’m your mother. What if I pay all that money and you get home and cut it all off because you don’t like the way it looks, and I’m out of a hundred dollars? You barely want to comb your hair now, how are you going to take care of a hairstyle like that?”

I withstood her interrogation and cynicism, because victory was near: she had that look on her face that said I was wearing her down, either because I'd convinced her, or more likely because she wanted me to get out of her face and leave her alone. She was going to indulge me against her better judgment. She’d agree, she finally said, but only after I promised to keep my room clean and mow the lawn, to stop asking for junk food when we went grocery shopping, and to never ask for anything ever again for the rest of my life.

We’d had a similar battle of wills when I was in third grade and had begged her to buy the double-album soundtrack to the movie Grease. I’d dragged her to the theater, where she sat beside me stone-faced, and on the way out she had said, “I was there in the fifties, and that movie was pure bullshit.” I wasn’t in the mood for one of her “white people, black people” lectures. My needs were basic: I just wanted to fit in with the kids at school. Everyone loved Grease; there was even a special teacher who’d come to our music class from the High School to show everyone how to do the Hand Jive dance from the movie. I ripped the plastic off the record in the mall parking lot, entranced, as my mother tried to remember where in the vast universe of cars she’d parked our Toyota. She was talking about black performers and stolen music; it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the lecture. “We create something new out of our pain and creativity,” she said, “and they condemn it until a white man learns to sing or dance like us and then they embrace it and make him rich, like Elvis or Pat Boone. You know who recorded ‘Hound Dog’ first? A black blues singer named Big Mama Thornton.” She backed out of the parking space, glancing over her shoulder. “White people could barely walk and chew gum in the Fifties they were so uptight. We danced like those people in the movie, but did you see a bunch of black people on the screen? No. Do you think white people taught Elvis to dance like that? I don’t even know why you want to keep spending my money on that junk.”

Her voice penetrated my reverie, but barely. Wasn’t Olivia Newton-John pretty? I couldn’t stop staring at John Travolta, either; he was pretty too. They smiled out from the album cover like two new friends I’d met on vacation who’d sent me a postcard. “But Mom, Hand Jive is a really good song!” I said. There was resignation in my mother’s voice finally, and sadness. She said, “That’s okay, baby. I know you were looking forward to seeing that movie. But one day, when you’re a man, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.” I thought of this conversation, a little short of three decades later. My mother was gone, and I was somewhere in a hotel at a friend’s house watching MTV as another white kid from Idaho or Maine talked about Eminem and how he was the best rapper in the entire world.

On Saturday, my mother, my sister and I went to “Cheryl’s” to get my jherri curl. We stopped off first and had a grand-slam breakfast at Denny’s for extra strength. Going to the beauty shop could sometimes be an all-day affair. It didn’t have to be, but Cheryl, like all the other beauticians, booked six people in the same time-slot, knowing she only had four chairs (three up in the front, one in the back). It might have been her protection against the flaky cancellers and latecomers who expected to be taken the moment they arrived, even though they were always forty-five minutes late, claiming, “I just couldn’t get out of the house.” “Your appointment is at eleven,” Cheryl would say over the phone, and when you arrived she’d tell you to have a seat and an hour later you’d still be sitting there, dazed by the smell of chemicals, caught up in the whirlwinds of gossip that traveled through the shop and the anticipation of being “next”. Cheryl must have been telepathic. She always seemed to know exactly when someone was about to reach for her purse and say, “Let me get the hell out of here”, as a seat would suddenly become free. She apologized for keeping you waiting, but you waited every single time.

There was an alternative, of course: a do-it-yourself curl kit from the drugstore. One would definitely save some money; a curl at home was a tenth of the price. Each box came with plastic gloves, chemical, shampoo and folded instructions. What the instructions didn’t tell you was that the attractive people on the sides of the box, with their glowing smiles and shiny curls, hadn’t used the product at all, but had gone to beauty shops like Cheryl’s and paid eighty to a hundred dollars like us. A successful boxed curl looked fine the first couple of days, but too quickly began its descent into nappiness, and a badly applied store-bought curl could be a reason for psychotherapy. Douglas told me stories of family members who left the chemical on for close to an hour, instead of the maximum twenty minutes firmly suggested on the instructions. They withstood the hot, unbearable pain in their effort to have hair straighter than Michael Jackson’s or, for that matter, any white person’s who’d ever lived. Their hair sometimes fell out completely, or their jherri curl was a runny, crusty disaster with fried patches which Douglas’ brothers called “The China Syndrome.”

Cheryl’s shop was extravagant; a store converted from a house on Michigan Avenue, with wide, white steps and a sign in the front window of a woman with cornrows in her hair. Before you reached the chairs in the middle of the shop, you walked down a long carnival isle of wigs and hairpieces that hung from the walls like a hunter’s stuffed trophies, furry and wild, or sat on heads of Styrofoam. There were shelves of haircare products in plastic bottles and jars, combs, fake nails, incense, “African” art, Kinte cloth, and glittering costume jewelry. Cheryl had reddish orange hair that she kept very short, raised like the tufts of feathers on a harassed parakeet, and on the bridge of her nose sat a pair of horn-rimmed red glasses. She walked through the tiny shop with an absolute authority that never announced itself or spoke loudly over the radio, Saturday cartoons or daytime stories on TV that ran throughout the day and usually all at the same time. No one raised their voice at Cheryl’s, nobody cussed anybody out at Cheryl’s, and no one got burned in Cheryl’s chairs, or at least not as often as they did at the shops across town, like Alexia’s. Douglas had gotten his curl at Alexia’s. My mother had stopped going to Alexia, even though she thought she was a better beautician, because Alexia had left her under a dryer for too long, and burned my mother’s hair. I had a momentary pang of fear that Cheryl was an inferior beautician and wouldn’t understand what kind of style I wanted. As I was unable to explain it to her in exact hairdresser terms, I might walk out of the shop hours later with what Douglas and I called “Nefertiti” hair, or looking like the person we thought had the worst straightened hair we’d ever seen: Rick James.

My mother flipped through a magazine, as Cheryl stood behind me and ran her fingers across my dry scalp. We stared at our reflection in the mirror as she assessed the state of my hair. I noticed for the first time that there was the tiniest, most fascinating constellation of brown freckles on Cheryl’s face. Her perfect nails were painted green and made clicking sounds when she brought them together, which she did often as a nervous habit. Cheryl didn’t need lipstick; chain-smoking had turned her lips a deep plum. She searched through my hair with visible disappointment, looking like a chef who’s been asked to make a gourmet meal with wilted lettuce. I waited for her prognosis that my hair wasn’t long enough to curl, so I could carry my defeat out of the store as quickly as possible. Instead she said, “You want a California Curl, right?” I didn't know what a California Curl was, but it at least sounded interesting; full of breezy Hollywood fun. I had no idea where a jherri came from. Cheryl said they were basically all the same. I glanced at the posters of the men and women advertising Care Free Curls and California Curls on every wall. Their poses were the idiotic kind found only in beauty shop advertisements: disembodied heads tilted at weird angles, fake smiles, and wooden eyes that stared out fondly at no one in particular.

I spoke softly to Cheryl so no one in the shop could overhear. “I want to look like Michael Jackson.” A few women glanced up from their conversations and I was grateful for the roar of hair dryers. I came to appreciate Cheryl for being one of those few, rare adults I’d met in my twelve years of life who refused to humiliate a child in order to bond, gain an advantage, or enjoy cheap laughter with another grown-up. One boisterous giggle from the curlered women, one condescending set of puppy-dog eyes, or an “isn’t he cute, he wants to look like Michael Jackson” pout, and I would have been finished. Cheryl treated me instead like a paying customer. “Well, let’s first start by combing through your hair,” she said. I regretted that I hadn’t combed it out better myself before we came, as her vigorous pick tore through my afro. She used one of the rakes that she sold in the front of the store, with a “Right On!” black power fist at the end of the handle. My mother had warned me twice before we left home to comb my own hair because “you know you’re sensitive”, but I’d been too excited to take her suggestion seriously. Cheryl ripped through one landmine of a nap at the back of my neck that might have been connected directly to my spinal cord. It was only my newly developing pre-teen male pride that kept me from screaming bloody murder. The rainbow at the end of my nappy persecution was that, fully combed out, my hair was twice as long as I’d imagined, a real afro, and there was definitely enough hair for her to work with. Cheryl put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to give you a Care Free Curl. You gonna look just like Michael Jackson when I’m finished.” She must have been given the request seventy times that week, but she was gracious enough to make me feel like she was hearing it for the first time.

