Archive for June, 2009

My Personal Encounter With Michael Jackson

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t like at least one Michael Jackson song. I mean, does anyone, anywhere, not like “ABC”?! You’d have to be a corpse to not be affected by that one. A corpse. He’s dead now. This is news I thought I’d be hearing decades from now, after MJ had drifted into some whatever-happened dimension (perhaps called “prison”). I would be in my own twilight, so the ultimate passing of such a pervasive mega-star would afford me the opportunity to take my entire life, from pre-adolescence clear through fatherhood and beyond, into full account. So now he’s dead, and we’re all caught off guard, totally unprepared to reflect upon the incomplete stack of our own personal inventories.

I have a personal connection with Michael Jackson. Sort of. I mean, we all do on some level. Music coalesces certain strands of the lifeline. I came of age during the 80s. Right about the time that we all bought Thriller, I was just blossoming into a self-awareness that would define my permanent personality. I wasn’t angry yet, or disillusioned. I owned a zipper jacket, the first of my many mismatched fashion statements (I later settled on aloha shirts – that one seemed to stick, so now most of my friends know me as a shirt guy). I was just on the cusp of being frustratingly interested in girls. Life was dangling over the precipice of adolescent turmoil, and somewhere in between Thriller and Bad it all crumbled to confusion and self-loathing. But I later had another connection with Jackson. Let’s call it a “personal encounter”.

I worked through the collegiate angst. It derailed my ambitions, but also guided me to discover art and creation. Today, it doesn’t matter that I don’t remember how to write a PL/1 or Fortran program. I still write fiction and create, and, surviving the conflagration of self-discovery, I’ve managed to forge true, life-long friendships. I came out of college with a somewhat useless degree, though. In 1991, a college degree was worth a lot less than in 1986. The “liberal arts degree” bubble had burst, and there was an influx of us over-educated, not-going-to-grad-school give-me-a-job-please semi-retired Professional Students. It was the first time someone told me I was “over-qualified”. I had no idea how to respond to that. Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that you’re getting a bargain by hiring me? I just couldn’t see things from the employer’s perspective. I mean, today I would never hire someone who was obviously going to jump ship for the first “real” job. So I settled for the first non-food-slinging place that would hire me: The John G. Shedd Aquarium.

When I tell someone that I used to work at the Shedd, the response is almost always positive. What a cool place! Working with fish! Educational! And it was a neat place. The job, though, was mind-warping. I guarded the fish. “Visitor Services”. Yet another rung on the downward-spiral staircase of my customer service career. I suppose it’s all related to that ridiculous psychology degree that took me nowhere fast (as in, really fast, as in: the moment I matriculated I was right there smack dab in the middle of nowhere . . . fast).

The Oceanarium had just opened and was a massive success. They had money flowing, bursting their not-for-profit pockets, so they hired a team of young whippersnappers to stand at various stations throughout the aquarium, guiding visitors, tearing entry tickets and maintaining some semblance of order. We were a mix of museum-security lifers, aimless liberal arts graduates and recently-downsized middle-aged vagabonds. Most of what we did was stand around. That’s it. Often alone, but sometimes paired up with some other lost-soul coworker. I’m not sure which situation was worse for me. I often never know exactly what to say in a conversation, or have much of an idea how to keep a conversation flowing. This has resulted in the development of some nervous-babbling approaches (perhaps evident via the excruciatingly verbose Megablog entries), just to squelch the extremely uncomfortable and smothering silences. Back then, though, I hadn’t experimented much with babble. So, with the exception of a few people who I felt genuinely connected to, I would be paired up, for seven or more hours, with people who I couldn’t talk with. We would sometimes drift to opposite ends of the little zone we were meant to oversee, one person near the otter tank (aside: otters are infinitely more entertaining than seals – everyone wants to go see the seals, who just sit there like giant, glistening, sleeping cats, while at the other end of the facility those otters are like Cirque du Soleil, cranking out maximum entertainment like face-licking hyper sea-puppies), the other person fifteen feet away at the relatively-inanimate-yet-pretty tide pool. Those were the days when I was incessantly reminded that, for all of my flowering and development, my heightened awareness and creative energy, I still couldn’t have any kind of normal conversation with anyone. I was not normal. I was without rhythm.

There were other days, many other days, when I would be spared the spotlight embarrassment of having to work with a partner. Just stand alone at a podium or near a gallery entrance. All day. Nothing to do except recede into my mind, so starved for stimulation that I started to eat my own soul. Just me and my man-eating brain.

