Monday, July 6, 2009

I Can Predict the Weather Because of the Moonwalk

I saw Michael Jackson perform only once. It was at Dodger Stadium and he was performing along side his brothers during their Victory Tour concert. My ticket stub reminds me the date was December 3, 1984. My high-priced seat in Chavez Ravine was so near the top of the vertigo section that had I fallen over backwards, I would have washed ashore on Catalina Island.

While I liked Michael and had followed his career since his Jackson Five days, I was light years removed from the fanaticism of the couple seated next to me. Both knew all his lyrics and dance steps by heart and proceeded to entertain those around us with movements best described as epileptics on crack.

The girl was a good 75 pounds heavier than her intended body frame making every one of her violent sideways gyrations potentially lethal to me. To make matters more dangerous, she was drunk. I had been an open air concert goer for two decades by that time. I had seen Joplin and the Doors and the Fuggs and the Stones and Led Zeppelin and The Dead and countless other performers; yet I never felt my safety more threatened than on that December night. Shortly thereafter I became a leg man.

After Jackson's signature "moonwalk" performance, the girl moaned for no apparent reason that Michael had invented that move. I was too stupid to remain silent. I told her that no, Michael had copied that series of steps from other choreographers like Shalamar and tap dancing wizards of yore.

Her head all but exploded. I thought she was going to smother me into the next time zone -- especially when she growled she had never heard of any tap dancers named "yore." Her boyfriend, Megatron, starred at me, telling me with his eyeballs, "Don't even argue with her if you value your life." After that evening, I realized I had arrived at the age where having a strange woman throw up in my lap was no longer an advantage in asking for her phone number.

But I had seen a variation of the moonwalk performed years before Michael Jackson made it world famous. I busted up my left leg trying to duplicate it. Because of my orthopedic condition, I now have advanced warning when either a blizzard or tornado is about to strike. Unfortunately, since I live in Los Angeles, that meteorological ability does me no damn good.


One night back in the late 1970s, I found myself walking around that area of lower Manhattan known as Alphabet City. This was my first trip to the Big Apple, so naturally, I was all gung-ho to experience the true underbelly of what was America’s most bankrupt city at the time. No museums or art galleries or fancy restaurants for me: I wanted the urine essence of NYC. At 1 a.m. in the morning I was so lost amidst the abandoned buildings, the needle parks, the panhandlers, and the drugged-out Midwestern tourists that Rand McNally would have thrown up its longitudes in despair over ever seeing me again. Even the stray dogs stared at me with compassion, for they were just as disoriented as I was.

My sense of direction has always been lousy. I go missing in my apartment looking for the bathroom. I can’t read street maps; the stars above me all look alike; if I were a sailor, a sextant would be nothing more than an object I would feel guilty imagining myself with. That night I was so turned around I felt all Bonfires of the Vanities inside me, though the Tom Wolfe novel was still a decade away from publication.

I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel about a year before Nancy Spungeon created a reason to have her own Wikipedia entry. The tattooed woman behind the reservations desk had been very helpful, giving me an upscale room where the mattress was still drying out from the party the night before, its stained edges matching the garish yellow wallpaper that itself appeared to be tearing away from the walls in disgust.

My occupancy came with all the usual Chelsea Hotel amenities for that time: opened liquor bottles, someone's soiled underwear, and a number of used hypodermic needles. I don’t recall whether there were any surprises in my toilet, but there might have been. If I had looked hard enough, I would have found granules of heroin or cocaine lying around on the floor; however I was on a business trip so I ignored that temptation to speedball by myself.

That evening, I asked the hotel’s concierge where I could find the mean streets of Manhattan. He refused to divulge that information unless I paid for it. I had seen "The French Connection," "Superfly," and Death Wish, so sliding him some "jack" for some "411" made all the sense in the world to me. Why this concierge was whispering from behind a dumpster located in an alleyway across the street from the hotel I still don’t quite understand. He smelled like New York City in the summer, so I knew he was legit.

I greased his palms. He told me to look down, smell the wind direction, and then follow the yellow pee line from 23rd and Broadway down to East Houston, and then keep walking towards the East River. I would find all my dreams answered in an enchanted place called the East Village. He told me to hurry back before dawn or the hotel would rent out my room to someone living. If they found my body, I would be ID'd through dental records, which, remarkably, remain to this day the most valuable part of my estate.

