This article originally appeared in the November 27, 2006 issue of New York Magazine. We’re republishing it here following the news of Michael Alig’s death by accidental overdose on Christmas Day.
“I can hardly believe it’s been ten years already! Go ahead and make the arrangements … & just let me know when you’re planning to come up! Looking forward to meeting you!” The letter, scribbled in loopy, adolescent handwriting on a piece of loose-leaf paper, had the look of a note that might be surreptitiously passed in grade-school homeroom and the breezy tone of an invitation to stop by someone’s country house.
Here was the same old la-di-da Michael Alig, the petulant man-child who speaks in exclamation points, even after ten years of hard time. Everything I knew about him indicated that he wasn’t just surviving in prison; he was thriving. I’d heard about his exploits: the not-altogether-bad paintings he’s been making, most of them with a Pop Art sensibility, depicting some of his coterie snorting drugs; the U.K. dance record featuring snippets of Alig’s voice; the memoir he’s working on, titled Aligula. I had written to him because I was curious to see this prisoner-as-performance-artist, the iconoclast in the Big House, biding his time at a particularly strict artists’ colony until he could return to Manhattan and pick up where he left off, a little older though none the wiser. I half-expected to find him with big blue dots on his face and a painted-on clown frown.
But the Michael Alig I meet in the visiting area of the Elmira Correctional Facility, a couple hundred miles northwest of Manhattan, is a startling sight. He is 40 years old, for one thing, and he skulks into the room looking as though he hasn’t showered or shaved in days. His longish brown hair is dull and dirty. He is hunched over, paunchy, tentative. The $500 Prada glasses that his friends, two former club kids named Jenny and Karliin, bought for him last year are precariously perched on his nose, held together with fishing line, one lens missing. He has on a maroon T-shirt splattered with paint and standard-issue green drawstring pants. We are sitting in a tiny jerry-rigged enclosure of plywood and Plexiglas deep in the bowels of the maximum-security prison. The institutional quiet of the place is shattered at regular intervals with bursts of harsh, frightening noise: buzzers going off, iron doors slamming shut, guards shouting orders.
“You know, I know you,” Alig says, brightly. “We’ve met.”
It’s true. We had met a few times during the late eighties and early nineties, a heady, exuberant time that turned out to be the final hours of the golden years of Manhattan nightlife. As hard as it is to imagine now, nightclubs seemed somehow important then. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were doing installations, the outré 4 a.m. fashion was more interesting than anything on the runways, and people seemed to emerge from the disco as fully formed celebrities. Alig was the last of these self-created downtown freaks. He started off as a busboy at Danceteria in 1983 and quickly developed a reputation for being able to conjure up ingenious parties out of thin air. By the time he was handed the reins to the basement of the Tunnel by Rudolf Piper, he had become Clown Prince of the Club Kids, leading his band of fabulous weirdos, with their kiddie lunch boxes and funny nicknames, as they traipsed from one nightclub to the next. Their numbers grew week by week, and soon he was drawing hundreds of people to his outlaw parties, where the costumed hordes would overwhelm a Burger King or doughnut shop or subway platform, turn on a boom box, and party until the police showed up. It all seemed like so much innocent fun.
“I totally recognize you,” he says to me again, as if the little plywood-Plexiglas box is a VIP room and he is about to hand me a drink ticket. “You have a really unique look.” Pause. “But it’s your personality that I remember most.” Even after ten years in jail, he is still reflexively engaging that extra gear that most of us don’t have, that ineffable skill that separates good politicians from great ones — and turned Alig into such a successful party promoter: Never forget anyone, flatter them, make them feel special.
Alig is a great storyteller. He piles on details, has a knack for vivid analogies, and senses exactly when to deliver the punch line to hold on to his audience. Even now, as he is giving me an overlong explanation of the horrors of his intensive six-month drug-treatment program, he keeps me entertained. “The counselor, she is an angel sent from God. What she has to put up with in here, you have abso-fucking-lutely no idea. You know those movies about the principal who has to come to the disruptive high school in the Bronx and the kids are setting things on fire and hanging teachers from the ceiling? That’s what our drug program is like.”
It must be awful in here, I say.