Cheryl draped a blue apron across my chest and tied it loosely in the back. My mother looked up from her magazine and gave me one last suspenseful, “you’re really sure, now?” point-of-no-return smile, and I nodded. My younger sister wrinkled her face, still unsure why I wanted to look like Michael Jackson, and convinced that just because I might have Michael’s hair, I’d never have his face, so what was the point? Cheryl washed my hair in a small sink; lathering it up with a pink shampoo that smelled industrial and cheap, as she worked her fingers deep into my scalp. Sometimes the experience of getting my hair cut as a child was so sensuous, especially for a twelve-year-old grappling with puberty, that it bordered on the lewd and lascivious. In the all-male barbershop, it was the twirl of the chair and the way the cord from the clippers occasionally fell across my chest and vibrated against one of my nipples. The barber, Eddie, unintentionally pressed his hips gently against my hand as he evened my hairline, turning my chin towards him and concentrating, determined to get just the right angle. When the haircut was over, Eddie sprayed a cool alcohol and water solution over my head, and after carefully shielding my eyes, rubbed it into my scalp with the flat part of his hands. Now, I felt a different kind of arousal as the hot water trickled over my head, and Cheryl’s greedy, probing hands traveled through my hair to clean it. They felt so forceful and sure, stronger than Eddie’s. Maybe it was the sexiness of the let’s-get-the-job-done feeling in her hands; a mixture of purposefulness and anger and that I would later associate with sex. She cut the water off, wrapped my head in a large towel and opened a jar that said “For Professional Use Only”. The smell of the pale cream was foul and inviting at the same time, so funky, acrid and peculiar that it was pleasant. Cheryl put a pink lotion around my ears and hairline, and slapped on slabs of the fudgy white chemical, slathering it onto my hair. The sensation was a cool hotness, a glowing, spreading warmth. She lowered herself into my sight range. “Let me know if this burns you,” she said.

Cheryl’s work was quiet and methodical. She barely said a word, except to comment on the television, or when the gossip in the shop needed clarifying: “That’s not what I heard she told him,” she said, reaching for a roller. She was referee, mediator and occasional censor. One woman complained, “He should know that baby ain’t his, it’s too light,” and Cheryl said, with a clump of my wet hair in her pinched fingers, “Oh, we’re not going to talk about that, here, honey. He’s a friend of my niece.” Cheryl took a break only once, wedging a comb in my unfinished hair as she gave Kat, her assistant, her order for lunch. I overheard them whispering, “See if she has any of that whiting left, otherwise get me some macaroni or something. Just don’t bring me no pork. She don’t cook it long enough for me.” When she went to the back of the shop to steal a quick smoke, I could still see her from my chair. She stood on the back porch steps, her fingers cradling her cigarette in a V as her dark lips pulled hard on it, her other hand jammed deep into the front pocket of her pink smock.

I managed to fall asleep to the hypnotic whirl of the dryer, even though the jumble of tight rollers caused my head to ache. Cheryl reached underneath with one hand, and grabbed at my hair as if she were looking for something. She walked me back to the sink and washed out the chemical once, twice and a third time, just as it started stinging. The rollers crunched against the basin, creating a new source of discomfort and pain. I was pressed as tight against it as possible, but the water still managed to trickle under the apron, making little rivers underneath my shirt and down my back. I wondered if Michael Jackson had to go through this. Cheryl lifted me up and began unsnapping the rollers and releasing my hair, which gratefully slithered free, black, straight, and unrecognizable. Now she created the Michael style, her comb moving through my hair with an uncharacteristic ease. My younger sister watched me with glassy-eyed fascination, waiting anxiously, as all siblings do, to see if my hair would inspire admiration, or what she was secretly wishing for, derision. If my hair did look stupid, I didn’t expect to hear anything from her at least until we got home. My mother, who probably anticipated her teasing me, promised us both McDonald’s on the way home if we were good.

I stepped down from the chair, wobbly and a little unsure. As my mother stood at the register to pay, my sister tugged her coat. “Mom, I want to get a Care Free Curl too,” she said.

Our drive home from McDonald’s was interrupted with a mandatory stop at the drugstore. My curl had cost 85 dollars exactly, with tip. Now I needed my curl maintenance products. Douglas had told me what to get. My mother sent me into the store with a twenty dollar bill and explicit instructions: “Hurry up, and bring me my exact change.” I slammed the car door and ran underneath the fluorescent lights outside Walgreen’s, returning twenty minutes later with a confused look, an overflowing shopping bag, and two dollars.

“What took so long?” My mother prised the bag from my clenched fingers and rummaged through it, lifting up each bottle with an incredulous look. “I gave you twenty dollars!” she cried out when I put the change in her hand. “Did you have to buy all this stuff?” I reassured her that everything I bought was required to achieve “the Michael Jackson look.” The Moisturizer was a must for any self-respecting Care-Free Curl wearer; I had to keep my hair damp or it would dry out and look like a bird’s nest. The Care Free Curl Activator was a white cream which, when rubbed into the hair, brought out the inner essence of the curl, helping it to radiate with style and grace. Care Free Curl Gel was a clear lubricant in a tube whose job was to give the curl firmness and body, while aiding in keeping it moist for long periods of time, especially when moisturizer wouldn’t be available for hours. Douglas promised me that without Gel my bangs wouldn’t slam against my forehead properly like Michael’s. Lastly, there was Curl Booster and Snap Back Curl Restorer which brought the curl to life when it was on its knees—about six to eight weeks later. Curl Booster was essential for when you couldn’t get an appointment to have your hair redone right away and gave the curlee a week-and-a-half’s grace period before friends started talking about him behind his back. The shower caps were necessary to sleep and shower in so that all the expensive cremes and moisturizers didn’t wash down the drain every night. (I refused to wear the caps to school everyday, like Douglas.)

My hair was relaxed, but I certainly wasn’t. If there was anything I was to learn from that day forward it was that my Care-Free Curl was anything but carefree.

When we got home, I ran upstairs to the bathroom, where I could really test my hair out in private. I’d been too embarrassed to do anything in the shop other than just say thank you to Cheryl. In the mirror, I twisted my head to the side really fast, like Michael did in Billie Jean. My bangs were small and modest, but they were definitely there, and stood out from the promontory of my forehead. It was the first time my hair had ever moved with a delay. Now I had everything a person could want in life: I had Michael Jackson hair, I had the Michael Jackson school supplies which included a Michael Jackson “Trapper Keeper” for papers and notes and came with two Michael Jackson folders inside; one had a picture of Michael as “the boy next door” in a creamy lemon-sorbet colored sweater, another had Michael sitting on a throne wearing a jeweled crown - Michael the King. I had a Michael Jackson calendar, a Michael Jackson mug, and a Michael Jackson pen. My most prized possession, however, was a Michael Jackson-inspired jacket which had been a Christmas present. It wasn’t like the red one Michael wore in Beat It, but it looked like something he might wear, and it was the best I could find at JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Sears, as I ran from one end of the mall to the other. The jacket was all white, and I kept it under plastic in my closet. It was too special to wear anywhere, so I never wore it all, except once, inside the house to my sister’s birthday party, where I danced for her friends with my special Michael Jackson- inspired boots that had a tiny bit of heel. Now I put on my boots, my jacket and a dirty white tube sock from the clothes hamper that I crammed onto my hand as a substitute for a white glove. Then I took everything off and carefully put my shower cap on before bed. I could barely sleep, anticipating Douglas’ face when he saw my curl at school the next day, fresher than his, which was already two weeks old. I went to sleep as Michael looked down at me wearing a tan leather jacket. With his thumbs in his pockets cowboy-style, and smiling gently, it was my favorite poster of him.

