My Meeting With Michael Alig At Elmira Correctional Yesterday

This Mayan thing right in the middle of Christmas shopping is very annoying. I’m messengering everything just in case. Fed-Ex might not do. On the other hand, I think I only know one Mayan. He’s an actual priest and and lives in Guatemala. I saw him in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago and he assured us that we "had nothing to worry about." But then again, he doesn’t speak much English so maybe he was telling us something completely different like "the end is near so there’s nothing to hurry about." I’m not believing this end of the world stuff, but I am finding myself peeking up at the sky a bit more often lately and I haven’t been putting money aside for January’s rent.

Speaking of world’s end and such, yesterday I visited that good ol’ party monster and dear friend Micheal Alig at his place of confinement: Elmira Correctional Facility. I hadn’t visited Mike in a minute. His last address was 12 hours away and that meant overnight stays at cheap motels and I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. Elmira is a mere 4 1/2 hours away. I stayed up from the night before and depended on my nightlife stamina and sugar-free Red bull to get me there and back again. 

We started out arguing as we often do. He was upset at me for believing the last charge he caught which guaranteed his parole denial and a life spent mostly in solitary. In retrospect, the concept of Michael smoking pot is ludicrous. He hated the stuff, always opting for the more sensational. 

He has used his isolation well. He looks better than he ever has…a major concern for him. He has lost close to 50 pounds and has been working out like a fitness model in a late-night info-mercial. He showed me his six pack and his bulging biceps. His mind is sharp. He is making art and refining his book Aligula. When I’m with him he picks my brain for clarification of events of yore and people’s names as he is striving that this tome be an accurate account of his era. He will have a chance to join the living as early as this year if the cards fall right and the Mayan thing doesnt get in the way. 

Michael has media projects in mind and a good attitude. He is genuinely remorseful and ready and willing to do all he can to right as many of his past wrongs as possible. He understands that Angel will still be dead and that he can’t expect to ever crawl out from that. He understands that a whole lot of good-doing won’t get him close to even. But it’s been 15 years and the man who is eventually coming out is not the same as the one who pranced in. I believe in Michael and think that a great deal of his story is still ahead of him.

I traveled and visited with Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., a sociologist at Hofstra University. Victor teaches courses on culture and gender. He earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia and a B.A. in sociology from Yale. His work is available here. He is currently writing a book that traces a social and aesthetic lineage from the Warhol Superstars to the Club Kids and the current generation of performers, artists, and nightlife personas in New York. In addition to ethnographic research, he has interviewed Warhol Superstars like Jane Forth and Ultra Violet, former Club Kids like Walt Cassidy and Zaldy, and current nightlife stars like Darian Darling and Ladyfag, among many others.

Victor was a great person to have in a car for nine hours of driving. He picked my Red Bull-racing brain to better understand the feel of what happened back then and who the players were. It’s impossible for any individual to grasp or define a huge scene that was taking place in numerous clubs during numerous nights. The scene was 24 hours, with real work being done during work hours. Most pedestrians believe that nightlife just happens; no, nightlife is planned, adjusted, tweaked, and theorized in offices during the day. Operators diagnose mistakes or think of ways to support successes while the sun is up. People are hired and fired, and concepts are floated. 

I was part of that inner circle – as was Michael. During those meetings, the supreme leader of the so-called Club Kids was a formidable brain and contributor to business meetings…although sometimes he would get up and pee in a cup right in front of everyone. I had always thought of Andy Warhol as the second coming. I believed at that time that Michael might be the 3rd. I still have hope. He claims he has a zillion ideas that will blow my mind. He is ultra-aware of our culture, despite being locked away in very dark places for so very long. He has never used a computer or cellphone, but has absorbed our world through magazines and information sent to him from his ever-loyal followers.

Victor and I spent a great deal of time debating Michael’s role with his fans. I have always preached that Michael must avoid his cult followers and embrace friends who can help him further his art and establish a positive media presence. The Michael I visited yesterday was sharp and focused on the important things of his future. I told him I believed he is finally ready to join the living.

Visiting Michael Alig In Prison: His Past, Present, & Soon-To-Be Future

I visited Michael Alig at the place of his incarceration: Elmira, N.Y. It’s about a four-hour drive unless you stop at Friendly’s or Dobb’s Country Kitchen to commiserate with locals. On the way, I stop a lot. I get gas. I buy cigarettes. I buy Redbulls, coffee, water… mixed nuts too. I pause to watch the rapid waters of the Susquehanna roll by. If I had seen roses on the way…I’d have stopped to smell them too. 

Part of me hesitates heading up to a joint. Elmira Correctional Facility is nice compared to other such places. Even the concertina wire and steel gates seem less foreboding than at Coxsackie or Rikers or the other places where Michael has been rehabilitating over the last 16 years. It’s been 16 years. 