“It’s lonely,” he says. “It reminds me of what it was like growing up in Indiana — but 100 times worse.”
He keeps reaching across the table to touch my arm, sometimes leaving his hand there for several seconds. “I’m sorry I keep touching you,” he says. “I’m a very touchy person.”
Just then, a little boy who is at Elmira to visit his father darts into our room and gleefully throws his hands up to his face. “Get away from me,” says Alig, in a stage whisper. “I’m a mean killer.” We both laugh.
The Sunday night in March 1996 that Michael Alig and his roommate Freeze murdered their sometime roommate and drug dealer Angel Melendez seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. But at the time it was incredibly shocking. As Village Voice columnist Michael Musto once put it, “Some people might have made the leap from spiking the punch bowl to killing someone, but I really don’t think anyone saw that coming.”
By the mid-nineties, the club scene had grown darker. At Alig’s Disco 2000, the Wednesday-night bacchanal at the Limelight, the warm, fuzzy bath of a roomful of people on ecstasy had turned into a torture chamber: people dressed like monsters stumbling around in their K-holes in a deconsecrated Gothic church while the menacing hardcore-techno music drove them literally out of their minds. Alig, meanwhile, had turned into a junkie. At the beginning of his rise, he was essentially sober — practically anti-drug — devoting every waking minute to pulling off impossible feats of decadent fun. But by this point, he was bingeing every night on a stupefying cocktail of heroin, Special K, Rohypnol, and cocaine. Toward the end, he was living in crack-den-like squalor in a two-bedroom rental at the Riverbank on West 43rd Street.
On the night of the murder, Alig and Melendez got into an argument about an outfit, which escalated into a much uglier fight about money each believed the other owed. The fight turned violent, and Freeze, according to his written confession to the police, grabbed a hammer from the closet and hit Melendez over the head, trying to “knock him unconscious” so he would stop strangling Alig. From this point, the details are hazy: Alig may or may not have tried to inject Drano into Melendez’s veins. He may or may not have poured Drano into his mouth and taped it shut. He may or may not have invited friends over to party while the corpse sat in a trunk on which people placed their cocktails. What is clear is that Alig and Freeze eventually put the body in the bathtub and leaned a mattress up against the bathroom door while they spent a week in a drugged stupor trying to figure out what to do. As the stench grew worse, they hatched their gruesome plan. Alig would dismember the corpse if Freeze would provide him with sharp knives and ten bags of heroin. Alig chopped off Melendez’s legs, and they disposed of the body parts by tossing them into the Hudson.
Alig ran around Manhattan for months afterward telling anyone who would listen that he had killed Melendez, but no one believed him. Oh, that crazy Michael. He’ll say anything for a little attention. It wasn’t until nine months later that Staten Island police discovered they had an unclaimed legless corpse in their morgue. Freeze was picked up for questioning and confessed in writing then and there. Alig was arrested at a New Jersey hotel room, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison.
Long before Alig went away for the ultimate transgression, he was notorious for intentionally and gleefully behaving like everyone’s worst nightmare, thumbing his nose at the very idea of acceptable behavior. He would throw hundreds of dollar bills onto a dance floor just to watch people scramble for money on their hands and knees. More than once, he urinated onto a crowd of people or into someone’s drink. Occasionally, he would execute a giant exaggerated pratfall, knocking partygoers to the ground in the process. Even Musto, who detests Alig, admits that there was something fascinating, even instructive, in his bad-seed routine. “In a way, his bad behavior was refreshing,” he says. “He was sending up the whole aspect of formality and polite society.”
What is amazing about Alig is that, even after killing someone and chopping him up, he has been willing to continue to play the role of provocateur from his prison cell. A couple of years ago, a friend sent me a link to a blog that had begun a weekly feature called “Phone Call From a Felon,” in which Alig’s friend James St. James posted transcripts of their conversations. It ran for twelve weeks. The first one, dated August 5, 2004, was subtitled “Fabulous but True Tales From Inside the Big House.” In that conversation, Alig compared the gym in prison to the Roxy dance floor, the enduring epicenter of Chelsea muscle-boy nightlife. “That’s where the weightlifters are … All these topless, shirtless, muscled, tattooed Puerto Ricans … All sweaty and glistening … And they’re listening to Sylvester!” The posts went on to detail everything from a tranny named Beatrice who tried to castrate herself with the lid of a tuna can to gory and terrifying stories of near-miss encounters with gangbangers on bloody rampages to oddly touching tales of Alig’s occasional prison romance.