I woke up the next morning with the crinkling sound of the cap and strange, unfamiliar hair on my head. The sensation leaving the house and having the wind on my scalp was new—my head felt naked. I walked in the front door of the school as the bell rang, and the stares began. It might have been the first jherri curl many of the kids at school had seen personally; Douglas still kept his underneath his shower cap like a guarded treasure. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if he’d started charging some kids admission to see his hair. He also wore his cap when he was at home, while he slept, when he went to the store with his mom, and while he was in the shower. He was clearly waiting for a momentous occasion worthy of his hair, as I was with my special jacket; but in the seventh grade, with the exception of the occasional classmate’s birthday party, our weekend trips to the mall were about as momentous as our occasions were ever going to get. Douglas finally peeled off his shower cap when we went skating at Rollerworld. He had enough grease in his hair to have cooked our curly fries twice, but he looked amazing. His hair, relieved to have finally been given the gift of oxygen, was only too happy to perform with his skating moves. He’d found the perfect balance of gel, booster and activator to make his curls leap, freeze, bounce, snap and stand at attention, just like Michael’s. Skating laps around the rink, and smiling at me from time to time, his freshly moisturized hair looked like a sparkling galaxy.

After school, outside Miss Edwards’s room, Douglas and I practiced our dancing in the hall because the floor was extra-slippery there, especially when the custodian, Mr. Ron, ran over it with his buffing machine. Mr. Ron was a lumbering, big-foot of a white man with the longest beard any human being had seen since Moses carried the ten commandments. Mr. Ron didn’t say much and walked with a funny, swaying motion that you’d never notice unless you watched his retreating back. We’d figured out that he’d either robbed a bank or been in a rock band, the only explanations for someone’s having a beard that long. Because he didn’t talk a lot and because he was the maintenance man, we’d decided he was dumb. We would stare at Mr. Ron as he plugged his buffing machine into the wall. He finally walk over angrily and demanded, “What’s going on here?” When we told him we were waiting for him to buff the floor so that we could practice our Moonwalk like Michael Jackson, his eyes expanded for the briefest moment under his baseball cap and from somewhere in the mass of facial hair, a chuckle emerged. “Whatever you say,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “Unbelievable.”

The school maintenance staff fascinated us. Poor black people we were used to; but poor white people were mysterious. There was a poor black area in town, but we weren’t sure exactly where poor white people came from. We fantasized about the day when the police would arrive and shave off Mr. Ron’s beard, the one he’d grown so the cops couldn’t find him, and take him off to jail. The lunchlady, (whom we called “The Lunchlady”) had been a shoplifter or a prostitute and the judge told her she would have to go to jail for the rest of her life if she didn’t agree to work in a junior-high lunchroom. The only other reasonable explanation we could think of was that her husband had left her for another woman and she had to work. The Lunchlady’s favorite phrase was, “I haven’t got all day,” when someone held up the line trying to make up her mind whether to buy a cookie or a brownie. I never understood why the choice was that hard; everything the lunchroom cooked was disgusting, especially their “homemade brownies”: peanut butter and coconut fiascos covered in chocolate which the kitchen churned out by the millions, whether anyone ate them or not. Since entering middle school, and unbeknownst to my parents, I had subsisted on french fries, Little Debbie’s snack cakes and fruit punch for more than a year, after lying and telling them I ate the school’s hot lunch every day. The Lunchlady screamed at a kid named Chris for cutting in line and told him she’d take him to the principal’s office if he did it again. He yelled, “Get your greasy hands off me!” and everybody laughed. The Lunchlady had stringy, oily-looking hair, and some of the kids said she was greasy all over her body because whenever she made the French fries, she got in the deep fryer to take a bath.

One day, Douglas and I decided to ask the Lunchlady a question. We approached her cash register with the tentativeness of two safari hunters approaching a cougar. We wanted to know what the Lunchlady’s name was, but our hidden agenda was to charm her into giving us something for free. She told us to go away and leave her alone, three times. After days of frustration, we found out, like two little jherri-curled Hardy Boys, that no, the Lunchlady wasn’t married, she wasn’t going to get married any time soon, and her first name was Pam. (Getting a staff member or teacher to divulge their first name created in us an almost mystical ecstasy.) She told us the other lunchlady who sponged down the tables and changed the garbage bags was Dawn and the man with the tattoo on his arm and sunglasses who broke down the lunch tables every day and swept the floor was Martin. Pam said she had a daughter who was married and lived in Mason, and her son was somewhere in California. She gave us one of the remaining chocolate-chip cookies that was broken in half. “We’re just going to throw ‘em out anyway,” she said.

Now every time Mr. Ron buffed the floor and saw us, he’d stop for a minute and watch us dance. We figured he might be growing to like us, as we no longer fought him for the electrical outlet that he needed for his buffer, to plug our tape player in. He was holding the surplus of the orange cord from his machine in one hand, his other hand on his hip. “You guys aren’t half bad,” he said, nodding. His voice had a country and Western twang. “You tryin’ to be famous or something?”

Douglas had his answer at the ready. Mine always took awhile longer, having to travel first through rivulets and tributaries of chronic shame. My mother said to me when I was dancing in the house, “I hope you aren’t planning a career as a dancer or something foolish like that. It’s a fun hobby, and you aren’t bad, but you’re not going to make any money kicking your legs up in the air, if that’s what you’re thinking. You are going to college.” I knew Douglas’ mother had recited the same speech at his house, but he ignored her. I couldn’t ignore my mother; her words surrounded my life-choices like a thick London fog. My friendship with Douglas had been permanently bonded when we shared stories after school one day about our mothers and found out how similar they were. Both of them worked as full-time professionals who came home exhausted every night from eight hour days of dealing with racism and sexism, perpetrated by cruel white male bosses, even crueler black male bosses, and crazy white women colleagues who were jealous and wanted to get them fired. Our mothers’ only wish when they got home was to “take off these shoes, get out of this wig and have a little peace and quiet.” Douglas told me how he became a manservant when his mother arrived: how she would call him from upstairs to come down and change the TV channel. We empathized with each other as we talked about our relationships with our mothers; how we fought with them, stayed up late comforting them, listened to their stories and handed them their “wine”. My parents were on the verge of divorcing, and I thought, but wasn’t sure, that Douglas’s father was dead or just somewhere else. He didn’t dwell on it and I didn’t ask. His dreams of fame were more compelling than the memory of a dead or absent father. He knew he was going to be a famous singer and have a band with his brothers. I didn’t have brothers or a band, but Douglas said I could sing back-up vocals with them when they went on their first world tour.

Mr. Ron turned on his buffing machine. It whirled into action and he traveled down the hallway with a wave. “Well, good luck, guys. Don’t forget the little people when you make it big.”

After months of practicing, Douglas found an ad in the local paper. Wanted: dancers. That was us! Someone at Michigan State University was having auditions for Michael Jackson’s Thriller: they were going to do the dance from the video for a campus showcase. We didn’t care what it was for, we just wanted to be in it. Douglas’ mother drove us to the dormitory where the auditions were taking place. We preened in the bathroom and checked each other’s curls: moisturized, gelled, activated, boosted and restored. I had on my Michael Jackson jacket, ecstatic finally to have an occasion worthy enough to wear it. Douglas had a black jacket his older brothers had given him. Underneath we wore our “costumes”; matching black shirts and pants. We auditioned together and danced in front of a group of people sitting behind a table who wrote on little notepads the whole time. Later that night a call came. We were both in the show!

Rehearsals were three days a week for three hours in the evenings. We had only a month to prepare. Carla the director was a black woman who had been in a music video in LA, and told us exactly where to stand and place our feet, correcting us when we made a mistake. Douglas and I couldn’t believe our luck; even though we weren’t in high school yet, we were in a show with people who were in college. The performance was only going to last four minutes or maybe even less, but we had achieved an impossible dream: we’d fantasized about being in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, which we both knew was a masterpiece, and now we’d found a way. I could barely go to sleep at night, anticipating the next day’s rehearsal.