There were moments, of course. I learned to love the Giant Sea Bass. It was in a huge tank at the end of one of the dim galleries, in the old-school original aquarium (the Oceanarium is a massive extension, an architectural semi-circle that wraps around the old building, with a spectacular glass-walled horizon-vista of Lake Michigan). Fish are generally pretty stupid. They lack intelligence as we know it. One of the exceptions is the octopus, which is not only alien and beautifully, elegantly freakish, but also pretty smart. The days when I was posted near the octopus tank were pretty good. The Giant Sea Bass had its moments, though. If you stood still for a little while in front of its tank, it would drift over and stare at you, floating right in front of your head. Then you could dart to one side or the other, and it would follow you. And it wasn’t a jerky I’m-hungry-and-you-look-like-lunch following. It was smooth and metered. The Giant Sea Bass was a cool cat, as cool as a cucumber (not a sea cucumber – its nervous system, if it can even be called a “nervous system”, is insufficient for the exuding of coolness). To this day, I refuse to eat sea bass, regardless of the potential deliciousness.

The greatest creatures, though, were the dolphins*.

*(Okay, the actual greatest creatures were the pseudorcas (“sood-orca” – False Killer Whale). We had them on loan from Indianapolis, and kept them in a large side pool that was normally an extension of the beluga whale area. The belugas are super-cool, very friendly to the point of social. You could hang over the railing (“sir . . . sir . . . please don’t hang over the railing”) and a beluga would rise up from the water in a vertical column (called “spyhopping”) and smile or even spit a little water toward you in a soft arc, like a blubbery drinking fountain. Well-mannered and intelligent, they never spit at you. The pseudorcas, conversely, were bad-ass. They looked like huge, dark, pissed-off torpedos. They did not rise up to greet anyone. Instead, they exuded contempt with extreme marine-mammal malice, usually in the form of targeted breaching. You probably already know this: breaching is when a whale pops out of the water and slams back down, causing a freaking cool splash. They do this for a number of reasons, often just to scratch an itch. The pseudorcas were experts at breaching in such a way that they could direct the focused splash over the railing and onto the walkway. They wouldn’t just try to hit the walkway, though. They would actually target people. The public were used to the friendly belugas, so they would usually stand near the railing, waiting for a innocuous glimpse. Before they knew what was happening, the pseudorca would zip around the perimeter, lunge up and slam down, sending an arc of water straight into the gaping, stunned human. Their favorite target was anyone carrying a baby. Maybe this just presented a larger target. Who knows. I like to think that this was a natural attack move, to take out an opponent’s defenseless young. I just remember the awesome satisfaction of watching one of these beasts water-blast mommies and their yelping, writhing babies. Now that I have a baby on the way, of course, it’s a little less awesome. Still, the pseudorcas were bad-ass.)

Just after we herded the patrons out of the Oceanarium for the day, moments after closing time, I would go to the quiet underwater section of the gigantic dolphin tank. It was like hanging out in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus living room, after-hours, dim and calm, gazing into the blue-crystal oceanic depths. Sometimes a dolphin would swim up to the glass, hovering with a sort of Giant Sea Bass awareness. Dolphins are all energy and motion. They’re the Mary Lou Rettons of the sea (sans the Republicanism – but who knows, maybe there are some wife-cheating Toby Keith-loving cigar-chomping Grand Old Party dolphins out there), rarely satisfied with stillness. So I would stand there a moment to get the attention of a dolphin, and then sprint, full speed, 30 or so feet, along the length of the wall-sized glass panels. The dolphin would wave its powerful, smooth-muscle body up and down, swimming along my side like an organic missile, and then finally bank off into the depths just as I reached the far end of the stretch, laughing through my panting. Racing the dolphins. It was amazing, and nearly worth all of the soul-draining aspects of that job.

The piranhas, conversely, were incredibly boring. Motionlessly waiting for their next meal, doing absolutely nothing, not even swimming, just hanging there as if immortally frozen in a cube of lucite. So much expected of them, so little delivered. Can you see where I’m heading here?

I tried writing. I specifically remember standing at the Oceanarium Exit post. There was a podium there, so I could attempt to work out various story ideas on the blank areas of our daily schedules, stuffing notes into the podium when the Management Proximity Alarm would silently ring. Writing while standing guard, though, is like sleeping with one eye open. It isn’t really sleep, and it isn’t really writing. So not only did I have plenty of time to wonder why I went to college for five years in order to pick my nose in daily seven- or eight-hour stretches, I also lost much of my creative energy. Bleh.