In the late 1970s the East Village was an exotic, thriving crap hole: One of the roughest, toughest, most desperate areas of the city. This was still paradise compared to other areas of NYC. A cabby taking a piss on one of the side streets told me that as bad as this part of Manhattan looked, Fort Apache, the Bronx was Hell burning in overtime. I asked him where that borough was. I just wish he hadn’t turned to face me when pointing north.

Co-mingling together on the East Village streets like a social worker’s meal ticket were the starving homeless, the diseased hookers with their psychotic pimps, burned out bohemians, forlorn street artists, and the ever present white Wall Street East Sider looking to score some blow -- cocaine or otherwise. Amazingly, the vibrancy on the streets was as infectious as typhus. People were singing and dancing, apparently caring less whether this night might be their last.

It was so romantic. Love like the scent of feces hung marvelously in the air. "Why had no extremely talented though unknown playwright or composer ever thought of taking this roiling atmosphere of humanity and walloping it into a hit Broadway play?" I pondered as I stepped gingerly around the retching wretched.

Near the corner of Avenue B where East Houston turns into Clinton this dopey white boy found the goldless rainbow's end. Under a flickering street lamp and to the beat of a broken down, first generation boom box, a bunch of black and Puerto Rican street performers were sweating out moves as if auditioning for Jerome Robbins. These guys were taking turns bouncing off of each other, a repertory filled with exaggerated high side kicks, impossible splits and knee drops, head spins and the gravity defying one armed handstands. Their syncopated heel work was extraordinary. Either these performers were the scruffiest looking gang bangers out of Julliard or a bunch of muscled up guys working off steam because they hadn’t made the cut to a "West Side Story" revival.

I have always been envious of tap dancers. They can high step across floors, jump stairs, slide over table tops and in some instances march straight up walls and ceilings. Many times they perform with partners, making going to social gatherings that much cheaper. My own dancing skills remain limited to those movements one makes dancing at the end of a rope of one’s own making. The only time step I ever successfully learned was placing one foot in front of the other. I think my parents called it walking.

One kid in particular offered a time step that appeared to make him levitate across the sidewalk. I checked to see if he had a people mover underneath him. He slid backwards yet I never saw his feet leave the cement.

I asked him afterwords how he did that particular move. He wondered what a scrawney white guy was doing hanging around at this hour of the night in the East Village. I told him I got lost looking for Lambeau Field. Then we all scrotummed up to talk Giants and Packers and Bears football. You can bond with any other male as long as sports, guns, girls, and violent movies are the topics. I pulled off my shoe and give the group my cab fare home. They were that good and I was tired of limping with a bunch of coins in my sock.

Herky-jerky, on my way back to the hotel trying to emulate that dance move. My actions scared a drunk guy so badly he flagged down a passing cop car. I was forced to walk a straight line to prove I was not publicly intoxicated. I explained what I had just seen and what I was trying to do. The black cop turned to his white partner and translated to him that I was just another bow-legged, knocked-kneed, non rhythmic white kid trying to go urban. The white cop told me to stick to the waltz and the Twist. Learning street would just injury me into sterility. I asked if they would drive me back to the Chelsea. They laughed and with their siren blaring, they sped away.

Fast forward about a half a dozen years. I see Michael Jackson perform “the moonwalk” on television during the 25th anniversary of Motown. I immediately think back to this unknown 1 a.m. dancer in the East Village. Michael had carried the dance step to a new plateau; but, obviously, it was neither as new nor as revolutionary as so many of the non-dancing commentators were saying at the time. I signed up the next day to learn how to do the back slide, technically the correct term for this tap dance move.

I had taken a couple of lessons when I discovered that although I had two working feet, one walked south with confidence while the other traveled north under witness protection. I was more Fred Mertz than Fred Astaire.

Instead of practicing on a dance floor, which I found boring though safe, I decided to play fast and loose in a back alley one afternoon. I was making progress on the glide when, out of nowhere, much like a gaggle of mistresses at a Republican get together, a pot hole rushed forward as I was sliding backwards. I tumbled downward long enough to view nothing truly of importance flashing before my eyes. I landed on my ass, dislocating my shoulder and tearing up my left Achilles tendon. I was on crutches for a month. I found it very suspicious that my instructor paid me not to return after my recuperation. I never did learn how to moonwalk properly, but the gimp in my leg gives me first crack at weather predictions.

To my best recollection, this video approximates many of the moves I saw that night some 30 years ago in the East Village. And, yes, I still practice my version of "the moonwalk." People who have seen it dial Houston to tell them I have a problem.