When rehearsal was over, Douglas and I went down to the college snack-shop and waited for my mother to pick us up. We ordered french-fries and “sliders”, the cutest hamburgers we’d ever seen, and sat at a table near the window, wondering what it was like to be grown-up and in college. One night, two of the women from the group, who lived in the dorm, came down to eat and sat with us. If they had any doubts that we were in junior high and thirteen (we’d both had recent birthdays), it was resolved that night. Douglas and I entertained them the only way we knew how, by sharing what we found entertaining: our fart jokes. Our favorite was a man who ate so many chili dogs that he literally blew the back of his pants open. We would take turns acting out the man’s face as he crapped his underwear, but Douglas’ interpretation always surpassed mine; he could make his eyes pop out a little, and when his jaw dropped with an expression of disbelief on his face, followed by the man’s tragically whispered “oh no” as he dashed to the bathroom--nothing on earth was funnier. The laughter had us doubled over and slapping the booth with our hands, begging each other to stop as we wiped away tears and grabbed our stomachs. It was delicious, nauseating fun and our favorite pastime; eating tons of junk food together and then making each other laugh hard enough to be sick. The two women smiled politely, offered to pay for our food and slid out of the booth, saying they’d see us at rehearsal.

Douglas and I went down to the Salvation Army and got two old suits, which we slashed to pieces and covered in a mixture of Karo syrup and red food coloring that looked like blood. On the day of the show, one of the dancers, Lynn, helped me with my makeup so I could look dead. She used her black eyeliner pencil and drew dark circles around my eyes. She was wearing her dance leotard at the time, and I could see the space where her pale breasts came together. I’d never been that close to an adult woman’s breasts, white or otherwise. I remember that her strong perfume, her breasts and the warm dressing room created in me a sleepy intoxication. I kept veering slightly to the side as Lynn smiled her exasperation. “Max, you have to hold still for me to do this.”

The performance was over before it started, a one-night-only gig, but people applauded and congratulated us, and our mothers were proud. A few weeks later we danced in a school talent show and were invited to break-dance at a mall for a radio station’s fund-raiser. We sat in the back seat on the way home from the performance, laughing at our good fortune and all the luck our practicing for months in the hallway and our Michael Jackson hair had brought us.

As two rising rock stars, at least in our minds, we were finally above the stupider conversations and the stupider people at school. I decided I no longer needed to argue anymore with a girl in my class named Heather, whose guts I hated, about who was cooler, Michael Jackson or Duran Duran. We’d been fighting inexhaustibly for months on the topic and finally I put a stop to it. Heather and her friend Beth had borrowed a record player from the school library and were listening with headphones to a twelve-inch single of "Hungry like the Wolf" in Mrs. Paulson’s classroom. Mrs. Paulson let students stay after school while she graded papers, as long as they did so quietly. I whispered across the table to Heather that Duran Duran were so stupid they had to have the same name twice. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was the greatest, the ultimate, and Thriller was the best album anybody in the history of the world had ever made, and anyone who couldn’t see that was an idiot and a fool.

Heather carefully handed the headphones to Beth and said that not only was Michael Jackson the biggest idiot and fool of all time, but he was gay, and his hair looked like a girl’s and so did mine, and we both looked completely disgusting, and what was all that stupid gunk and grease in my hair, anyway? She gathered her Duran Duran records and said, “Come on, Beth.” Beth curled her lip and followed, taking one last withering look at my hair.

Heather’s comment on my hair looking like a “girl’s” and Michael being “gay” haunted me more than any of the ghosts and ghouls in his Thriller video ever could. I didn’t know if Michael was gay or not, but I did know that I’d been to one family gathering sporting my new curls, and an older female cousin of mine in her thirties, legendary for her nasty insinuations, asked me, as I helped her set the table, if I liked “little girls” or “little boys”. I laughed it off and stepped away from her, looking for somewhere in the back of the house where my mortification could be private. Somehow my new hair had given her a window into my brain and she’d seen what I’d hoped I’d been hiding from everyone: that particularly that year, I’d registered a more insistent attraction to other boys, different from the curious fondling and “playing doctor” that I’d done with kids in the bushes when I was seven. I hadn’t known what to do with the rising urgency of the homosexual attraction, so I just danced harder. Her husband later pulled me aside and demanded to know what kind of man I wanted to be when I grew up. When I said “glamorous” and “an artist”, he spent the afternoon explaining to me that I could be handsome or distinguished, even attractive, but men just couldn’t be glamorous. He eventually gave up after my refusal to take his suggestion to cut off all my hair at his expense. His reaction might have been similar to my father’s. If my father disapproved of my hair, I had no way of knowing. Any contempt specifically reserved for my hairstyle would have been indistinguishable from the general contempt I felt he had for everything else about me.

Heather’s words rang in my ears: “All that grease and gunk.” That was another dagger to the heart, but slightly more manageable than aspersions on my sexuality. Now that I’d had the hair for a few months, it made sense that Douglas had worn his shower cap every day to school. I’d made the mistake once too often recently of being caught in the rain without one or I’d forgotten to wear my cap a couple of times in the shower. We were in the middle of a swimming unit in gym class and my too-small swimming cap had snapped off during my backstroke. With the chemicals in my hair suddenly unleashed, I made a corner of the pool look like the sudsy water in a washing machine, not to mention the devastation the chlorine did to my hair, which was now knotted up tight and resembled a small hat made of peppercorns. I rushed home, chased by Heather’s ridicule and scorn, and begged my mother to please make an appointment to get my hair redone that weekend. She did so, but I recorded her hesitation. My sister trotted past us on her way to the kitchen, sporting her new shower cap and curl. I’d shouted at her recently to buy her own moisturizer, as my bottle was emptying twice as fast these days. My mother intervened, as always. “Now you two stop fighting. I paid for that bottle, and there is enough Instant Moisturizer in this house for everyone.”

One of the last performances of “Douglas and Max” was for a local church group that hired us to breakdance during one of their youth parties on a Saturday evening. The woman who called to make the arrangements wanted us to perform halfway through the party. We told her our requirements: a tape player, and a large circle of space in the center of the dance floor, which also had to have a slick surface. We would dance two songs, about five to six minutes each. Since there were just the two of us, ten minutes of dancing would be enough, given our repertoire. We would start with our rehearsed routine, and then one of us would freeze as the other broke into his solo. Our show started with Herbie Hancock’s "Rockit" but our best moves were saved for Michael’s "Beat It". I had to admit that while we were energetic performers, we weren’t exactly the breakdancers that I saw on television. Douglas had perfected his Spin, and could get down on the floor, twist one leg in front of the other and draw them both in quickly, creating a centrifugal force that propelled him around in circles and ended with his legs extended and his head perched leisurely on one arm. My Moonwalk was better than my Spin, and we both had an amazing Robot, but neither of us had achieved the Helicopter done by the real breakdancing experts. I’d attempted it only once on a piece of cardboard outside the house and had come dangerously closing to “helicoptering” myself down our basement steps.

We arrived at the church in the evening, the music from inside reaching us as we walked up the driveway. There were groups of kids gathered, all white, some of them dancing in clusters, a few sluggishly dragging their feet. A refreshment table was surrounded by adults holding cups, and there seemed to be more parents than kids. A woman rushed to the door to greet us as we entered. She acknowledged my mother first, who had agreed to be our business manager for the night since money was involved. Our first paid gig. Fifty dollars. Each.