Every now and then there would be a slight ripple in the pool of stillness. A celebrity guest appearance. I once sold a ticket to Daryl Hannah (skinny, skinny, skinny . . . but pretty and seemingly not-an-asshole). I walked alongside Dustin Hoffman (he’s a shortie). I even briefly met Christopher Lloyd: He was visiting the Oceanarium with his girlfriend, hovering outside the ladies’ restroom while she powdered. Four of us were perched at a post (the two of us who were supposed to be there, along with two others with Lloyd-dar). Lloyd, a generous soul, drifted over and we said hello. He was pretty low-key. All of the fish-visiting celebrities were low-key, sort of like the monosyllabic down-time Robert DeNiro of interviews. It didn’t take us long to reach the point of nothing-to-say, particularly since I wasn’t about to venture into fanboy territory. Unfortunately, one of my coworkers didn’t have such compunctions.

“I loved you in those Back to the Future movies, man!”

“Oh, thank you. Yeah.”

“That car was the best.”

“Yeah, well…”

“You still have that car? It was the best.”

“Well, that was in the movie-”

“The car was so cool, though! You have it, right?”

“Er, it was a movie. Um. The car.”

“But it’s YOUR car. I saw it. Man. That car was the bomb!”


Sometimes you are in the midst of a conversation with someone, and that person will blurt out some blatantly racist or homophobic comment, taking you so off guard that you can’t even formulate a response, agape with shock. That was our state as we watched our coworker grill Christopher Lloyd about a magic car. As we composed ourselves, trying to formulate a way to communicate to Mr. Lloyd that this guy’s warped misinterpretation of reality did not represent the views of our little group, Lloyd drifted backwards, an obviously practiced and honed maneuver from years of being a freak-magnet, finally rescued, moments later, by his re-emerging girlfriend. The only person with the guts to bid him farewell was our idiot coworker.

On a slow midweek afternoon Michael Jackson was in town, shooting a video with Michael Jordan (a meeting of the mega-stars, some sort of binary supernova). I was stationed in the old aquarium that day, at the Oceanarium Exit, at the soul-sucking podium, slow-churning through another day of nothing. Then my Motorola radio blurped a few fuzzy words.

“Pfft! Michael. Pfft!”

Huh? Whatever. Back to the zone-out.

Then I saw Harry, one of the middle-aged Visitor Services guys, emerge from a murky corner, hustling through a circuit of various posts and stations.

“Michael Jackson’s here.”


“I’m telling you. He just came in downstairs, at the Handicapped Entrance.”

“Holy . . .”

“Keep it quiet.”

Harry was gone before I could say anything else, a mere tracer image, moving the word on to other coworkers. There was a weird stillness, punctuated by indecipherable bursts of Motorola static. The galleries were empty, filled with a negative static. It was like being told that the missiles had just been launched and we had about three minutes until complete vaporization. It was the ion-infused temperature shift and green sky just before a tornado rips through, “to terrorize y’alls neighborhood.” No one knew exactly where he was. Somewhere in the building, or under it, or scaling the roof. Something.

Then I saw him. The shadow of a skinny figure in a jacket and fedora, face and hair sort of covered. He darted into the nearby dark gallery and stood for a few seconds, gazing into one of the tanks. Then he jerked over a few feet to the next tank. A couple people were with him, perhaps guarding or advising. No, it was four people. Five. After another 1.5 seconds he snapped to the next exhibit, the five people spontaneously becoming seven or eight. Now he was darting to each successive tank, people hovering about the previous tank like a cloud of gnats. His shifting became increasingly rapid, less than a second to gaze into each tank, to perceive the little worlds of each cluster of aquatic life. It took about 20 seconds for the crowd to reach the tipping point, and then Michael Jackson disappeared.

He didn’t disappear into the crowd. He was still ahead of them, separate, a jumping flea on a fast-track circuit, squeezing about nine exhibit tanks into 15 seconds. When he reached the darkness of the gallery corner he just jerked out of existence. There must have been a secret maintenance door. A human-sized, Wonka-esque vacuum tube in the floor or ceiling. Perhaps an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Who knows. Moments later, the crowd was reabsorbed from whence they came, and a post-storm calm smothered the galleries.

I can only assume that this was a ground-zero glimpse into Michael Jackson’s everyday world. There could be little to no possibility of him experiencing even one minute of a normal person’s existence. He was one of the most recognizable people on the planet, so anywhere he went, the gnat cloud would surface. Of course, showing up in perfect Michael Jackson Drag didn’t help. We all have our uniforms, though. If I was suddenly mega-popular, would I have to stop wearing my Aloha shirts? Would people blame my troubles with fame and identity on my refusal to not wear my recognizable uniform, for neglecting to lurk about the world incognito?

I survived my bubble-existence, eventually moving on to other fun realms of occupational humiliation (but never again the loneliness). Michael Jackson didn’t make it. He stayed in the bubble to the bitter and abrupt end. It was as if he was placed at the Oceanarium Exit podium for his entire life, folding into himself, sleeping with one eye open, derailed from the social cues that inform morality and human contact. And now we add his story to our personal inventories. And we move on.