Jeter was Rookie of the Year when this started. The Taliban had just taken Kabul. Tupac had just died. The O.J. trial had begun. Braveheart was best picture. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was caught. The Summer Olympics was in Atlanta, and Yassar Arafat and the Israelis dropped the removal of each other as a plan. Peace seemed at hand. Clinton was president and some people were talking Whitewater. A cloned sheep named Dolly was the buzz, and Motorola introduced it’s easy-to-handle StarTAC cellphone. The world was changing fast as Michael was forced to slow down.

Michael went in an asshole, a murderer, an out-of-control drug maniac. I had long stopped being a friend. He needed to be locked up. His world of wonder, glamour, glitz, destruction, and self destruction ended the hard way. Michael rarely chose the easy way. His moment in the sun has been filmed and written about and discussed in magazines and on the world wide web, which he has yet to experience firsthand. 

People tweet for him, spewing out his snarky, daring, and eyebrow-raising takes on everything. He is very prolific. He has a lot of time on his hands. He paints a lot. He sent me home with a bunch of good ones. He has become an artist while inside. The guard at the desk on the way out told me "we have a lot of artists in here." There’s some sort of scandal going on with some of his paintings. I’ll get to it soon, but want the opportunity to talk to "Mary" who allegedly sold some of Michael’s work, claiming they belonged to her. Life has taught me that there are at least two sides to every story. 

Michael looks better than ever. I met him back in ’83 when he was a busboy at Danceteria. He threw some small parties and rose quickly. Me and mine picnicked in Central Park with him and his. We took day trips to farm country, saw concerts at night. Drugs and the scandals that rocked our worlds would come later. We were very naive.

He is healthier now. Muscular and trim from working out in his spare time. Everything except working on his book, painting, and flirting is spare time in the joint. I am amazed at how focused and coherent he is. His incarceration seems to have rehabilitated him mentally as well. He laughs and tells tales of days of yore – the good days, not the chaos – and hate at the end. Everyone who meets with him or corresponds with him looks for remorse as a measure of the man who may soon join the living.

Around me, he is wholeheartedly remorseful. I believe in him fully, knowing that he knows remorse is the price of admission for a continued friendship with me. I wasn’t born yesterday and will judge Michael on his actions till our end. 

He is finishing a drug program aimed at preparing him for life in the real world. The real world is scary. He is worried how he will be viewed. When told "so and so" won’t want to see him again, he is visibly upset. The desire to have everyone love him which drove him to massive success and a massive crash and burn still runs deep. He needs to be loved and hates being hated almost as much as not being noticed. Although supremely informed about tech stuff, cell phones, social media, reality TV, and the internet – he has never experienced these things directly. 

We who love him for the most part understand him and fear the bombardment of food, sex, and media that awaits. I have a feeling on a possible release date, but will just cross my fingers and say a silent prayer. i don’t want to jinx it. Release is inevitable. There are those that will never accept his return to society. They have a right to their stance. They have lived for 16 years without Michael, but without Angel Melendez as well. 

A new life is Michael’s fate, while no such fate belongs to Angel.There will be books and films and TV shows. There will be interviews and public appearances. Someone is even trying to bring a musical about it all to Broadway. Those who haven’t been blessed with Michael and his charms will be made aware of them. 

Old friends and companions hopefully have outgrown the "old" Michael. The fans, zealots, and losers who worship at the old alter must not have a say. Michael will be lifted in a sea of attention. 

Will all this attention unleash the long-buried, controlled-by-incarceration Party Monster, or will the Michael I hung out with on visiting day with Victor Corona and Amanda Noa emerge? We’ll see.

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Fugees Producer John Forte On Performing at Tonight’s Gala and Serving Time

Tonight, The Fortune Society will throw a gala at the Trump Soho. One of the performers will be John Forte, known for his production of the Fugees and a fall from grace that ended with a 14-year prison sentence. He served seven years until George W. Bush, on his last day in office, commuted his sentence. John served time in Fort Dix Federal Correctional Facility, a sad place. I spent time in Schuylkill, another sad place. I made the most of it and came out a better person. I used my time to learn to write (a little), design a little, and prepare myself for a productive life. If not for friends, family, and business partners who believed in me, my return to society would not have been as easy. It wasn’t easy and life as you know it isn’t available to me. The simple things – like opening a bank account or renting an apartment – became huge obstacles to normalcy. There is the sentence you get from the judge and then there is the sentence society continually exacts beyond the time and fines. A person without a support system can find help with The Fortune Society.

Before his arrest and conviction, John Forte was VIP at my joint LIFE and every place everywhere. He was a brilliant success and a great guy with a zillion-dollar smile. I haven’t seen him since we both took our hits. Here’s an e-mail chat with John.