”I’m Laura Schaffer,” she said, extending a hand, “and you two must be Douglas and Max. We’re so glad to have you guys here! Thanks for coming!” She had that over-enthusiastic white-lady voice that most of our teachers, school helpers, librarians and friends’ Moms had. I knew what was behind the sugar in that voice, having seen more than one white substitute teacher turn from Miss Sunshine to Miss Cyanide when a sixth grade class of child sadists had tormented her to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Mrs. Schaffer clasped her hands and tilted her head, leaning down slightly. “Would you guys like some punch or cookies or something else to eat?”
"Maybe after we dance,” we said together. The last thing we needed, on top of our nerves, was to throw up during one of our spins. A few people were staring at us with looks of fascination. I felt exotic, but I shouldn’t have; several of the kids were from my school. We’d never performed in a church before, but except for a cross with Jesus on it near the wall, it was the same as any other gymnasium. Douglas and I went into the boys’ bathroom, checked our hair and our black shirts for lint, then did a few last pre-performance stretches. We applied a final blast of moisturizer to our hair and walking out to meet the public.

Mrs. Schaffer gave us an “are you ready” nod when we reappeared and introduced us. There was polite applause and we took our places, frozen in our robot poses. The familiar hiss of our tape began, and I had a split-second nightmare as it crossed my mind that maybe we’d accidently brought a blank tape and Douglas and I would have to stand there in position for the rest of lives. Maybe our tape would suddenly decide it had been played once too often and snap halfway through. Or I might forget our routine. I caught a face or two in the surrounded circle—one girl with a ribbon in her hair had her hands pressed together under her chin in anticipation; the boy next to her wasn’t quite so sure. I called him a bad name in my head, not because I knew him but to protect myself from the rejection I anticipated. With black Douglas and me at the nucleus of the circle of young white faces and parents, I thought of another time and place, where we might have been in a different kind of danger than just technical difficulties or the possibility of freezing onstage.

We danced hard, smiling occasionally as generous performers, but not “Uncle Toms” as Douglas’s older brother Wayne had fiercely warned us against, jabbing his finger in our chests. Wayne told us that yes, breakdancing was “fun”, but it was about gang-violence, the frustration of poverty and, like most African-American art forms, was a window into our pain and despair. After we finished the second song to great applause, sweating and spent (but not grotesquely; just enough to prove we’d worked hard to impress them and to earn our money), we took Mrs. Schaffer up on her offer of cookies and juice. She invited us to stay and enjoy the party, and we thanked her, but realized once she left that there wasn’t much point. We weren’t going to mix easily in the crowd, and after the brief excitement created by our performance, the party had formed the same melancholy configurations we’d observed when we entered. We said good night and followed my mother over to the man Mrs. Schaffer told her would pay us.

He seemed surprised and asked at what point in the evening we were planning to dance again. My mother informed him that we had finished performing. Douglas and I stood beside her in our coats. The man flushed a deep red with a purple tint. He glanced down and gave the two of us a repugnant sneer. “You mean that’s it? They aren’t dancing again for the rest of the night?”

My mother reiterated the contract terms; two songs, ten minutes, fifty dollars each. The way she stepped back slightly when he spoke, I assumed he’d been drinking. He dug angrily into his back pocket and withdrew the money, which he held in a tight fist, and folded his arms defiantly in front of him. After a long and deadly eternity where he and my mother memorized every line in the other’s face, he finally dropped the cash into her hand.

“I don’t get fifty dollars for ten minutes of my time,” he said with a sullen frown.

My mother replied brightly, “Have you tried breakdancing?”

To an adolescent whose only source of income was a weekly allowance of ten or fifteen dollars, fifty dollars all at the same time might have been fifty thousand. Douglas and I went to the mall together and spent the whole day buying junk, playing video games, and watching movies. We called my mom to pick us up, and when the familiar headlights of her car appeared it was already dusk. At home, I counted the rest of my money three times. We’d had all the fun that was possible for two thirteen-year-old boys to have in one day, and I still had almost thirty-two dollars left.

Later that week, my mother staged the great Jherri Curl Rebellion of 1983 in the parking lot of Walgreen’s. She refused to give me any more money as I waited for her to fork over another twenty dollars for my curl products. I now had a forty-dollar-a-month haircare habit. I was out of moisturizer and activator, and my shower cap had a hole in it. My mother informed me that now that I was “rich” from my breakdancing money, I could pay for my own haircare products. Between my sister and me, keeping our family in curls and the required accoutrements was breaking her bank, she said. “Any more money on curl activator for you two and I’m going to have to take out a second mortgage.” Fine, I told her, I’ll pay for it myself. Inside the store, I shopped with a little less vigor. I’d never realized before how painful it is to part with a twenty-dollar bill you’ve had to earn yourself.

By that time, almost two months had passed since my last appointment at Cheryl’s, and the ends of my hair looked as if an army of black spiders had been electrocuted and had died on their backs with their little legs twitching in the air. My mother agreed I definitely needed my hair done; she may have been drained financially by the expense, but our family did have pride, and I was at the familiar crossroads that jherri curl wearers everywhere eventually faced, when you either had to “cut that mess off” or get it redone as fast as possible. My mother offered to make my appointment when she got to work, but she refused my request to take a day off school. I had to wait until Saturday. It was Tuesday morning.

I’d diluted my curl activator with water the day before. Now there was nothing left. There wasn’t time to go to the store before school. I half-heartedly asked my mother to take me to Walgreen's before she left for work, knowing what her answer would be. “You should have thought of that last night, Maxie. I’ll take you tonight, when I get home from work, but I’m late now myself.” She walked past me to the garage, glancing at my hair with a mournful expression, and slammed the door.

I faced a series of impossibilities. I couldn’t not go to school, I couldn’t afford to be late again, I couldn’t get to the drug store fast enough without a car, and I couldn’t find any moisturizer or activator in the house. Just when I began to consider the serious illness I was going to have to come down with in the next half hour, I had an idea.

I’d been getting dressed for school one morning and styling my hair when I accidentally aimed too low and sprayed some moisturizer in my mouth. I cringed before I realized that except for a “perfumy” aftertaste, it wasn’t that bad. It had the flavor of slightly oily sugar water. The label said glycerine. I recalled science class—wasn’t glycerine a substance somewhere in between sugar and oil? Oil was another of the main ingredients. I’d had a passing, frivolous thought that day: If I really put my mind to it, I could probably make moisturizer of my own.

Now necessity and less than thirty minutes to get to school had me working in the kitchen with the precision of a chemist. I took some water and added two cups of sugar for the “glycerine” and some Crisco which I had to melt first and which popped and cracked when I poured it into the watery mixture. The moisturizer bottle also said cetyl alcohol, but I couldn’t find any wine or vodka, so I added a few drops of rubbing alcohol, and I knew there was alcohol in Scope mouthwash, so I added a green splash of that too. I shook the bottle hard and sprayed my concoction on a strand of hair. The consistency was just right, gleamy and greasy, but moist and misty too. I sprayed the rest on and watched as my hair absorbed the water and the integrity of my curl slowly returned. By the time I left the house, I’d convinced myself that not only was my homemade moisturizer working, it was superior to the actual product. My hair had the shiny, metallic effect Douglas and I always looked forward to when our moisturizer, activator and gel had the found the right balance before a performance. Now I couldn’t wait to tell Douglas that I’d discovered a way to keep all of our allowances. (His mother had staged the same haircare revolution as mine). My only regret was that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. I arrived at school a champion who had found a way to keep the greedy corporate sharks from once again taking advantage of desperate black consumers who they knew would pay any price for their product (any black person with a jherri curl and no moisturizer could definitely be categorized as desperate).

When I told Douglas what I’d done, he wasn’t sure if I was kidding; we’d played so many practical jokes on each other in our friendship. He told me my hair smelled oversweet, like when you ate too much frosting from a store-bought birthday cake, and it was a little minty, too. He smiled uncertainly, and eventually left for his first class. I dismissed his reaction as jealousy. It was the only time he hadn’t thought of something first in our career as rock stars, and his greater ignorance was that he couldn’t see the potential business prospect of our selling cheap moisturizer to the other kids at school (Michael Jackson hair was catching on). I didn’t see him again until 4rd Period math. We were sitting next to each other, both at war with Mrs. Langley’s grating voice, and watching the clock, which had definitely taken her side and stopped moving, when I noticed that she kept pausing slightly when she glanced in my direction. I said something to Douglas and he shook himself awake. When he looked up from his math book, his eyes weren’t on mine, but on the top of my head. I heard a snicker behind me.

