I remember Michael Alig

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Michael Alig standing
Michael Alig

My encounters with the Party Monster were brief but memorable

It can’t be overstated, 2020 was a year full of hardship and heartbreak for so many of us. I feel incredibly blessed that my closest friends and loved ones are all safely here in 2021.

I was unable to cross the finish line completely unscathed, though—in December, three people I cared about died in swift succession, and not from the Coronavirus. Two succumbed to cancer, one to an overdose.

The latter was Michael Alig.

Like many who were far too young in the 90s to party, I was unaware of the so-called “party monster” and ringleader of the club kids until his much-publicized release from prison in May 2014, having served 17 years for his part in the gruesome, drug-fueled murder of Angel Melendez.

When I learned the details of what happened that horrible night in 1996—Michael Musto has famously chronicled all that preceded it, as well as the shocking aftermath, so there is no need for me to do so here—I was both repulsed and fascinated. How could something that started out innocent enough—a group of disenfranchised young gay people in the age of “Vogue” asserting their flamboyance, setting trends, subverting the patriarchy and partying like there was no tomorrow (it was the age of AIDS, so this was a distinct possibility)—come to such a horrible, bloody end?

How could such a fabulous time in New York nightlife—one that elevated RuPaul, no less— finish in pure misery?

I watched a documentary about Michael’s life and times. It centered around the heady highs and terrible crash of the Club Kids. He essentially created the era with his youthful ambition only to destroy it with his crime. I saw a new interview he gave to the Huffington Post. He not only seemed genuinely remorseful, with no resemblance whatsoever to the drug-addled hellion of the documentary, but determined to prove he was worthy of a second chance.

The culture shock of having been away from his adopted city was evident—this was 2014, and he had been locked up since 1996, before Will and Grace and Queer as Folk. The last time he saw New York, Clinton was President, the World Trade Center towers stood, Brooklyn wasn’t filled with hipsters munching avocado toast and Time’s Square hadn’t become a family fun center with M&M’s World and endless Duane Reades.

I couldn’t shake what I saw in comments from the social media peanut gallery (another rude awakening for him, no doubt) wishing Michael death and despair. Many said he should never be allowed to see the light of day again. I felt certain that the man I saw in that interview was far from evil, and after all, the system had dealt with him and punished him accordingly. Wasn’t he entitled to a second chance? Hadn’t he already been judged?

Michael Alig painting
Michael Alig was an artist. Here he is painting a large piece for a show.

My instinct for rescuing people is a subject for another time. I tried to counteract some of the negative comments by sending Michael a note of support, wishing him luck. I mentioned that I was the furthest thing from someone who would have been one of his acolytes back in the day. I’ve never touched drugs, am not one to party, and have never been energized by crowds. But if he ever wanted someone without an agenda to talk to, he was welcome to say hello any time. To my surprise, he responded with a courteous, articulate e-mail. I offered to treat him to lunch and he gladly accepted. He suggested IHOP. That was fine with me.

When I arrived at our meeting spot I saw a wan figure in a McDonald’s T-shirt. I was only sure it was him when he greeted me with a tentative hug. He had such a youthful air and complexion that one would never guess he was in his late 40s.

He was very much a pleasure to spend time with. I can’t remember what we ordered. I do remember that he was sincere, candid, made no excuse for any of his past behavior, told me of his hopes for the future, and shared what he found fascinating and disconcerting about the very changed world he was suddenly allowed to rejoin. There wasn’t a trace of megalomania or narcissism in what he said, and he seemed so determined to change his life for the better that I admired his resolve and said so.

Michael Alig with Skroddlebear
Michael Alig with Skroddlebear from Facebook

We discussed our mutual love of Karen Carpenter, and I gave him a teddy bear that he adored and promptly named Skroddlebear. We wished each other well and parted ways.

A few weeks after that first meeting he invited me over to his friend’s apartment (where he was living) for “drinkie poos” and I might have accepted, but had another obligation and couldn’t make it.

For the next few years I tapped him on the shoulder now and then. His replies were friendly and sometimes mentioned Skroddlebear.

Although we did the “let’s do lunch” thing a few times, it never came to fruition beyond IHOP. When Michael told me he was hosting Monday night parties at a club (he invited me to come, mentioning he could put me on a special list and that there was an open bar) I was dismayed that he seemed to be under the delusion that he could capitalize on his previous identity and use it to become a party promoter once again. It was not only unhealthy, but unseemly, and he sounded more like someone who needed attention than a friend.

The idea of being in a room full of people, none of whom I knew except for him, all vying for his attention, many of them probably of impure intent, with Michael unable to recognize the difference, sounded like hell on Earth to me. I have since read that what happened at those club nights was even sadder than what I imagined.

Michael was also involved with several artistic projects. A few of the projects turned up in news articles, others he mentioned to me. He always had projects I learned about either from news articles or directly from him, all of which capitalized on his notoriety. It irritates me in general when people think they deserve attention when they have a marginal skill set. Michael was a gifted painter, but it seemed especially tone-deaf given what he was most known-for at this point was not his time as a cultural trendsetter, but being a convicted murderer. I thought it showed a startling lack of empathy for those he hurt with his crime.

His public remarks demonstrated a slipping grasp on reality

Some of his endeavors and public remarks demonstrated a slipping grasp on reality. Outward grandiosity hid insecurity. He also returned to drug use and made a rare headline he didn’t like when arrested once again. It’s easy to see why people think he was not thoroughly remorseful for Angel’s murder, though I’m sure he was.

Now that I’m a little wiser, I see none of his behavior should have surprised me. Michael knew no other identity. The wheels were spinning.

Looking out from my window as a four-year-old, watching boats on the bay, the skyline of the city not far behind, I couldn’t have known that Michael Alig was a glittering prince there, holding court for his subjects night after night. I don’t think he ever properly grieved the loss of those glory days of his youth. Fully accepting they would not return seemed an impossibility for him, the final aspect of his tragedy.

After a brief Facebook exchange in 2017 where he took days between replies, he never did read my last remarks, and that was that. Between auditions, myriad background work, precious time spent with friends and a serious relationship that came and went, I lost track of Michael, as we often do with acquaintances who don’t make any particular effort to keep in touch.

“I had let him know I would be there to listen if he ever said hello, didn’t I?”

I was sad to learn after his death that things became so dire for Michael that he was sometimes homeless in the last few years, at one point bouncing from couch to couch by befriending men on Grindr. Apparently his demons caught up with him as opportunities dwindled. I hope he’s finally at peace. I don’t think, in the end, he would ever have found it in his own skin.

I wish I could honor the part of myself that had an instinct for self-protection and let Michael recede from my life. I’m working on that. I feel bad that I hadn’t been in touch… but then, I had let him know I would be there to listen if he ever said hello, didn’t I?

After his death, I read a journalist quoting Michael saying, given one wish, he’d go back to being a baby and start all over again.

Maybe now he will get that chance.

There is one thing I do know—what Michael did was monstrous, but he was no monster.