Like most, I have my strong opinions about the enigmatic King of Pop(ularity), also known as Michael Jackson, who died in Los Angeles yesterday of apparent cardiac arrest. He was 50. But today, I prefer to recall the impact he had on me, long before I was old enough to develop a healthy amount of cynicism or rational thought. In remembering the little anecdote below, I'm realizing the magnitude, resonance and influence of this icon--far beyond what my mind would allow me to accept today. His popularity transcended generations, ethnicities, religions and borders. As Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach aptly put it, "At his best, he was the best."
In the summer of 1983, all that mattered to a young Ecuadorian 8-year-old boy growing up in Miami was a red pleather jacket with thick shoulder pads and a bunch of zippers. The jacket hung prominently at the nearby Kmart. For some context, back then, you never, ever admitted shopping at Kmart. If your parents took you there, you ducked in and out hoping no one saw you. If you were unfortunate enough to run into a classmate, there was an understood, mutual vow of silence. One time, my mom made the mistake of packing my lunch in a Kmart plastic bag. To make a long story short, it took two years and moving from elementary to middle school to dispel the notion that I was a cheapskate.
But now I had a reason--a very, very good reason--to risk being caught in a Kmart: Michael Jackson's "Beat It" jacket. I already had the black moccasins, the white socks, the flood water black slacks and a blue T-shirt with some iron-on image on the front. All I needed was the jacket. It dawns on me now how a young boy that was utterly self-conscious about shopping at Kmart didn't have the least bit of reservation about being a tan-skinned Latino dressing up like an eccentric African American pop star. Nevermind that the red jacket hung in the women's department. The reason, of course: everybody was doing it. Back then, everyone wanted to be Michael Jackson. And at the age of 8, one rule overode all fashion sense: fitting in. To be like, to dress like, to sing like and to look like Michael Jackson was cool.
Around the same time, I knew if I saved my allowance for a few months I could purchase the G.I. Joe hovercraft, retailed at $24.99 plus tax. So hip was it to be like this Mike, that the hovercraft would have to wait. I saved and saved and saved. I don't recall how much the jacket cost, but I remember wanting it more than anything else. When fashion trumps a cool military toy with all the bells and whistles, that should tell you something. My parents were usually supportive of these capricious, childhood wants, as long as my two brothers and I understood how hard it was to earn a buck. But in this case, they pressed the parental override button and didn't let me get my way. Surely, they must have realized how ridiculous it would have been for me to parade around looking like Michael Jackson. Surely, they were looking out for my best interest because they knew that 8 year olds don't need much ammunition to be awfully mean. Of course, they failed to realize that Michael Jackson WAS the norm. NOT being like Michael Jackson was standing out. NOT having the red jacket or knowing how to moonwalk was a reason to mock someone.
A few months later my Aunt Cece from Chicago had sown some sparkling beads on a pair of white gloves. I got the right glove for my birthday and my cousin Bobby got the left one. I didn't have the jacket, but I had the glove. And for the time being I was cool again. I was a normal 8 year old in 1983.
This piece was also published in La Banda Elástica.