“Your hair, you’d better go look at it,” he whispered. “It’s turning white.”

“Very funny,” I said.

”I’m serious,” he said.

My hair had felt a little stiffer than usual throughout the day, but I didn’t think anything of it. When I’d gone to the bathroom hours earlier, it was fine. I reached up again now and discreetly touched it. A few granules of sugar landed in the open wedge of my math book. I felt as if I had a wicker basket on my head. I asked to be excused, and was thankful that the usually curmudgeonly Mrs. Langley said yes, her eyes showing a rare concern. When I got to the bathroom and faced the mirror, I froze. My hair was granny-white. The water had evaporated and left behind a crusty little sculpture made of Crisco and pure sugar. I’d wanted “white” hair and I’d certainly gotten it. I shut the door on one of the stalls and sat on the toilet, vowing to myself to emerge around midnight.

Douglas had gym after math class, and I spent the last period of the school day running out of double-hour art every thirty minutes, drenching my hair in the bathroom sink, only to have it dry up, crusty and white all over again. No amount of water would wash out the white Crisco. At that point, I couldn’t have cared less what the art teacher, Mrs. DiPietro, thought, or whether I had permission to be excused to go to the bathroom thirty times in two hours, as she watched me leave her class over and over again with her mouth slightly open. She was a nice white lady, with her clay pots ready for the kiln and can of watercolor brushes, but I was a negro on the edge. My social life was at stake and there was the very real possibility that if the wrong kid saw me and the right nickname was applied, like "frosty",I could be teased by my classmates until my high school graduation. My hair and my social standing were disintegrating in equal measure. When Douglas finally emerged from his last period class and met me at my locker, he saw me on the verge of tears and had a laughing fit, which, at its height, brought him to his knees. He couldn’t decide what was funnier; my cotton-candy coiffure that resembled the drawings of old black slaves in our history book, or the art class/hair drenching story.

He was sitting on the floor now, banging his head against the lockers with each laugh. “Oh God, the look on Mrs. Langley's face.” Poor Mrs. Langley. She probably had no idea what was going on and thought, these black children and their hairstyles. I knew I wasn’t the first nor would I be the last black student whose hair would prove a conundrum to a confused white teacher: some black girls used great creativity and all of their allowance on hair extensions, showing up on Monday with dreadlocks, Tuesday with twists, Wednesday with cornrows and Thursday with hair that barely reached their ears under a baseball cap.

“Why didn’t you call me, I would have brought some activator to school this morning.” Douglas was trying to catch his breath.

I raged. “It’s too fucking hard being Michael Jackson. I’m going to cut this shit off tonight.”

That sobered him. His laughter was quickly replaced with a forced calm. “But your hair is just starting to grow and get some real length. It’ll look great when you get it done again. You can’t give up now.”

I don’t remember how the day ended, but in my fantasy, Douglas claps his arm around me as we are leaving the school building; one best friend, consoling another. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll treat you to a bottle of moisturizer.”

Michael’s next album, Bad, came out in 1987, but Douglas and I were seventeen and in our junior year of high school. We didn’t want to be Michael Jackson anymore; Michael might have felt the same way. Bad was a disappointing follow-up to Thriller, but what wouldn’t have been?—Thriller was a revelation. From the time Michael Jackson had appeared on Motown 25 with his brothers, when they walked offstage and left him to perform by himself, America experienced something miraculous. As the night-stalking percussion of Billie Jean started, Michael danced at us with his hat cocked down, his leg kicked out fiercely like a restless colt, and moonwalking across the stage to audiences’ fevered applause and screams, he agitated us with his extraordinary passion to perform, and we couldn’t not watch. Michael has never been given enough credit for almost single-handedly returning main-stream America to its love of dance through his use of the music video. He may even have been responsible for revitalizing the American musical and thus saving Broadway. Michael was Bo Jangles, the Nicholas brothers, Martha Graham, Fred Astaire, Alvin Ailey, and Bob Fosse all at once. His creative gift seemed so profound that aspects outside the Jackson legend, the reality of Michael’s personal life slowly falling apart with his rising fame, could easily be overlooked.

Bad was the beginning of the end for me as a fan, and marked the all-out war by Michael on the feminine loveliness he’d shown us on Off the Wall. On that album, “She’s Out of My Life,”with Michael’s tears heard at the end of the song, might have seemed treacly and self-conscious, but the emotion was real, and it was raw and daring for a male pop star’s first solo album. There was the frenzied playfulness of a song like “Working Day and Night” and the pure, unadulterated joy of “Rock With You.” Michael was still young, but he had grown up, and his “sissified” adult voice was earnest and friendly; the music had a coquettish, flirtatious quality. Off the Wall is the most African of Jackson’s albums in its musical colors; with Michael’s shy come-ons and dreamy backup vocals, the title song became a strutting peacock disco fantasy, and suggested his ability to laugh at himself, at his oddball freakishness. Thriller was over-produced and eventually upstaged the music; the album had a whorish, supercommerical quality with a slightly metallic aftertaste. It drove the few ghetto-boy enthusiasms that Michael had in Off the Wall underground and, with the exception of “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin,” was the end of his funkiness, his silliness. Thriller was angry with manifest destiny, and a need to overpower and rule the world. And Michael succeeded, and then tried to top the effort with Bad. He might have struck gold twice, but Thriller was an achievement of timing as well as artistry. No matter how determined the effort on Bad, he couldn’t repeat the element of surprise in Thriller or the point in music history when it arrived. Thriller snuck up on us and we devoured it and made it a phenomenon. It was achieved through stridency, aggression, and Michael’s desire to prove his manhood. Off the Wall had been more sexually confident, a gorgeous balance of feminine and masculine, but one Michael knew he couldn’t trust. Being visibly and culturally black and enjoyably feminine wasn’t going to make him an American pop superstar. Without a secure masculinity to rely on, he had to cross the line into violence. It was the beginning of an ugly übermachismo that was even more pronounced on his album Dangerous. (The same testosterone injections were killing Prince’s music at the same time. Prince may not have needed “Wendy and Lisa” to keep writing songs, but timed with their departure from “Prince and the Revolution” his music also tipped over into self-important humorlessness. With his all-male posse and femininity and playful side abandoned too, his music, like Michael’s, became macho and harsh; musical gangbangs.) The misogyny in Michael’s new music wasn’t only in the occasional lyric, but in the tone, a complete lack of vulnerability or subtlety. Michael hardest songs were driving mini-rapes, ripping tears, intensity, or whatever emotion Michael demanded you feel. He was most offensive when he wanted you to be sad or wistful about his lost childhood. His sound, with the exception of his weepies, had gone the “hip-hop” route, with the desultory rap throw in the middle of every song for “edginess”. It wasn’t inventive, but what lazy musicians think hip-hop only is: all stress and anger.

