I’m having a flashback.
A blinding California sun hangs like an exploding navel orange in the boundless sky, making me squint in the sweltering summer glare of celebrity.
I think I see a zebra.
This afternoon in 2005 I’m a guest at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch near Los Olivos, about 125 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Googly-eyed, cramped and sitting with my knees to my chin, I’m riding the kiddie train that chugs through the sprawling 2,700 acre estate.
FOX television blowhard Geraldo Rivera is sitting behind me. Raymone Bain, Michael’s glitzy public relations spokeswoman who invited me to visit, is sitting in Geraldo’s lap. They’re giggling.
I spot my reflection as we pass a polished children’s sliding board. I am the man in the mirror. I’m also a member of the press.
Twenty minutes later I’m standing in Michael’s private Neverland movie theater where countless poor Black and Brown children from inner-city LA race through the lobby grabbing all the free candy bars and free popcorn their tiny hands can carry.
I’m getting antsy.
Heading to the men’s room, I face the wall taking care of business at the urinal when sappy slaphappy music assaults my ears. The following lyrics warble through the loudspeaker: Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay; My, oh, my, what a wonderful day; Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way; Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!
Ill at ease that Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder, I want to scream but worry I’ll frighten the kids who by virtue of Michael welcoming them to his house have more than enough reason to be afraid. Looking skyward I scan the flashy toilet for hidden cameras, hastily zip-a-dee-doo-da my unzipped fly and flee.
Next stop the merry-go-round where calliope boop beep beep boop beep beep blasts overload my senses. Ready to freak out I call my partner Stephanie.
“You hear that?”
I hold the cell phone to lunatic tunes and the rising and falling of wooden horses. Painted colors swirl licorice red, sweet pea green and hazy purple. Stallions sneer, showing carved teeth in hideous grins as they call me to trip the light fantastic like I’m Peter Pan refusing to grow up.
”Can I go on the merry-go-round, Stephanie?”
She talks me down the way acid guru Timothy Leary once guided countless mind-blown wayfarers to a safe space.
“Breathe,” she says. “Breathe.”
Now I run to one of many fully-stocked ice cream carts Michael has placed around his amusement park near a flock of dirty flamingos that run frantically back and forth like wild turkeys sensing the holiday ax. I reach deep inside, grabbing two white paper snow cone cups as mementoes to one day remind me I really was there.
And I really was there.
But other than flashbacks all that remains of my adventure down the fairy tale rabid hole are those cups. All these years later I’m suffering yet another Neverland hallucination. LSD isn’t the only mental power source to instigate bad trips to yesteryear. Harsh reality easily jars brain cells and sends me crashing face-forward through the looking glass.
Back in Scranton, PA, for almost 15 years, my inner vision too often returns to when Michael stood trial on child molestation charges in 2005 in Santa Maria, CA, where I lived and worked at the daily newspaper. Now, instead of covering the Jackson trial and spending each hectic day for four months in a courtroom with the so-called King of Pop, my main news concern is whether President Joe Biden will talk to me.
This flashback kicked in after I emailed the White House a September 30 request asking to be the first Scranton hometown journalist (Gonzo Today White House Correspondent, in case you forgot) to score a telephone interview with the President. Amanda Finney, chief of staff for the White House press office, quickly wrote back.
“Thanks so much for reaching out!”
That triggered my non compos mentis reaction. What? What did she say? Did she say, “reaching out” like in Michael’s classic hit where he sings “I’ll just reach out my hand to you?” As in, “Just call my name, I’ll be there. I’ll be there?” Just call my name, I’ll be there!!!
Fueled by sneaky Washington bureaucrats, Finney’s trite government response sparked more than simple personal distress. Her inane sentence propelled me into a psychotomimetic spiral I will forever endure as a result of severe frontal lobular encounters of the worst kind with Michael.
These ABCs of my freaky brush with fame loom large in my mind, often forcing me back to the once-in-a-lifetime day Michael and I found ourselves alone and staring into each other’s eyes.
