Did I ever tell you about the time I met Michael Jackson? It’s incredible isn’t it? After all this time I can still surprise you. You have heard so many of my stories over the years and yet my chance encounter with the musical pop icon somehow never entered into the conversation.
I’ll never forget that day, an extremely warm Tuesday afternoon back in July of 2000. We as a nation had all experienced and overcame the hardship that was Y2K. Millions of hardworking Americans had only one goal that New Year’s Eve, survive the end of the world and then riot. Maybe even do some pillaging and looting with their neighbors. Alas, there were no blackouts, no chaos and no riots that day or any day after. Things kept going on just as they had and we were forced to continue purchasing the goods and services we needed with our own money.
It was a tough year.
The reason why I specifically remember meeting Michael Jackson on a Tuesday was because on Tuesdays I always went jogging, and I hate to jog. At first I tried jogging on Mondays but that was brutal. Mondays were tough back then because I should have found a job, or at least started looking for one. We, the next generation of slackers and the unemployed, had moved out of our college dreams and into the harsh dilapidated apartment that is the real world. The days of spending a random Thursday afternoon walking the Staten Island Mall were coming to an end. You couldn’t call your friends up and drive to Great Adventure on a Wednesday morning without feeling like a deadbeat. Our legs were getting fitted for the shackles that would be chained to the radiator that was the 9 to 5. All we had left were the weekends and that brief time became a symbolic reminder of the freedom we all possessed on an every day basis a short time ago. Now we had to deal with the hat trick of horrors; the pressure of finding a job, bills and college debt.
Anyway, I had decided a couple of weeks earlier to jog every Tuesday down at Gateway Park on Hylan Boulevard. I had learned a long time ago that my body was not designed by the good Lord above to jog more than one day a week, so I took that singular opportunity to push my mortal frame to the limit. Every Tuesday, I would leave my house on Cortelyou Avenue, drive the fifteen minutes to the park and then spend twenty minutes looking for a good parking spot.
I am well aware that the simple act of parking is no great feat. Millions do so everyday, in various parking lots, driveways and shady back alleys all over the world. However, there is a certain art to parking, especially when doing so inside a popular and well-frequented state park.
For some, the obvious answer is to either find a spot at the front of the park or a spot all the way at the end of the park. The problem with that strategy is two-fold. First, no matter what you planned on doing that day, whether it was jogging, Frisbee, fishing or creepily gawking at the girls on rollerblades, you had to walk thousands of miles to get to the right spot. Then, once the activity is finished, you had to walk the many miles back to your car.
To me this made no sense.
I was already going to use my maximum amount of allotted steps for that day in the leisurely pursuit of jogging. To waste those precious foot movements strolling would only complicate the activity. Therefore, I would drive to the middle of Gateway Park, by the marina and perform that famous ritual known as the “Are You Getting Out Dance?”
The Dance is an art handed down from generation to generation. The slow crawl as your car paces a possible candidate. The awkward eye contacts as you try to reassure them that you aren’t a kidnapper. The involuntary hand gestures and stammering as you ask,
“Are you getting out?”
Followed by either the sad shake of a head or a smile and a gesture to a vague point in the distance twenty miles down the road. The ritual was completed as you drove in the general direction they pointed and hoped you guessed right, or else someone else would steal your precious spot and then it was back to the beginning and another twenty minutes of lost time.
Eventually, my car would find a new temporary home and I could accomplish the task I had come there to do. On my first day I learned there were two types of joggers in this world — the Casual Jogger and the Staten Island Jogger. The Casual Jogger, of which I belonged, was an idiot savant of sorts. We didn’t plan ahead and wear comfortable clothing. Instead, our members frequently wore some type of t-shirt with a name brand on the front and a pair of jeans. There was no foresight as to how we would deal with the inevitable sweating problem. We would simply fling the sweat from our foreheads and eyes, sometimes splashing children or inadvertently killing a goose. Our sneakers weren’t designed for the pounding of the pavement. In fact, some of our lesser members even wore dress shoes.
For the record, my Reebok sneakers worked just fine. They might have needed some duct tape for stability, but if I’ve learned anything it’s that duct tape makes a fashion statement.
Conversely, you have the Staten Island Jogger.
