*Shonda can tell you exactly where she was when the news broke on June 25, 2009. “I was on the 405 Freeway, leaving L.A., on my way to my mom’s in the [San Fernando] Valley,” recalled the 35 year-old dental technician.
“Just before I got to my exit, a car with two hood rats–real, big, ‘hard’ menacing guys that looked like gang-bangers–drove up in the lane to my left. The passenger rolled down his window and started with the “Hey, baby” crap. On the freeway.
“I was listening to talk radio and the man stopped taking calls to say, “We’re getting word that singer Michael Jackson has died.” At that point, my subconscious took over, because I don’t remember getting off the freeway or driving into the parking lot of a supermarket, but I did. I let my window down for air, ’cause I thought I was going to faint.
“I was sitting there in a daze, listening to what they were saying, and here come those gang looking guys, pulling up in the space next to me. I guess they followed me. The one guy starts back up with the ‘Hey, baby’ mess, but I was just gone, in a trance. I turned to them and said, ‘Michael Jackson just died.’
“The guy talking stuff said, ‘WHAT?! You’re bullshittin’ me….’ I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t crying yet but the look on my face must have said it all, ’cause just like that,” snapping her fingers, “the one behind the wheel started crying. Like somebody flipped a switch. I mean, wailing. He didn’t know if what I said was true or not. Just the words did it to him.
“His friend put his arm around his shoulder and was trying to console him. And then I started crying, too. It was the three of us–these two big scary looking guys sitting in their car and me in mine–all of us crying.
“Whatever they were up to, they forgot all about that. It was about Michael. I remember this tiny old lady walking by, pulling a little wire basket of groceries. She heard us crying and looked up. I’m sure she wondered what the hell, you know, these people balling their eyes out in the parking lot. She got this pained expression on her face. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’ she kept saying. ‘Whatever it is, I’m really sorry, children.'”
Darren, a 27 year-old ATT&T rep in Dallas, was on the phone with a customer when she informed him. “She was Chatty Cathy at first. Then she stopped and said, ‘Oh, dear.’ Somebody in the background told her and she told me. I said, ‘Oh my God!’ I didn’t care if the job was recording me. I was professional, but I was losing my mind. I didn’t know if I should believe her because there’s always rumors about him. My supervisor knew how I felt about Michael, and told me to take my break early.”
Mr. Milligan 63, a businessman on a flight to New York City, was over New Mexico when the captain announced it to passengers. “He was careful not to spook us. With terrorism going on, you don’t know what they’re going to say. He started with, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’re enjoying the flight, we’ve got clear skies ahead.’ Then he said, ‘I was just informed a few minutes ago that entertainer Michael Jackson has passed away….’
“There was a collective groan in the cabin. You didn’t have to love the guy to feel bad about it. The TV system had gone down temporarily, so we couldn’t get any details. At 35,000 feet, you’re isolated from the world. It’s just you and the other passengers. All we knew is what the pilot told us. The minute we landed, people made phone calls and stood around the TVs in the terminal.”
When news of Michael Jackson’s death broke, a 40-something woman I’ll call Marsha told me she was sitting at the dining room table with her husband, informing him that after 12 years of marriage, she wanted a divorce.
“CNN was on in the kitchen. We were talking. Then we were screaming and then crying and talking. This was about the divorce. I was getting worked up again, when on TV I noticed a crowd outside UCLA Medical Center. I thought it was a protest. Then I read the scroll under the picture and turned up the sound. That stopped us cold. I felt like the events of my day couldn’t have gone crazier.
“Frankly, I wasn’t a big Michael fan. When I was a just a child I used to dance to Gloria Gaynor’s version of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” I liked their version, too. But I didn’t pay attention to his other music.
“It sounded impossible, somebody that big, suddenly dead. You don’t expect it. My husband came to my end of the table and pulled me up from my seat and we hugged for a long time. He said, ‘The world is going crazy, honey. We need to do the right thing.’
“I’m thinking, he’s right; this truly is a sign. Michael Jackson was alive the night before and that afternoon he was gone. I told myself I wouldn’t spend another second of my life not trying to do the right thing. I have to get out of this marriage right now.”
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]