I haven’t seen you in a while, since we last hung out which, I believe, was at Life. We both have spent some time inside. This experience has had a profound effect on both of us. We have some talents and support systems and are now doing our thing but, for most, they reenter society without much help or chance to prosper. Tell me about your reentry and your dedication to changing a very flawed system.
I felt like the invisible man when I came home (in a post 9/11 era, no less!).  Walking into a building in New York City without identification and having to explain to the security guards that I’d just returned from prison and was going through the process of getting a driver’s license, passport, etc. was demoralizing and a bit humiliating.  But I had/have, as you mentioned, an incredible support system of friends and family who refused to let me get down on myself when I felt alienated and unsure of my footing in the world after being gone for more than seven years. My sentence was commuted – not pardoned, as it is widely reported. I was also fortunate enough to have a probation officer who was thorough, albeit supportive. In prison, I witnessed egregious abuses of power. I have heard about similar abuses of power within the probation system after convicted felons reenter society.  I was truly blessed not to have suffered from that. 

As a public figure, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of pretending that what happened did not. Instead of telling people (young people, in particular) how they should live their lives, I felt duty-bound to tell my story. Perhaps by conveying the mistakes I made that led me to receiving a 14-year prison term, the audience might think twice before they do anything that would risk their freedom. I was and remain determined to produce qualitative and substantive art that encourages the listeners to question everything, to speak truth to power, and to take nothing for granted.

None of us are perfect and neither are our systems – our criminal justice system included. There is a great deal of work that needs to happen in order to make our criminal justice system fairer and less discriminatory. The task can seem daunting, but that is no excuse not to try to make a difference. Every little dent makes an impact. While some dents might be larger than others, they all contribute to a reformation of the initial structure; therein lies the art and the beauty of collective dissidence.

Tonight’s The Fortune Society event has you performing. Tell me about what they do that gets you inspired to be involved.
The Fortune Society stands on the platform of second chances. Who among us has the right to say that a person cannot change? The Fortune Society’s message exists within my core. Through my ownership of responsibility and my acknowledgment of the poor choices I made, I was able to reassess who and what was important to me. It was a dialectical process that allowed me to redefine the meaning of personal success. Stopgap measures, like giving a person a glass of water when he or she is thirsty,is transient. The more sustainable model of activism and philanthropy empowers the recipient to find a water source of their own.

From Fugees producer to Fort Dix, how did you deal mentally with potentially a 14-year bid? How did you adjust to the elation of early release? I know when I was leaving my prison it was hard to not be sad for those left behind.
Everything changed the day I was convicted. The sentence was secondary. I was a first-time, non-violent drug offender. I had the blessings of a great family, supportive friends, a tremendous education, and a successful career. My arrogance and sense of entitlement deceived me into believing that I was above reproach. I accepted the fact that my conviction would always be a part of my history, but I would not let it define me. I spent the first few years away studying the law. 

One of my mentors inside gave me a jewel: "No one knows your case as well as you do. No one will fight harder for you than you can fight for yourself."  I spent hours in the law library and sent my research to my appellate attorneys. Of the three appeals, however, we lost them all. I used my time away to learn and to grow. I returned to school (I was accepted to an undergraduates program studying politics and international relations at the London School of Economics) and I also facilitated a weekly discussion group in critical thinking. I taught myself to play the guitar, and then I taught other inmates how to play, as well.  My situation notwithstanding, I did not want to lose my sense of dignity.

When I found out that my sentence was commuted it was one of the happiest days of my life. The news spread like wildfire throughout the prison. I was elated but I was also nervous. I knew the world changed (I read about it every day in newspapers and magazines). I didn’t know what to expect. I was also saddened to leave the friends I made – some of them grew as close to me as brothers. When I expressed this sentiment, the responses were practically the same, "Get out there and make us proud!"   


How did the bid affect your music?
I didn’t engage in music or think about it for the first few years. I was focused on fighting my case. I reconnected with music when I learned how to play the guitar; that was one of the most liberating experiences of my prison term. I learned how to accompany myself! I spent more time with my lyrics, making every word count. Without being preachy or pedantic, I wanted to reach a depth with my songs that evoked a deeper emotion… and it had to begin with an audience of one: me. 

What, besides the time, did you lose and what did you gain from your experience?
I lost the opportunity to share some of the most significant moments with friends and family while I was away – the good times and the bad. It was difficult not to attend weddings, births, and reunions. It was equally difficult not to be there when friends and family needed my support when they suffered. I gained the knowledge of how important it is to exist within the moment. For years, I lived in the past or the future and I took the moment for granted. In prison I learned that all we have is the moment, and it is up to the individual to savor every sweet second.

What are you working on now, and what is Le Castle?
Besides telling my story (in speeches or song), I have expanded my creative vision. With my friend and business partner, Christophe Charlier, I formed a multimedia production company, Le Castle. Our goal is simple: to make beautiful and substantive art (music, film, and other collaborative endeavors) that inspires people to effectuate change. We co-executive produced SXSW 2012 Audience Award Winner Brooklyn Castle. We also premiered The Russian Winter at the TriBeCa Film Festival 2012. It chronicles my 9-week, 5-city tour throughout Russia last winter. It is part tour-documentary and part bio-pic. We have new music to be released on the horizon – my own, as well as other artists I have produced.  

John Forte