Perilous Isolation: The Very L.A. Death of Michael Jackson

What happened to Michael Jackson could only happen in LA, a city where elegant, moneyed suburbia, and its favorite accessory and most insidious symptom -- the elaborately gated community -- isolate its residents.
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However one feels about the passing of Michael Jackson - international superstar, childhood hero, or childhood thief - here's what I can't help believing: His death would not have occurred, not in the same way (taking speeding taxis into account) had he lived in Manhattan.

What happened to Michael Jackson could only happen in Los Angeles - a city where elegant, moneyed suburbia, and its favorite accessory and most insidious symptom - the elaborately gated community - isolate its residents. Eventually, it was his isolation that ruined his life, that attracted those who could further isolate him, that killed him.

Holmby Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, and the Palisades Riviera are star-studded hillsides where residents live as cloistered as Buddhist monks in a Himalayan retreat. But Buddhist monks have each other. And stars have...personal anesthesiologists, personal trainers, personal masseuses, personal stylists - all paid companions. Have you noticed almost all of Jackson's "close friends" were on the payroll?

That is why, if I were truly a personal friend (i.e. not the hair stylist or celebrity "lifeologist"), I would tell my best friend/movie star to leave Los Angeles and the siren call of "20,000 square feet with 360 degree views" immediately. Abandon year-round sunny climes and go where winter is slushy and summer is one long, sweat drip: New York City.

My boyfriend and I have an ongoing argument. He grew up in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from Madison Square Garden, but loves Los Angeles. He loves the weather, the right on red -- and the personal space. He hates New York with its $2,400 Yankee tickets and hedgefund managers who once knew better than to buy on "his" side of town. On the other hand, I grew up on the East Side (the wrong side) of Hollywood, but lived for many years in that estate on top of the hill; I have issues with too much space. Recently, I moved from my lush, beautiful neighborhood so chock-full of stars homes that one of the few vehicles I'd see on its wide, empty roads (there are no sidewalks) were white Starline "Mini-Buses" bursting with tourists looking for movie stars. Mine was a secluded compound situated over three acres. It also had a gate. And a long driveway. At night, the setting was pitch black and quiet. I felt frightened whenever I put my children to bed. If I screamed, who would hear? Certainly not a neighbor. When had I last seen one? Maybe the coyotes.

Twice my younger son had allergic reactions that warranted emergency responses; the paramedics were delayed - they'd had trouble finding my home. The outside world, pushed away by affluence, couldn't help us. My son's life, in this world behind gates, was in jeopardy.

We all ended up sleeping in the same room for months.

Where there is a congested metropolis, there are neighbors - people who aren't paid companions living in close quarters. With people comes eyes and ears. Your neighbors can hear you, can see you. Can complain to the super about you. Can and will call the cops on you.

How about this? If you're one of the wealthy few, like Jackson, a doorman will keep an eye on you, and your packages, and your visitors.

It's true that too much access can be dangerous. John Lennon was shot outside his home, the Dakota (Rebecca Schaeffer met the same terrible end in Los Angeles.) But there's the general feeling when one sees a celebrity on the street in New York, he or she is attempting to live life in a normal way, and that decision should be respected. In Soho, where I lived for six months when I was writing my latest novel, "Queen Takes King", I often spotted celebrities. John Turturro reading the paper at a sidewalk café. Woody Allen, back in the day, scurrying along the street, hands deep in his pockets. Famke Jannsen walking her Boston Terrier. Uma Thurman, Julianne Moore or Liv Tyler at a neighborhood park with their children. Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker dining a deux. Spike Lee sauntering, alone and recognized, yet comfortable, through a crowd of people.

I've lived in Los Angeles all of my life - I have never seen a celebrity walking a dog, or reading a newspaper. Never. Michael Jackson couldn't have hidden his face (and his children's faces) behind germ masks in Manhattan. He would have been called out in a second. I can't help but think he'd have been a happier, healthier guy if only he'd been able to walk to the bodega.

Little Michael Jackson was the first boy I ever loved. My three sisters and I argued almost every afternoon over which Jackson we'd marry. I picked Michael and stuck with him through thick and thin, although I thought Marlon could be a contender, and Jermaine was the most handsome of the five boys. The album was ABC and the four of us danced in our shared bedroom as innocently as he sang. Albums were a big deal in our house - we weren't the kids whose parents peeled off twenties for their children to buy records on Aron's on Highland or Tower Records on Sunset. The Levangie Family record "collection" only held the nearest and dearest - The Beatles, and we played each album into oblivion. The vinyl was warped, the records scratched. There wasn't a cover that wasn't mangled. The Jackson Five ABC, though, remained pristine. "ABC", "La La I Love You", the magnificent "The Love You Save" were played over and over on our pink and white record plastic player - and pity my seven-year-old self if I was ever careless dropping the needle.

The Beatles were out of our reach. They were older, more sophisticated. Paul, George, John and Ringo would not be knocking on my door, a spray of fresh daisies in hand, asking to marry me. They had already discovered meditation, psychedelics and Yoko. And the boys in my neighborhood didn't look like the Fab Four - they looked like, well, the Jacksons.

Besides, Michael was close to my age. In my feverish imagination, I thought it possible he had chosen not to have a girlfriend; that he was waiting for me, the chubby, brown-haired girl who understood him. I didn't think about the fact that he'd never even had a childhood, much less puppy love. (Though it was Donny Osmond who sang of Puppy Love, his voice strained for the high notes Michael Jackson attained effortlessly. The Osmonds were the soul-free brothers. Though they seemed nice and certainly had paid their dental bills, we couldn't even pretend to want to marry them. We wouldn't waste our allowances on their music.)

Smash cut to my 40s - after two divorces, two children, a full family life and career - and the shiny age of downloading. I rediscovered my childhood "boyfriend". Michael sang to me from my iTouch, reaching out across years, disappointments, triumphs, and other loves found and lost. He reached out while I cried. He made me dance in the mornings with my children as I'd done with my sisters; he made me happy.

I blame him - and give him credit for helping me fall in love again, with the sportswriter from Manhattan, thanks to the frank encouragement of "Maybe Tomorrow" and a slow dance that still, a year and a half later, lingers, shimmering and sweet in my mind.

My children love young Michael Jackson's music - they don't know of this other, post-Thriller Michael. My little one looked at his picture in the paper the day after he died and insisted that the "white girl" on the front page couldn't be Michael Jackson.

He was, I told him, another version of that boy he knows; little Michael Jackson had still been in him, somewhere.

As much as it pains me to say this: Michael Jackson, whoever he was, whoever he became, never had a chance in my city.