I just finished watching the Michael Jackson memorial on television, and I decided as soon as it was over that I wanted to write about the day I met Michael Jackson.
I have told this story to many friends and family members, but I never actually wrote it down. I might as well do it right here, right now, as Michael is on my mind, and the memory of my encounter with him will only fade over time.
It was in 1983 when I met Michael Jackson. He was on top of the world as “The King of Pop.” His album “Thriller” was tearing up the charts. I think he was on his third or fourth #1 song from that album, and everybody in the world seemed to own it. I experienced this frenzy of album sales first hand, as I was working at a record store at the time. It was there, at the record store that Michael Jackson came strolling into my world.
Licorice Pizza was in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, located in the San Fernando Valley. This is the same record store that was used as a location in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The name of the store referred to the vinyl records we sold in those days. We also sold a lot of cassette tapes.
The day Michael walked into my store was a very slow day. It was as if he knew when the mall would have the least amount of people, and decided that was the best day to do a bit of music shopping. I could not tell you what day or time it was exactly, but it was likely mid-week, while most people are at work.
I was managing the store and working the cash register, which was near the front entrance of the store and looked out into the mall. There was nobody in the store other than myself and a co-worker, who was in the backroom. When I first spotted Michael I did not recognize him. And this is why…
I saw a man approaching the store in a Halloween mask. The mask was semi-translucent. I could almost see his face behind the mask, but not quite. The mask had sort of a white colored tint to it, but was mostly clear. The mask was shaped like a human face, as if its purpose was to simply distort the face of the wearer. The only marking on the mask was a black painted mustache. It was very odd to say the least… mainly, because it was nowhere near Halloween time.
I could tell the man behind the mask was African American. He was dressed extremely casual, and even his clothing was sort of a non-costume costume. He was wearing jeans and tennis shoes, and a red plaid button up shirt, with a t-shirt under that. He almost looked like a farmer. It was not a style that would have been considered fashionable at the time. It just seemed strange.
Today, if a man walked into a retail shop in July wearing a Halloween mask, most people would think they were about to be robbed. This thought did not occur to me though. One reason was that a young boy accompanied the masked man. Yes, I said it… Michael’s companion was a young boy, who looking back had an appearance similar to Macaulay Culkin. The boy was blonde, with pale skin, and he was dressed like Michaels twin (only instead of a red plaid shirt, he was wearing green plaid). This boy was not Macaulay though, as I think this was even earlier than their friendship.
So, there I see an African American man wearing a Halloween mask, dressed like a farmer, with his young blonde haired friend who was dressed the same (but with no mask). They walked right up to me when the man behind the mask spoke — “Hello, can you help me to find some Stevie Wonder tapes?”
As soon as I heard the voice, I knew it was Michael. It was high-pitched, rather quiet and gentle. The face behind the mask came into focus more. The hair. The mannerisms. It was him. Talk about a Thriller! Michael Jackson was standing right in front of me. I could not help but try to make out his features more from behind the translucent mask. I was stunned to say the least.
Over the years, we had lots of musicians come through that Licorice Pizza. I remember meeting members of REO Speedwagon, ABC, Bananarama, Spandau Ballet, Mr. Mister, and even Billy Idol.. but nobody comes close to Michael Jackson.
I could tell by the mask he wore and his body language that he really did not want people to know it was him (Duh!). He was trying not to attract attention. Yes, he was wearing a Halloween mask in July! Hello?! Still, his strategy was working. He and his pal came in alone, and nobody else was in the store with us. I felt it was my duty not to freak out, but to simply help him find the music he was looking for.
So I took Michael over to the Stevie Wonder tapes against the wall, and left him to browse with his friend. Micheal and his friend were squated down going through the tapes together, and I can only imagine Michael was giving the boy a bit of a musical education on Stevie Wonder. Two minutes later they were back at the register with me placing every single Stevie Wonder cassette we had in stock on the counter to be purchased. Obviously he was a fan.
I rang up the purchase, and Michael took out a credit card to pay. Sure enough, right there printed on the Master Card it said “Michael J. Jackson.” I knew it! The King of Pop was in my store. So what do you think I said next to Michael? I said, “Mr. Jackson, may I see your drivers license or a picture ID?” Checking ID was standard credit card protocol, and the man was wearing a mask after all.
He took out his driver’s license and handed it over. Yep, it was Michael alright. There, the Michael Jackson we all know and love (the face on his Thriller album) was smiling back at me. When I gave the ID back to him, I looked up and the real Michael Jackson was smiling too. In that moment, we both knew I was just doing my job by asking for his ID, and his smile was sort of saying “we are cool, right?”
As I finished the transaction, I then felt comfortable enough, or compelled perhaps to murmur “Huge fan, Michael.” Short, and to the point. He said “Thank you!” That was our conversation. Lame, but remarkable.
Now, I wish I could say that I had kept the conversation going, and that I had asked him to autograph an album, but that’s not how it played out. As he was signing his credit card receipt, my co-worker came out from the back room. Having another person walking towards us changed the dynamic right away. I was almost fearful for Michael that his secret would be discovered, and then all hell would break loose. There were a few random people walking past the front entrance of the store, and I felt the right thing to do was let the man go in peace.
Michael left the store with his bag of Stevie Wonder tapes, and I watched him as he continued through the mall and out of sight. He passed by some people who turned their heads, but not because it was Michael, because it was some man wearing a Halloween mask. Michael’s secret was safe.
I remember saying rather casually to my co-worker, “You just missed Michael Jackson. Yeah, he just bought up all our Stevie Wonder tapes. We better order more. Yeah, he was wearing a mask. Yeah, I’m certain it was him.”
Sure, it would be nice to have an autographed “Thriller” album made out to Michael’s pal Brian. I’m sure he would have signed one for me had I asked. There was something so odd about the whole experience though. At the time, I felt that the best way to show him I was a fan was to just play it cool, and treat him like any other customer. In my mind the fact that he knew I knew, and I calmly and quietly told him I was a fan, but did not make a fuss or draw attention to him was the right way to go.
For all his strangeness, I can only say that his kind spirit shined through from behind that mask. When he spoke, the tone of his voice was rather shy and like a child.
It was bizarre. It was a thrill. It was a day I will never forget.