Alig put a stop to the calls, claiming that St. James was taking too many liberties with them. “People think I’m having a grand old time,” he says. “Or that I’m trying to exploit my situation. They make me come off as flippant and, um, like a sociopath. Like I don’t care.” When I tell him that I was riveted by them, his tone turns on a dime. “See, maybe I should keep doing it.” He blinks a couple of times. “You should call James and tell him he should keep doing it.”
When I call St. James and tell him that Alig can’t quite decide if he misses or regrets the phone calls, he says, “Oh, he loves the fact that he had everybody talking again about him in prison. He loves the idea that he’s being controversial and that he’s hitting some buttons again. All that stuff is hysterical and fabulous and fun as long as people get it, and once people don’t get it and they’re angry with him for it, he turns.”
Alig says that it is the very fact of his isolation and loneliness, the inability to talk to anyone intelligently or to employ his not unsubstantial gift for black comedy, that has created the false impression that he doesn’t entirely hate being in prison. “When someone like you shows up,” he says, “who I can super-super-relate to, I get really excited. I can finally have a real talk with someone who can form a sentence and who understands where I’m coming from. A lot of the time, people mistake that excitement for me being happy to be here. In the Party Monster documentary, I seem jovial and that’s because it was the first time I’d seen [directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato]. I had just gotten locked up. I was crying and suicidal. And here comes Randy and Fenton! We’re laughing and joking … and that’s all on film. And it looks really bad. Like I’m having a good time. It’s a problem I have.”
And so Alig begins, reluctantly, and with considerable conflict, to make a case for himself, to prove to me that he is paying a terrible price for his crime.
For nine years, Alig moved around the New York State prison system. After leaving Rikers, he was sent to a reception facility where he and Freeze were in cells right next to each other. I ask if they ever talked about the night they killed Angel. “What do you think we talked about? Face cream?” Alig laughs. “We both had the same question, and the question was, how could two such intelligent, basically good people, with good intentions, allow their lives to spin so far out of control that something like this could happen? And the answer is obvious: It’s from our insecurities. Do I have to elaborate? I don’t think I do. This is going to sound so pathetic if you write this.” He slips into a mock-whiny, touchy-feely voice: “Michael needs to work on himself.”
Eventually, Alig was sent to a protective-custody unit at another prison. “That’s where they put police officers who have been arrested, people who have been used as eyewitnesses, and a lot of drag queens, people on hormones. Almost half the guys there are gay.” Alig had been there for two years when he had his first relapse on heroin and, in 2000, was sent to a notorious place called Southport, where he was put in solitary confinement. He had no access to radio or television. He did not, for example, know that the 9/11 attacks had happened till a full week later.
“I was so inconsolably depressed and feeling so worthless there,” says Alig. “You are in your cell 24 hours a day. The only way you know what time of day it is, is when the food comes. Breakfast is at 6; lunch is 11 a.m.; dinner is at 4. The only person I saw all day was the porter. And get this: He was a heroin dealer! His mom was smuggling in a bundle a week, which is ten bags. And he saw how depressed I was, and he would come to my cell and say, ‘You really need a little of this and you’re not going to care anymore.’ There was no way I could say no.”
Alig was eventually busted after a dirty urine test, and his stay in solitary was extended from eight months to two and a half years. “It was the scariest place I have ever been in my life,” says Alig. “What Southport is famous for is the shit and the piss throwing. Because the inmates have no access to each other, what they do is fill cups up with shit and piss and throw it at each other. You get caught doing it once, they keep your hands handcuffed behind your back so you can’t throw anything. So if you really still want to get your neighbor with shit, guess what you do? You put it in your mouth and when you get to the yard, you spit it on someone.”
