It was forgettable in a way I now find unsettling. He didn’t moonwalk or dangle a baby. We didn’t talk or even shake hands. I forgot the whole thing for a long time. It drifted back into my mind while I was prepping 9-11 commemorative articles for Patch.com and the Huffington Post in 2011.
I grew up in New York and New Jersey, but was on the other side of the country for 9/11. When I landed at Newark Airport in late September, ground zero smoke was still visible from New Jersey highways. I don’t remember much of that September or October other than going to a crowded memorial for a family friend who died in the towers. But one day in November still stands out.
For a couple of hours, Nov. 12, 2001 seemed like it could have been one of the worst days in the country’s history. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed that morning in Queens, killing 265 people. It was the second deadliest air accident aircraft accident in American history. But that day it was far worse than any plane crash could be. We thought it was the second 9/11, a mere two months after the first.
The initial belief that it was a terrorist attack panicked the East Coast to its bones. It confirmed the suspicion that life would just be like this from now on. Anthrax envelopes were always going to be in the mail. CNN reporters would be embedded forever. Suitcase nukes could be left on subway cars at any minute. And terrorist would murder people with planes on the reg. That was life for the foreseeable future.
And that was the day I almost met Michael Jackson.
Evidently, because of the crash, there was no getting in or out of New York. Evidently, Michael Jackson’s limo turned around on the way to the George Washington Bridge. Stranded on the less glamorous side of the Hudson, Jackson had his driver pull into a chain bookstore on a highway. Coincidentally, I just so happened to be at the same chain bookstore at the same time.
While I definitely noticed him, I had no idea who it was. As he often did in the last years of his strange life, he wore a surgical mask over his face, trying to either hide from germs or the public. He was a tall but his thin frame made him seem diminutive, elf-like. I thought he was Asian. Matted down under a black fedora, his hair looked wet and wiry, like a teen metal head that had spent a month skipping conditioner.
I thought he was a Hot Topic kid wearing a surgical mask to make a bad joke about terrorism. I remember pulling aside my friend Tom, then a manager at the store, and saying something along the lines of “get a load of this guy.” Tom subtly stink-eyed me for badmouthing one of his customers and moved along.
When I got in line, he was standing about three feet from me. For maybe five seconds, I faced one of the most famous people of all time. I shook my head in disapproval at him based on my hilariously wrong understanding of the situation.
After I left a cashier realized it was Michael Jackson. Tom told me that once his identity was revealed, MJ danced, posed for pictures and signed autographs. By then, I think, everybody was pretty sure the plane crash wasn’t terrorism. So it was a kind of celebration. Or at least a relief.
I didn’t get to tell Michael Jackson that “Wanna Be Starting Something” is genius progressive rock disco. Nor did I get to publically shame him as a suspected pedophile. Something that should have been amazing was nothing.
So, happy 9/11. Hope by this November you don’t feel too numb and scared to enjoy standing next to Michael Jackson.