The Staten Island Jogger is a unique subspecies all to itself. First, they spend hundreds of dollars on expensive track uniforms, designed for maximum jogability. Yes, not only is that a word, but if played correctly you can effectively end any Scrabble game by throwing down those letters. Their headbands are made from actual snakes killed inside Gateway Park. To maintain high quality, the snakes are caught from behind and suffocated using petite handkerchiefs. Next, they are fastened around the forehead with a little help from old friend double-sided tape. You can adjust the tightness by shoving more of the snake’s body inside its mouth, preventing any semblance of sweat from reaching your precious eyes.
At the time there were no iPods, so the Staten Island Jogger would fasten their portable cd player to their belt using a complicated knotting method invented by Polynesian sailors looking to cross the Pacific. On these compact discs were the classics, Heart, Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks. Apparently, Staten Island scientists had determined that female vocalists increased your heart rate and gave you the ultimate runner’s high. After all, who can deny not going that extra mile when listening to Stevie Nicks belting out the chorus of, “Edge of Seventeen?”
If you ever encounter the Staten Island Jogger, my first tip would be to always project confidence. Above all else, show no fear. The Staten Island Jogger can be aggressive with those they feel they can push around and intimidate. If startled, they have been known to throw an unpadded elbow directly into your nasal cavity and call it a day. They are also not afraid to run you over if you don’t concede the path. If you do ever get run over by a Staten Island Jogger do not expect them to apologize or offer their hand in an act of contrition. Certainly don’t expect them to slow down or even look back. They’re like the wind, and we all know you can’t catch the wind, baby. If you ever have a conversation with them be sure to keep it brief. Their time is more important than yours, the common folk. And for God’s sake, whatever you do make sure you thank them at the end of your chat for wasting their precious time.
The last piece of advice I can offer is to never correct them. I cannot stress this enough. Whatever they say is Gospel, just take it to the bank and cash it. To even insinuate that their thoughts, beliefs or general opinions may be flawed in any way shape or form is nothing short of a death wish. My late Uncle Dennis (he has a problem with punctuality) once corrected a Staten Island Jogger regarding the time of day. The police found his body three days later in the Marina. It was not a pretty sight.
So there I was, jogging on a Tuesday afternoon in July. I can vividly recall how hot the day was. You could fry an eye egg on a grill, serve it with some green peppers, cheddar cheese and a side of whole-wheat toast and then hope for a twenty-percent tip. The sweat wouldn’t stop pouring down my face, due to the lack of a dead snake around my forehead. My jeans stuck to my saturated thighs and I cursed myself for squatting 380 the other day at the gym.
I was jogging that day down the path helpfully created by the Parks Department of New York City when I noticed something in the Marina reflecting off the water. I moved over to the railing to get a closer look while at the same time continuing to jog in place. After all, the key to this whole jogging thing is to keep an elevated heart rate. I’m no doctor but I do know that if you suddenly stop jogging after twenty minutes your body can flood your aortic cavity with enough lactic acid to cause a ventricle or an aorta to shut down. This can lead to multiple scenarios, none of which are pleasant.
The first is a heart attack.
The second is a stroke.
And the third is diabetes.
Like I said, knowing this I continued to jog in place while I looked out into the marina to see what it was that was causing the reflection.
Despite my close proximity, I was still unsuccessful in determining what the object was. A thought came to mind to climb over the railing and lean in even closer. Then, I remembered that would cause me to stop jogging and could lead, in the best-case scenario, to diabetes so I immediately cast it from my mind. A second thought was to take a picture with my iPhone and see if I could increase the magnification. Then I remembered it was July of 2000 and all I had was a six-pound brick with a large antenna. Finally, I decided to ask the next person who came down the path. Perhaps their eyesight was more advanced and could solve the mystery.
So I waited.
And waited some more…
Finally, four minutes later a rather attractive Staten Island Jogger in her late thirties came down the path. Knowing what I know about the Staten Island Jogger I called out to her fifty feet before she reached me. The last thing I wanted to do was to startle her and get my nose broken. With a shout I said, “Excuse me, can you tell me what that is?” and I pointed out to the reflecting object.
The woman kept her pace, came over to where I was and took a quick glance.
“Oh I know what that is. That’s Michael Jackson.”
For a split second I went to correct her before common sense kicked in. You never correct a Staten Island Jogger. Instead I thanked her for wasting her precious time and she went back to the path. And that is the story of the time I met Michael Jackson.