His body starts to tremble, and his voice cracks. “I really thought I was going to go crazy.” He begins to sob uncontrollably. “I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, What is wrong with me? Am I so bad that I have to be in a place like this? I kept telling myself, I am not a bad person. I have a drug problem and I need treatment.”
He can barely get the words out, he is crying so hard. The façade, the breezy tone, the exclamation points have all fallen away. St. James, whose book Disco Bloodbath is brutal in its final judgment, had told me that he believes Alig is a sociopath. “He’s a mirror, and he will give to you whatever it is that he thinks you’re looking for. That’s why, when he’s talking to me and we’re doing the ‘Phone Call From a Felon,’ it is just lightness and fun and fabulous and sick, and then he’ll turn around to you or his mother and start crying.” It’s impossible for me to know for sure if this is an act, whether Alig is just mirroring my horror at what he is telling me. But it doesn’t feel like it. In this moment, he appears to be the embodiment of abject misery, bent in half, snot running out of his nose as he cries in violent spasms.
Alig moved to Elmira in 2004 and this year began, for the first time, drug counseling and psychotherapy. “I just finished today,” he says. “My therapy is going to continue, but the actual drug part of it is finished.” In honor of this graduation of sorts, Alig received what he calls a “touching” letter from one of his only friends in prison, a skinhead who lives in his cell block. “His other skinhead buddies don’t want him talking to me because I’m gay,” says Alig. “What irks them is that he, as he told me, is a bit more secure about his sexuality and is even willing to admit that under the right circumstances, if he and I were double bunked, things would happen.”
Alig is desperate to be loved — by the skinhead, by his therapist (“Michael,” the shrink has to tell him, “you are not allowed to touch the therapist”), by me, by everyone. And this is why he is reluctant to tell me about what is perhaps the worst punishment for his crime: a pinched nerve in his back that has gone untreated by prison doctors for the past seven years and caused numbness from his groin area all the way down to his right foot. One of the results of the loss of feeling is that he has lost muscle reflexes in his bladder and sphincter. He is incontinent. His mother is constantly sending him new underwear, and he regularly has to wash his soiled sheets in the toilet in his cell. The condition is called Cauda Equina Syndrome, and, if left untreated, it can result in a permanent loss of sensation. But the thing he’s really worried about is, who will love an incontinent man in his forties? “When I ever get out of here,” he says, “I will never find a boyfriend.”
Alig was up for parole for the first time in October. “I’m thinking, Wow, this is kind of exciting. I’m thinking parole. I’m thinking home.” Then he met his parole officer. “He did not seem like the fabulous type. And he did not understand the fabulous type. And he told me that I am a little bit too fabulous. He didn’t use those words. He said, ‘Tell me, why was there so much publicity surrounding your case?’ I said, ‘Well, have you seen the movie?’ Four days later, he made a special trip to my cell, came right up to my bars, and yelled at me like a drill sergeant. ‘I saw the movie you were so interested in having me see! And you can be sure that other members of the parole board will see this movie and will know exactly what your lifestyle was!’ ”
“I’m thinking parole. I’m thinking home.” Then Alig met his parole officer. “He did not seem the fabulous type. And he did not understand the fabulous type. And he told me thatI am a little bit too fabulous.”
Needless to say, Alig was denied parole. He’ll get another chance to go before the board in two years. When I ask what he wants to do when he eventually gets out, he begins by telling me about the letters he gets, sometimes more than a hundred a week, from kids all over the country who have watched the Party Monster films and read Disco Bloodbath and see Alig as some kind of dark prince. “The letters fall into two categories,” he says. “First of all, most everyone who writes me is either a gay boy or a lesbian or a 17-year-old in Iowa feeling suicidal because they, like I did, feel like they are the only one. Still! In 2006! With Will & Grace on TV! And they’re all artistic and creative. Not all gay, but all kind of weird in some way. I don’t want to say I enjoy getting those letters, but part of me feels pretty good. Then there’s another kind of letter I get that really bothers me. They’re from kids who think it’s cool what I’ve done.”