That day I decided to be the last person in the courtroom before Michael left on a break. I stayed in my aisle seat near the back of the room as he turned from the defense table and began his slow walk, not as slow as the day he showed up in his pajamas, but slow nonetheless. I watched him approach with his long bobbing black hair, his dancer’s delicate balance and huge pale hands with fingers that reminded me of Mickey Mouse hands.
Captivated by his finely tailored suit, the bright armband, the glittering sheen of his shirt and medallion, I kept my eyes peeled as he drew near. Thick fingers the size of sausages on his left hand twitched as he slowly raised his arm.
I first met Michael during his 2002 concert contract dispute civil trial when we talked briefly in a courthouse hallway about a wild spider that bit him, causing his hand to swell. This time, though, with his hand long healed, his jumbo mitt dangled grotesquely by his side as he got closer and closer, continuing to slowly raise his arm higher and higher.
Then, with all the potent power of bodi mindfulness, instant karma and enlightenment rolled into one, I knew. Just like the song, Michael was reaching out to me!
That’s when I sensed his fear – fear of me and what I might do to tell the world what I believed. Michael now knew I believed he had committed the sordid sex crimes against the child he stood accused of molesting.
Before the trial began, back before I visited Neverland, Michael had instructed his PR agent Baine to call me and say he read my columns and liked them. But the columns I wrote during the trial as well as live daily commentary I provided to Sky News and its massive European audience insinuated and eventually proclaimed his guilt. My words laid bare mounting evidence against him prosecutors presented at trial.
Yes, jurors should convict Michael on all ten counts. Yes, he lived a sick and dangerous life. Yes, he should go to prison. Michael knew if I believed he did it the jury might believe he did it.
That’s why he was reaching out.
And I was there, reaching back the way a chaplain reaches out to a condemned inmate or a hospice worker reaches out to a dying patient. Taking Michael’s left hand in my left hand, the same hand on which he wore his white glove when he debuted the Moon Walk in 1983 during a live Motown TV special, I felt his firm yet soft grip.
Our eyes locked as he spoke in a throaty off-the-wall whisper.
“How are you?”
Leery and taken by surprise, I responded.
“Good,” I said.
We continued to hold hands.
I kept looking at him.
He kept looking at me.
The handshake began to feel awkward. Two long seconds passed. Our firm fixing-of-the-fingers felt embarrassing. I sensed Michael’s pulse, his heartbeat. And our handclasp just got downright weird. When the grip felt more like a grope, I pulled back from his slick touch. Michael moved on, a sad ghost floating through a tortured fever dream.
A few weeks later I sat in the row behind Janet and La Toya, Katherine and Joe and other Jackson family members and watched when jurors acquitted Michael on all counts. A conviction could have imprisoned him for life. This stunning victory for him and his army of fans that still believes in their idol’s innocence validated all their illusory lives.
Four years later, on June 25, 2009, Michael died at 50 of a propofol drug overdose at the hands of another bloodsucking enabler, this time a physician who helped the global superstar permanently self-destruct.
At 70 I’m alive and well despite the cultural chaos surrounding my meeting Michael forever imprinted on my aging psyche, including getting assaulted by a uniformed, on duty Santa Maria cop, cursed by chanting throngs of Michael’s international supporters as I walked into the courthouse each day and hounded by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
When a new year blossomed after the 2005 trial, new corporate owners bought my newspaper and, failing to recognize my worth, fired me without advance notice.
Although Joe Biden, trying to be funny during a 1985 fundraiser, introduced a Black band member as “our vocalist tonight, Michael Jackson,” I’ll bet the President never held hands with the real superstar. If not, I’ll gladly reach out my hand when he invites me to the Oval Office for an interview. The President can hold the hand that held the hand of a world-renowned star.
Maybe Biden’s approval ratings will rise.
Either way, just call my name, I’ll be there.
I’ll be there.