In the original video for the song “Black and White”, which was later edited to exclude its violent postscript, Michael’s congealed rage finally finds an outlet. He smashes windows, grabs at his crotch, drops to his knees and howls. As viewers, we are forced to be complicit in Michael’s tantrum, held hostage as he exploits his own mental meltdown. The viewer recoils, bewildered and dismayed, having not agreed to this assault after watching the congenial, friendly middle section of the video. The violence is presaged, however, in the video’s prologue, as Macaulay Culkin, playing Michael’s white-child alter ego, acts out a defiant confrontation with his father, played by George Wendt. Wendt throws the door open to Culkin’s bedroom and screams at him, “I thought I told you to turn that music down. It is too late and it is too loud. You are wasting your time with this garbage, now go to bed!” His face is presented in close-ups not as a frustrated dad, but as an overbearing, menacing monster. When he slams the door, a framed poster of Michael falls to the ground and its glass is smashed. With the enhanced sound, the sharp cutting, and the emotional violence of the boy’s father, the video is already too intense for most younger viewers. The father returns downstairs to his wife, the boy’s mother, who sits on the couch reading a newspaper that says “I was abducted by a UFO” (i.e. I’m not available to protect my children—a charge Michael may have wanted to level at his own mother). Culkin responds to his father by bringing out the “big guns” as he hooks up an electric guitar and drags a set of enormous speakers into the living room. He tells his father, “Eat This”. If Culkin were a teenage boy of sixteen, the expression “Eat This” might seem more age-appropriate, but having just turned eleven when the video was made and appearing even younger, this also rankles in the viewer’s mind as another problematic choice. The windows in the house shatter and the boy’s father is jettisoned through the roof with his chair into outer space. The suggestion is that the boy and his mother, who stare from the window in disbelief, are free from the father’s rage, at least momentarily. The boy has protected himself and his mother using his musical talent. (Michael’s early success as a child star might have done the same thing in his family.) The father, still sitting on his chair, eventually lands in a place which resembles “Africa” or “Australia” and watches Michael Jackson dancing with indigenous black warriors in face paint who suddenly run from the outback onto a soundstage in a Hollywood studio. (The video is a multicultural three-car pile up, but has a lovely moment when we see people “morph” into each other, a visual expression of the theme: “we are all one.”) When it appears to be over, a black panther descends some basement steps to an underworld that may be Michael’s subconscious, and morphs into Michael, who finds himself in a subterranean, garbage-covered city, bathed in blue light and shadow. This coda to the video is visually stunning and the choreography a lascivious, nasty soft-shoe, as Michael grinds his hips, zips up his fly, and stimulates himself by rubbing his hands over his torso. He then takes a metal crowbar and destroys the windshield of a car. A trash can is thrown through a window recalling the climax of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Because this epilogue isn’t shaped and has no context, we don’t get a clear idea that this may be Michael’s comment on what it means to be black and male in the United States, what race relations are really like in the “basement” of America and the price that some people have to pay so that others can run around saying things like “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” What we do experience with clarity is an unbalanced superstar, who perceives himself as harassed by an unfriendly world, “blow off some steam.” When compared with the rapport created by the cartoon-like images earlier in the video, this ending is a cynical, illogical departure, not to mention grotesque and probably horrifying to many pre-teen viewers. It became obvious to me after watching the uncut “Black and White” video that Michael was out of control, that he had no adult male expression for his anger, and absolutely no boundaries. His brutality in the video was perceived as irresponsible by many others, the ending was later cut from the video and he apologized. However, for those who saw the premiered uncut version and viewed its airing as more than a publicity stunt, Michael had provided a new entry-point into his psychological and emotional landscape.

Most parents intuitively know that their children don’t see Michael Jackson as a grown-up man, accountable to the rules and responsibilities of their Mom or Dad, but as a fun, everlasting teenager, a Peter Pan. (When a man refuse to grow up and take adult responsibility for his sexual behavior, he may be Peter Pan but he also embodies Pan's predator "shadow": Captain Hook.) Although his rage in the video is stylized, it has a pornographic tone and is filled with sexualized violence and terror; presented in a manner, specifically with Culkin’s 11-year-old protagonist at the beginning, that would greatly appeal to a child. Children can shoot up on Jackson’s violence faster and are more unprotected than if they were watching Clint Eastwood or Bruce Lee. Because “it’s only Michael” the aggressive themes are driven directly into their unconscious. Michael understands a kid being sent to his room and being bullied by his father, but in his fantasy he doesn’t empathize with the parent; he’s still trapped as the child who finally has the “speakers” (the physical power) to rip his family’s house apart and protect himself in a way he was never able to in his own childhood. The aggression in the early part of the video capitalizes on any child’s frustration with being told what to do by his or her parents, but it also reveals an abused child’s revenge-fantasy created by an adult man who still feels powerless over his abuse. It marks the beginning in Michael’s music of the uncomfortable suggestion that a man who doesn’t see himself as an adult isn’t responsible for adult behavior. Not that every pop star has to be concerned about their underage demographic; but as Michael has designated himself as a advocate for children, has appeared at public events with children as escorts, and markets to them specifically as a fan-base, he has a greater responsibility. A man who truly believed he wasn’t responsible for a child’s experience watching his video might also believe that he wasn’t responsible for a child’s welfare. Any victimizing he might perpetrate would occur between two “children”: one who was an actual child, and a man who considered himself to be a “child at heart”, and thus couldn't be considered victimization at all.

I eventually grew tired of the unreleased sexual frustration, the combative, defensive tone of Michael’s “I’m super famous, now please respect my privacy and leave me alone while I continue to do bizarre things to get your attention” lyrics that were appearing more frequently in his music, and of being consistently pushed to the edge in new songs where there was no enjoyment, celebration or emotional pay-off. It was the last album, and a particular track that sounded like a chorus of Viking men lifting their beer mugs to sing a Norse song about “all the lost children” that I truly began to question Michael’s sanity as a pop artist. Could he really be that out of touch? With our political system on fire, our elections in tatters, and released one month after the September 11th attacks, why was he forcing us, in 2001, to love children again? Weren’t children lovable enough on their own without his commercials? Why was he dragging us back to Thriller, when it was a million years and a million losses of innocence later? If an artist is going to keep his shadow side completely unexplored, then he has to at least be in touch with the shadow of the society in which he lives and present his illness in contrast to the social ills of the time. Otherwise: get help. An artist’s pathologies may create a fascinating tension in his or her early work, but eventually, if untreated, the pathology overcomes the work, and in the end defines it, as more energy is required to keep down whatever he is trying to repress. The repression itself becomes its own curious art form that supplants the original intention, and “bodysnatches” what gave the artist’s work its original truth. (A fan experiences this dynamic when she brings home the latest CD, listens to it and says, “this music sucks”). Michael’s last album was entitled Invincible, in case we’d forgotten since Bad, and Dangerous, that he was invulnerable, impenetrable. He had finally crossed the line; not sex scandals, not bankruptcy, not depravity or addiction. For the famous in America, all can be understood and forgiven with good spin and the right publicist. Michael had committed the truly evil act by music industry standards: he’d created a dud album with not one single good song to dance to.

In 1993, when the first sexual abuse accusation against Michael Jackson was leveled, the whispered conversation amongst my friends was whether Michael “did it or not”. Those who were fiercely loyal couldn’t imagine it, while others refused to discuss the allegations at all. The matter went away with a paid settlement and the charges were dropped. It is now 2005, on the eve of Michael’s trial for a second sexual abuse accusation. I am aware that Michael is vulnerable to extortion from unsavory types, as most famous people are. But I am also aware that there are many famous people in America, few of whom, in recent history, have been accused of child molestation twice. It’s not happening to Madonna, Oprah Winfrey or Brad Pitt. As I weigh Michael’s guilt in my own mind, I admit to not understanding children's being dangled by one arm out of hotel windows for screaming fans or being forced to wear Halloween masks when appearing in public. I try to make sense of a man who has two children, close to the same age, whom he has given the same first name, Prince Michael I, and Prince Michael II. His daughter’s name is Paris Michael. It is the kind of egomaniacal cruelty only superstars are capable of. (For several months of her early life, Christina Crawford was named Joan Crawford, Jr.; seven of George Foreman’s children are called George, including two of his daughters.) If Michael doesn’t respect children’s psychological boundaries by allowing them their own identities, then how would he know what children’s physical boundaries are? I try to draw a line from my past to the headlines I read everyday, hoping to make some sense of what these horror stories and allegations have to do with shower caps and straightened hair, of myself as a seventh grader who dreamed of Michael Jackson and wore his hairstyle proudly every day at school. I feel protective of Michael and frustrated with him. After the first allegation, didn’t he know better than to ever be alone with a child? Wasn’t there anyone around him who could tell him that he had to install twenty-four hour surveillance cameras in his bedroom if he still wanted to have “sleepovers” with little boys? When he admitted in a televised interview to sharing his bed with children, had he no idea of the devastating impact on the average viewer? What else was there, other than sexual compulsivity, to explain why we were dealing with this all over again, a decade later?

