Shrine to Michael Jackson at his childhood home in Gary
Shrine to Michael Jackson at his childhood home in Gary Credit: Miles Raymer

Just minutes after I caught wind of last Thursday’s big news, I got a text message from one of my friends: “Do you believe Michael Jackson died?”

Of course I didn’t. Or more correctly couldn’t.

Michael Jackson doesn’t just up and die, right? Michael Jackson doesn’t just go into cardiac arrest and get driven in an ambulance to a hospital to die. It’s too normal, maybe even too human.

The idea of Michael Jackson as a mythological figure isn’t new. No one gets as famous as he did without attaining something close to demigod status. The many eccentricities that he personally confirmed only fed rumors of other, more eccentric eccentricities that may or may not have been real—and his unwillingness to definitively address them led many to consider every tale equally true. In turn that made Jackson seem all the more mythological.

In the 80s and 90s certain countercultural types liked to riff on the notion of a Church of Elvis, but when you get right down to it, Elvis’s mythos is too tame to support a church—even a fake church. Aside from the interior design at Graceland and the massiveness of his pill habit, there wasn’t much that felt supernatural about the guy. As far as kinks go, girls in white cotton panties barely even registers. And who wouldn’t like a panfried peanut butter and banana sandwich?

But Michael Jackson, on the other hand, has barely been recognizable as a human being since sometime in the mid-90s. Even before he started looking like an alien, he acted like one. You had to wonder what kind of person has a chimp for a best friend; fathers children with what are essentially surrogate mothers, one of them never identified, and then hides them behind masks; and frolics in a personal amusement park fraught with dangerous psychological implications (“Neverland”) while dressed as an implausibly fabulous military dictator—which, why not, since he was richer and more powerful than any banana republic autocrat?

He was too bizarre, too far off the map. It’s telling that the rumor that Jackson slept in a hyperbaric chamber—which he cooked up himself and then denied—never really went away. It seemed no one could quite believe he breathed regular air like us.

It helped that he was superhumanly good at what he did. A lot of people couldn’t believe the moonwalk was real when he debuted it—they thought it was a special effect. And while there have been many Elvis wannabes who were better at being Elvis—or at least better at the singing and dancing and acting parts, if not the je ne sais quoi—no one was a better Michael Jackson than Michael Jackson. Countless people have been emulating him for decades now, and nobody’s ever topped his 1980s peak.

The first person I thought about after I’d digested the news was a Michael Jackson impersonator, Brian Woolridge, who performs every weekend in this one little alleyway in downtown Ann Arbor. I first saw him in 1999, when I lived there, and I learned last week that he’s still dancing. He doesn’t really do the costume thing too seriously—no sequined military jacket or anything—but he’s obviously studied Michael’s choreography so deeply and practiced it for so many unimaginable hours that every one of his moves, even simple gestures, is uncannily like Michael’s. You can watch him for hours, literally: he’s there all day every Sunday.

I don’t know what to call that kind of devotion except religious. Woolridge’s obvious spiritual dedication and the physically demanding form his worship takes are like something out of a medieval monastery. He probably has more in common with holy men on the other side of the globe than with the people who stop on the sidewalk to watch him for a minute.

As I was wondering about Woolridge—how many more like him were out there, how they might be feeling—I got a text from Jessica Hopper suggesting we head to Gary, Indiana. Till that point we’d both been so caught up in processing all the fallout from and reactions to Michael Jackson’s death that it hadn’t even occurred to us that people might be gathering at the Jackson home in Gary—the place where Joe forged the Jackson 5, in the process doing such lasting psychological damage to his sons that it’d take decades to fully manifest itself. But then we started seeing news reports online showing a couple hundred people keeping vigil on the house’s front lawn and out in the street.

We picked up our friend Matt Kessler and drove to Gary, but by the time we arrived the throng had thinned—at 11 PM there were maybe three dozen people, talking in small groups or standing by the front-porch shrine assembled from candles, armfuls of flowers, and an assortment of stuffed animals. One of the animals, which looked like a cross between a tiger and Pikachu, was dressed in a white T-shirt that bore a half dozen signatures and a handwritten message in black marker: “We will miss you.” Nearby was a small note reading “I’m sorry you died.”

Like most of the surviving neighborhoods in Gary, the block on which the old Jackson home stands is surrounded by vacant lots being reclaimed by prairie and abandoned buildings turning slowly into vacant lots. The streetlight opposite the house was one of only a handful I saw in the area. The nicer cars that drove up Jackson Street—the name’s just a coincidence—never stopped but only slowed down so the people inside could steal a glance.

There were only a few cars left parked out front, which suggested that the vigil had become primarily a neighborhood event. The mood was somewhere between funeral and wake—some of the people were somber and silent, others boisterous and rowdy—and it never resolved into one or the other. Everybody had come for the same reason, but they hadn’t necessarily bonded.

All the mourners spent at least a couple minutes at the shrine, mostly not talking, and most everyone snapped a few pictures of it on their camera or phone. A middle-aged man sat in a conversion minivan parked across the street, blasting Jackson 5 and Michael’s early stuff. Groups of girls sang and danced along. A woman, distraught and apparently wasted, asked us with an edge of panic in her voice if we knew where Michael was going to be buried.

Looking at that house—the former Jackson 5, minus Michael, pose in front of it on the cover of their final album, 2300 Jackson Street—I couldn’t feel anything but sad. It was hard to believe the whole family even fit inside, never mind lived there—and never mind the endless hours they spent practicing in the basement under threat of whipping. It doesn’t take much to imagine the ghosts of those boys’ stolen childhoods haunting the place. That little falling-apart house, which could only be considered “nice” when compared to the rest of Gary, made Michael Jackson finally seem human—and made me feel like I could finally mourn him.