The email was curt, and cryptic. A New York Post writer wanted help on a story about the rumpus outside Michael Jackson’s Santa Ynez home. His follow-up phone call was equally cloak-and-dagger: “Drive to 5225 Figueroa Mountain Road and call us when you get there.”
It was the one place on this gargantuan planet that I least wanted to spend my day. I had planned several leisurely hours of writing interrupted only by 37 visits to Facebook and a long-awaited lunch with a girlfriend who makes me giggle.
But here’s the truly awful thing about being a reporter: When there’s something to report, you must report it. It’s in the job description. It IS the job description.
So I report:
I spent 10 minutes getting ready. One minute to pack water, snacks, notepads, extra pens, sunscreen, a phone charger, laptop, and maps of the backcountry in case the roads were blocked and I had to hike in (no, of course I wouldn’t really have done it, but one must go through the motions so she can say she “tried”). And the remaining nine minutes figuring out what to wear.
When covering news events, it’s important to blend in with the folks you’re interviewing (unlike the poor TV reporters who, when cameras rolled, had to slip into blazers and slap on smiles in the 90-plus-degree heat). But shimmying into jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers, I realized I had no idea how to fit in among Jackson’s fans. People who brave Neverland’s chaos not for a paycheck or byline, but because they can’t imagine NOT being there, were an utter mystery to me.
And I rather wish they still were.
Rounding the bend to the rural estate, I gasped aloud when the idyllic cow-and-pasture vistas gave way to a full mile of news satellite vans parked end to end to no end.
A full day before the superstar’s family, and body, were expected at the ranch, news crews outnumbered visiting fans by at least three to one.
The sprawl emanated out from the property’s stately gates, adorned with wreaths of white roses. Despite the makeshift memorial of candles, bouquets, and personal (read: creepy) letters, the mood was congenial. A couple dozen Jackson devotees and pop culture junkies took orderly turns snapping photos in front of the gate.
Some were in town for weddings or vacations and couldn’t resist checking out this “once in a lifetime” event. Others were locals who trotted up in high heels on their lunch breaks.
The gates opened frequently, letting in a landscaping truck, letting out a storage truck, and allowing the guards — who were playing Jackson tunes from a stereo — to hand out bottled water to the crowd. But this was a hearty lot.
“I once waited 19-and-a-half hours in line for a ticket to see Michael Jackson in concert in Las Vegas,” said Julia Sullivan, 62, of Arroyo Grande. “I just loved the way he danced. I still have my VHS tapes of ‘Thriller.’ I watch them all the time.”
There was an exceptionally fit young woman in a bikini. An Indiana dog breeder with four leashed poodles. A couple of brooding teens in red pleather Jacko jackets. And then there was Aja Diaz of Oxnard, there for her 16th birthday. She was disappointed to discover she wouldn’t be able to see Jackson’s corpse.
“It kind of sucks,” she explained. “That’s, like, all I can say.” And it truly was.
“Big, big, huge fan” Paul Barron of Bellflower was at the infamous 1984 Pepsi commercial shoot when Jackson’s hair caught fire. And he visited the singer’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after hearing of his death last week.
“Time stopped,” said Barron, 56. He brought his teenage granddaughter Tiffany to Neverland to pay further respect.
“All the good ones,” lamented Tiffany, “are passing away.”
Farrah Fawcett and Karl Malden?
“Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes.”