Death Becomes Him

The week before Michael Jackson died, I bought “Say Say Say” from iTunes.  To be honest, this was a coincidence:  I was in a cheesy-former-Beatles mood, and not on a Michael Jackson bender.  However, I have all my life felt obligated to turn Michael Jackson jokes around with, “Okay, but he made some great dance tunes.”  Sometimes I felt so obligated that I even said something aloud.  As I recall, before Michael Jackson was dead, he was a freak of nature, and it was open season on him.  He was a total joke.

Then he was dead, and I was listening to some early Jackson 5 tune I hadn’t heard before, blasting out of a lush cream Cadillac at Quik Trip.  On a lazy evening, I even watched a hastily prepared tribute on network television.  What a genius he was.  What an amazing dancer.  Fred Astaire loved him.

The Michael Jackson coverage reminded me of when I went to a funeral for a man no one liked.  It wasn’t that he was rough around the edges or grouchy.  For the whole time I knew him, he spent his life alternating between doing only two things: drinking a bottle of vodka, and sleeping it off so he could drink another.  His wife was only sometimes able to support the two of them on her salary.  They struggled from day to day, and people brought them stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods to keep them going.  Then he got cancer, and people gossiped, everyone secretly thought: good.

We went to his funeral six months later, and of course people talked about how he had turned to Jesus at the end, and what a good guy he was.   It was a strange thing to sit through, because all along, I was thinking, I wanted this guy to die.  I thought it would free him and everyone around him from a painful situation.  Then he was dead, and it seemed wrong to hate his addiction and the pain he’d caused his wife.

I have dead grandparents and living grandparents.  The dead ones, even the dead ones who were thoroughly challenging characters, at least remain static, and allow the wounds they inflicted to heal peacefully.  Live people have annoying needs like hunger and needing to get to a bathroom, and they have unbearable neurotic routines that they wrestle with acting out all day long.  Living relatives may harp at you about how you should or shouldn’t be like them, when you are not them, and might not ever be.

One of my great-grandfathers, in fact, was an undertaker by trade, and I think he would agree with me here.  He used to remark, when people expressed fear of his workplace, dead people won’t hurt you.  It’s the living ones you ought to be afraid of.  Dead people are easier to admire, easier to trust.

I imagine the next time I dance to “Billie Jean” at a wedding, no one will have to preemptively joke about what Michael Jackson was about.  We can just dance.

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Dancing

I went straight from a Midwestern Baptist-style funeral to summer-steamed New Orleans. One minute I was singing a hymn in a pew, and hours later I was on a bus staring at the rehabbed Superdome, seeing the ghosts of the abandoned along the clean sidewalk.

I had to say some firm, abbreviated goodbyes to get out of the church and to the airport on time.  Once I was installed behind the security lines, I disciplined myself to read the newspaper, as if it were a normal day.

I was woozy with exhaustion when I finally got to the New Orleans airport.  I just had to get a ride to the hotel.  Then I could let go and sleep.  But the van was the cheapest way, and the van was a while in coming.  The van drove us by the Superdome.  That was the first I saw of New Orleans.

People had told me, It’s like Europe, and as I looked out the dotted side window, I thought, This isn’t like anything else.  The darkness of it, the narrowness that suggests age, and the patina that proves a city values history—it was strange to me.  There was nothing out those windows that said America.  Americans prefer to tear down a building just when it is getting interesting.  Americans need things opened wide.  There could be aliens or time travelers hidden in this city.  I looked for ghosts.  I saw empty lots.

I was a ghost by the time we got to my hotel.  It was the very last stop on the van’s ring-around-the rosy drop off pattern.  It was also, blessedly, in the French Quarter, in an ancient building, and not part of the dull convention center zone.  I had time for only a few hours’ sleep before my convention began the next morning.

I stumbled through the next day’s work fueled with Styrofoam cups of coffee.  Since this was a business trip, I wasn’t sure that I would partake of New Orleans’ pleasures at the end of the day.  I had a one-drink-with-the-boss limit that I’ve always strictly observed.

However, once we were installed in a piano bar, the drinks began to flow, and almost all of them were gifted to me by other members of our party, and I counted slowly: wine, wine, sazarac, sazarac…. The waiters circulated, jacketed in neat red uniforms.  The cellar walls of the bar ringed us with darkness. The man next to me slashed song titles on a napkin with ballpoint pen, checked them with me, sent them up to the performers.  And I was gleefully tipsy, while safely less drunk than my colleagues, who were singing into their straws and swordfighting with their cocktail swords.

Back at the hotel, I looked at myself in the garish glare of the mirror.  I thought of the good Christian crowd at the funeral.  Boy, if they could see me now.  I drank four cups of water, glugged them down like a trouper, and lay down to try to sleep.  It would be another night of not enough sleep, and another long day of conference sessions in frigid, plain rooms.

My last night in New Orleans, I danced in a blues bar on Bourbon Street.  It was almost empty—a slow night. They sometimes have time during the funeral when people can stand up and say something about the dead person.  I had said something about Grandma.  I told a story about her dancing, although the room was full of dancephobic conservatives.  The story might have been awkward for the crowd, but I thought it did Grandma justice.