The Apollo Theater is playing Michael Jackson hits 24-7. Everybody wants to get inside to hear it. The King of Pop may have died, but Harlem is alive and in hysteria in his honor. As far as you can see in both directions down 125th Street, lines of eager fans snake across the sidewalk, effectively blocking soul food restaraunts and shops with red lizard boots in the windows. When those fans get close enough to write their goodbyes, in funereal fashion, on the white tarp that hangs from a fence beside the Apollo, things get hectic. People dash out of line with a Sharpie, cry as if they are leaning on the Wailing Wall, and then jet back to reclaim their coveted spot in line with an expression as fierce as any I’ve seen. Michael Jackson fans mean business.
Then there are the vendors. They mean business, too. Every imaginable type of Michael Jackson t-shirt is folded or disheveled on table after table after table along the dirty thoroughfare. Behind the tower of t-shirts, there is always a man wearing a fanny pack that overflows with wadded green bills. He shouts in a Kenyan accent, “Jackson shirts here! Thriller! Best prices!” A battery-operated boom box, playing “Rock With You” or “Bad”, rests on the ground beside his lawn chair. Oh, he won’t sit down today. Things are too chaotic. Something might get stolen if he isn’t alert. Every vendor’s stereo plays a different mega-hit, and the songs clash with each other and with the music that is already emanating from the theater. It’s a nostalgic cacophony of sound. People are remembering and dancing a little. Some hold hands. Some kiss.
But mostly there is pushing and shoving and moving around in a tight mob. The crowd got to me within a few minutes. I almost fell twice, so I didn’t stay long. This PYT had to Beat It.
On my way back to my tiny room on 121st Street, I couldn’t help thinking about the other day. I had been walking near a subway stop on the lower west side … a long way from Harlem. There was a guy sitting cross-legged on a broad piece of cardboard. He held up another piece of carboard that read: “Donate now to stop the exploitation of Michael Jackson.” He was calling out to passers-by and gesturing toward his coffee can. The “classy” woman who was walking a few steps in front of me (pushing a stroller and escorting two other toddlers, mind you) flipped him off and spat some profanity in his direction. The young man hollered after her in a resilient voice, “Reject him if you must, but know that everything he did, he did for you! Michael loved you! Michael died for you!”
Now, if I hadn’t been in a hurry, I would have liked to have talked to that guy. He was friendly to everyone and didn’t seem frightening at all. He was wearing clean clothes and was newly shaven, and for all I know he was a kid from NYU conducting a social study. He didn’t strike me as someone who had made a career of panhandling. Clearly, this was a new venture. Yes, if only I’d had time. I would have brought him some hot chocolate on that drizzly day and sat down on the pavement with him a while. I would have asked him why he felt so passionately about Michael … what made him think Michael loved us … why he thought sitting and shouting near a puddle at a subway stop was any kind of solution … what he planned to do with all the money in the coffee can … how he was going to stop the exploitation by himself. I would have sipped my hot chocolate and smiled and told him that my favorites were “Human Nature”, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, and all the old J5 stuff.
I guess I could still go back and find him in order to have that conversation. But after visiting the Apollo, I would be compelled to add a sincere confession: I had no interest in buying a Jacko t-shirt today, but if the Kenyan vendors in Harlem had been selling those sparkly, white-sequined gloves, I would have whipped out my money and snatched one up in a flash. Exploitation or no.