A man I recently met at a social gathering, close to my age, black and gay, refused to believe Michael Jackson could ever have abused a child. I understood his unwillingness to decide Michael’s guilt without knowing the facts, but when I suggested what I thought might be incriminating evidence if it were true, he was adamant: Michael “could never do something like that”. He later revealed in our conversation that he had been sexually abused as a child himself. I wondered where his conviction about Michael Jackson came from, as I learned that he had no closer relationship to Michael than I’d had at thirteen; he’d watched the same music videos as I, danced to the same songs through high school, had the same posters. I felt the familiar disappointment knowing that some people refuse to see famous people in a bad light; or have a fierce loyalty based on the pleasure the artist has brought them with their creativity, which may have nothing at all to do with a star’s personal life. (Bill Cosby, having given the black community a stern talking-to about its morality and values last year, was recently accused of drugging a woman unconscious and sexually exploiting her. Another friend: “Oh, no. Not Dr. Huckstable!”). It’s a loyalty based on the way many stars’ creations have been markers of the important events in our lives. “The band played ‘I’ll Be There’ for the bride and groom’s opening dance at my sister’s wedding….”, “I took my girlfriend to see the movie The Wiz on our first date”, “My family and I used to watch Michael on TV with the Jackson 5 singing "ABC" on The Ed Sullivan Show—he was so cute!” The Daily News ran a recent story about Michael’s fans outside the courthouse, including a woman who left her children with relatives so that she could support him through the duration of the trial. When asked whether she would trust her own kids with Jackson she said, “Absolutely. If he asked me, I’d tell him to take them for a year if he wants.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Jackson has a great desire to help and heal children. What I am unsure about is whether or not he has also, at times, an equally compelling unconscious desire to hurt them. While I still admit to some doubt as to whether sex occurred between Michael Jackson and a child, what bothers me is that there are so many ways to damage children psychologically other than sexual contact, that aren’t even considered illegal. There is the experience of a child who has been overpowered by an adult's intentions and emotions needs, “courted” by a man in his early forties and invited into the catacombs of his home and private life; the trauma of having a grown-up, especially a superfamous grown-up, lavish gifts and attention on you, and then, for whatever reason known to you or not, falling out of favor and having him move on to someone else’s kid. Being dumped hurts badly enough and can crush a heart when it’s a relationship between two consenting adults. What must it feel like when you are a child being dumped by “Michael Jackson”; when the “King of Pop” won’t take your calls anymore and is the one doing the mind-fucking? The child is violated twice when abandoned by parents who’ve “pimped” him for trips, charge accounts and shopping sprees, denying the supervision and care they would apply to any other adult in the world who was interested in a personal relationship with their child, and who wasn’t an international superstar.

It has been easy to track the years through the alterations in Michael’s face. His appearance is considered by many to be a road map of racial self-hate. I believe Michael was trying to destroy the face of his father that stared back at him whenever he looked at “the man in the mirror”. So he made that “change” with a surgeon’s knife. Michael has commented obliquely in interviews about his father’s abuse of him. VH1 recently ran a program on Michael’s childhood, detailing “the mental and physical abuse he endured from his father, Joe Jackson (e.g., incessant rehearsals, whippings, calling Michael ‘big nose’).” I know what it’s like to feel so hateful towards your father that you mutilate yourself. Prince Harry, at the time of this writing, has just worn a Nazi uniform to a costume party. It speaks of an incomprehensible insensitivity on his part to the history of that atrocity, and worse yet, timed so closely to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But the minute I read two lines of the story, I thought, this is “father shit”. He’s trying to provoke his father in a way that he knows will hurt him the most—by publicly humiliating him. I saw in Harry’s act pure hate for a world that took his mother away from him because of its cruel fascination. “You want a picture, you motherfuckers—well, take a picture of this.” I’m not apologizing for Prince Harry, but I also understand sons who will destroy their own lives and reputations to exact revenge against their fathers. Michael’s reconstructed face reflects his favorite icons: Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Diana Ross, Joan Crawford, Liza Minnelli, the Japanese race, E.T., anything on earth, in fact, except a black boy who grew up in working-class Gary, Indiana with a brutal, terrifying father. If only using a plastic surgeon’s scalpel to separate from our fathers were that easy. If we truly wanted to cut our father’s violence out of our lives, we would have to begin with our own eyes.

I don’t know if Michael Jackson is guilty of child molestation. What I do know is that whether we have a hundred dollars in our pocket or a hundred million, boys who survive their fathers’ violence become postal workers, fry-cooks, diplomats, train conductors, astronauts, sex workers, stockbrokers, dancers, cops and superstars. We take our places in the world, but in each of us is a little boy who still worries about a father who might hurt our mommy and wonders if tonight will be the night when we have to protect her and stand up to him or call the police. Boys who pick our mothers up after our fathers have hit them, and who write letters when he leaves saying, “Please don’t cry, Mom” with yellow crayons for sunshine. With the click of a closed briefcase, a man’s past is negotiated and settled. But at night, he goes to sleep and wakes up from the same nightmare. He’s reminded by the soothing hands of his wife or male partner that those are his kids in the next room, and he’s in his own house, and that no one is going to whip him awake or drag him out of bed into the hall and start punching him. A man sleeps with his eyes just slightly open because at any moment an alcoholic father might wake the whole family and threaten to kill them, because sometimes oldest sons have to run for help. A man might be relieved to know that other men have bad dreams too, that many men wake up in the middle of the night whimpering like little boys, or unable to sleep at all, but men don’t talk to men, men don’t have friends, men have colleagues, appointments, clients, accountants, lawyers. Men have to get up early to go to work. Men keep their sadness in safes, with their money and their memories, locked up tight and private. Men leave town to avoid the shaming eyes of fathers who look back at them in hotel room mirrors. A man leaves his family and runs away, but his father is always waiting for him in the next town. Some men have to kill themselves with drugs and alcohol to get away from their fathers’ eyes. Other men stay under the covers and hide like little boys, scared of the dark and of life, still living in chaos and failure at forty and never becoming adults, because waiting at the other end of manhood in their imaginations are competitive, threatening fathers who are determined to destroy them. Men forget the little boys they were and sometimes hurt their own sons. And some men search endlessly for lost childhoods, and become vampires who turn to children, emotionally or sexually, trying to get from them the elixir of the emancipation they are searching for, or the antidote to a troubled, unhealed past.

What men need is not sex with children, or more money, or power, but a way to express and finally move through our grief and disappointment at lost opportunities to have friendships with our dads, who weren’t really dads at all, but only little boys who’d been hurt by their fathers. Douglas was the last boy I trusted, and Michael was my last hero. I have become a man, and often feel I don’t need anybody now. But I sometimes remember the fun Douglas and I once had; dancing in the school hallways, playing with our greasy hair, and laughing at stupid fart jokes until our sides hurt.
© 2005 Max Gordon
All rights reserved


Blogger Gentle Jones said...

this is a fantastic blog you've put together here

peace and respect
Gentle Jones

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Max. The gem of this blog is the last 3 paragraphs & should be read by others. Condense the rest and you have a prize here.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Tall said...

Max.....kid......yo! I don't know if you'll ever see this given the blog was written over 3 years ago; however, it darn-near brought tears to a brutha's eyes. (a 6'6"240lb bald and strong black man...haha) Yo, this is "Douglas"....Lol

We were best friends in middle school. BEST friends. It's amazing how you caught the details of our days in Lansing...with the exception of you being smarter than were certainly more exposed given the dual family income; however, not smarter.....although you did read a LOT of books for a 12 year old (and had a broader vocabulary)

Nonetheles, my mom has kept me updated on a couple of significant events in your family. My love is with you and little sis.

Believe it or not, i kept my curl all the way through my freshman year at Morehouse College in in defiance of everyone who told me i needed to cut it to conform...LOL. Now, i'm bald (was it the jheri juice chemicals???).

I never did make good on becoming a famous musician; although, my brother is a successful producer...check out his myspace: if you click on the song "Don't Matter" that he co-wrote for Akon, you'll see my picture with Akon and my oldest bro..

Anyway dude......hit me up if you ever get mom still has the same number we had in middle school. If you don't remember that, call information....first name Janis.....i think you remember the last name.

11:40 PM  

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