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Nancy Bass Wyden Headshot

The Day I Met Michael Jackson

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I was sitting with a friend as she glanced at her BlackBerry, "Michael Jackson is dead," she read. Then she added, "This must be a joke from my friend." But a few seconds later her grandma sent her another text. "It must be true," she concluded.

What flashed through my mind was: "Wasn't he dead already...a long time ago?" It was a strange thought, because I had met Michael Jackson, however briefly, in the flesh. I watched as he sang to himself. I saw him be a father. I played with his kids and cooed at his newborn son. That was 7 years ago, Friday April 30th 2002.

Perhaps the reason I thought he had already died is that I remember watching him on the Ed Sullivan Show with my parents. He was cute as a button, lively with an Afro. But eventually I could no longer recognize that little boy. His ghostly white skin, hair that looks like a glossy wig, rosy lipstick on his mouth, hidden behind dark glasses and a surgical mask: he had become a stranger. I saw a picture of him lying in his oxygen tank, looking like a glass corpse. I remember a porcelain life-sized Jeff Koons sculpture of him that I saw in a museum. Don't they memorialize people that way after they die? His existence had turned into myth as he retreated into a bubble; didn't he show up to court in his pj's? He was a prince; he was an icon; he was Peter Pan; he lived in Neverland.

It all started mysteriously.

I received a phone call in the afternoon. The husky voice said, "I am representing a VIP who would like to come to the Strand." (The Strand is a bookstore that was founded 82 years ago by my grandfather and is run by my dad and me.) The voice continued, "I work for Michael Jackson. He would like to come to the store without customers around." I was directed not to tell anyone that Michael was coming. There was a contact telephone number at the New York Palace hotel, and I received updates from his representative throughout that day. It was decided he would come to the store at 10:30pm, after the Strand closes. And I kept the visit a secret, except to a few managers whom I asked to stay late with me; in turn I asked for their vow of secrecy.

By nightfall the air was swirling with electrical excitement. I piled copies of Moon Walk, Michael's memoir (edited by Jackie Onassis,) in the store for him to see. I remembered from reading it how kind his voice was as author.

And then there was Michael walking (not moon-walking) through the door of our third-floor rare books department. His skin was bleached white, he had orange rouge on his lips and his hair was straight. But he was still Michael. I had watched him grow up.

The first thing Michael said when he walked into the room was, "Are there any cameras?" I said no. I knew that ruled out my having a picture taken with him; I had brought a camera just in case. I felt his paranoia. I could hear the crowd shouting at street level "We love you, Michael!" He asked that I pull down all the shades in the oversized windows. I was later told that some fans were climbing the gates that protect the store windows.

Despite my conscientious effort to keep this event a secret on Michael's behalf, somehow news had spread. But how did they find out? Maybe because Michael and his entourage were traveling in a motorcade that included a huge white stretch limousine, a white stretch Lincoln and a black Suburban truck. I was told that they had just come from Times Square. The curious onlookers must have followed them, and word got out.

In filed his entourage: two security guards, three nurses all dressed in crisp white uniforms, and four children varying in age, some Hispanic, some African-American. There was such a sweetness to Michael in how he interacted with them. They seemed like nice, polite, appreciative kids; I wondered if he took them under his wing because they'd had a hard life.

Then there were his beautiful children; they looked like magical Disney characters. They seemed as doll-like as their names: Paris and Prince Michael I. Both were dressed in matching royal blue velvet. Paris, who was 4 years old, was wearing a tiara with diamonds, like a real princess. Prince Michael, 5 years old, had straight blond hair cut in a page-boy; Paris had flowing brown hair and big blue eyes. Their skin was pure white...they looked Scandinavian. The effect was adorable: I wanted to keep them, to take them home.

I knew he covered them with shawls when cameras were around, and he did so when he later continued his shopping downstairs. Draped in cloth, his children walked around looking like Cousin It from the Addams family. The kids seemed well adjusted. We gave them a wind-up doll of a tan dog in a red bow tie and a suit, and they played on the wooden floor. Prince Michael brought over an oversized book on collectable toys, barely able to carry it. He said in the cutest little voice; "Dad, can I have this" Michael lovingly smiled and asked if he was going to read it. He replied, "Yes."

One nurse was holding an adorable newly born baby with dark hair. I hadn't heard that Michael had three children nor was it public knowledge at the time. I wondered if Michael had a new baby, or could the child be borrowed? Months later, I found out that he was Prince Michael II.

Michael picked out a young Hispanic employee to help him. He had his name, Jesus, written in black magic marker on his plastic oval Strand name tag. I would think this was the thrill of the young man's life. Michael handed the books that he wanted to buy to Jesus, who then gave it to us in a basket to be sent to the cash register to be added and packed. Occasionally, Michael had requests. He wanted books on black folk music, books by Roald Dahl (including James and the Giant Peach), and something on Versailles. I would send my troops to look for the books and hand the findings to Jesus. On a previous visit, my dad had helped him, and he picked out books on Howard Hughes, dictionaries and first edition children's books.

Of course, I'm fond of anyone that shares my love of books, and I was impressed with Michael's selection. He sang quietly to himself and focused on photography and art books for a while, climbing on a ladder when necessary. All told, he spent $6,000 in books and allowed anyone in his group to take books. Although the people in his entourage did choose some, they did not seem as excited about shopping for books.

Michael was hands off when it came to the transaction. I asked a security guard about getting paid when they were nearing the end. He handed me a cell phone, and I was given a credit card number, in a different person's name. The next day a black town car was dispersed to pick up Michael's purchases, all packed in doubled shopping bags.

Michael and his entourage piled in the cars and, despite his desire for secrecy, his paranoid nature, you could tell he loved his fans waving and yelling, and he told them that he loved them. He craved love just like the rest of us, or maybe even more so.

It was after midnight. They had been at the Strand for 2 hours. Michael's security guard told me their next stop was FAO Schwartz, which like the Strand was open just for them. I felt like jumping with excitement, and thought to myself, I want to go with them. I wanted to be a kid again. I didn't want to stay in a crammed bookstore worrying about personnel, inventory, customer complaints. I WANT TO HAVE FUN. I want to shop for toys and dance on the giant piano like Tom Hanks did in the movie Big. I want to ride in the big white limousine with Michael and the kids bopping to loud music. I want to follow Tinkerbell, be sprinkled with fairy dust, open the window, and fly through the night sky.

But 7 years later, I now have kids and I read them fairy tales. And as we all know, fairy tales can also have a dark side. Even Peter Pan said, "To die will be an awfully big adventure."