He senses the opening, the chance to show how rehabilitated he really is. “Listen, since the second after it happened, I have had a knot in my stomach that has never gone away. I think that’s what they mean when they say, ‘When you kill someone, a little part of yourself dies.’ That must be what makes humans different from animals. I’m still trying to figure it out. The time that the knot subsides a little bit is when I offer someone in here a little assistance. So what will happen when I get out, I hope, is that I will be able to convince some of these people who think that what I’ve done is cool not to go down the same path.” He looks around the room. “This is not cool. This is not fabulous.” Then he gets a naughty glint it his eye. “Maybe if I would have died during that struggle. Maybe that would have been cool.” He laughs. “But I know in my heart and soul that I have the ability to become a Larry Tee or a RuPaul, one of the successful ones who is able to lead a creative, artistic, even edgy lifestyle. You can be edgy without being self-destructive. I know that I’m smart enough to do it. I’m smart enough to do anything.”
It’s telling that those whom Alig cites as role models are gay icons who made their mark in the early nineties. Almost all of his references throughout our conversation are to people who have long since fallen off the cultural radar, though he speaks of them as if they just shared a laugh and a drink only yesterday, people like Diane Brill, Lady Miss Kier of the band Dee-Lite, and the nightclub impresario Rudolf Piper, who hasn’t operated a club in Manhattan since 1991. It’s as if he’s been preserved in pop-cultural amber for the past ten years. When Alig does return to Manhattan to try to make a new life for himself, he might be surprised to learn that the world he left behind is almost entirely gone, except perhaps for Patricia Field’s store, which just relocated to the Bowery and still sells the ass-less hot pants Alig favored in his glory days. “The scene in New York has been so drastically overhauled from when he was king of nightlife,” says Musto. “It would be hard for him to find a place in it, because it is so sanitized that even the freaks are out of central casting. There are still club kids, there are still crazy, zany people, they are still doing drugs and acting up, but it all seems very Disney movie compared to Disco 2000.”
Alig has maintained friendships with quite a few people from his nightclub days, and they seem to truly care about what will happen to him when he gets out. “I think Michael recognizes that what he’s done is essentially unforgivable,” says Fenton Bailey, who talks to Alig on the phone every month or so. “And I don’t think he’s really pandering to people for their forgiveness, which I think is a measure of his maturity. Because that isn’t the kind of person he was when he went to jail. I just hope he can find some rather grown-up and perhaps slightly boring use for his brilliant creativity that isn’t going to send him off the deep end again.”
Not everyone is so magnanimous. “Do I think that ten years is enough for chopping up your drug dealer?” asks St. James. “Probably not. On the other hand, is he going to change anymore if he stays in another ten years? Probably not. I don’t think he’ll be a menace to society when he gets out. He needs to be redeemed too much; he needs for people to love him too much. I think he’s going to be a model citizen because the thing that matters the most to Michael is the court of public opinion. He’s going to work his ass off to do some spectacular something that he thinks will redeem him in everyone’s eyes. There’s a lot of resentment still out there for him. But then again, New Yorkers might jump on the bandwagon if he comes up with the right club or the right whatever. The further you get away from the murder and longer he stays in prison, the more fabulous he becomes.”
It is well into the afternoon, and my conversation with Michael Alig has run its course, but he does not want me to leave. “Please stay until two o’clock,” he pleads. “We have until two. I enjoy having company.” I go to the vending machine, buy some popcorn, and return to our little plywood box. He spreads the popcorn out on a napkin and picks at it. There is a guard pacing outside the door. He tells us we have twenty minutes.
I ask Michael what his biggest worry for the future is. “My focus is on, I’m going to die alone,” he says. “I’m never going to have a boyfriend, nobody is going to love me, I’m ugly. I don’t have any reason for anyone to ever have a relationship with me.” Also, he says, he feels misunderstood. “People think that I don’t care. The truth is that I care so much that I have to pretend that I don’t. I have to mask it with this flippant, pretentious persona.”
He pushes the popcorn around on his napkin. “You know, I want to say one thing: I consider myself lucky.” He stares at me for a second, waiting for me to take the bait. “Do I need to elaborate?”
Why are you lucky? I ask.
“Because I didn’t get life in prison,” he says. “I have another chance. I’m lucky because I see people in here who have done less than what I’ve done who have gotten life and they don’t have friends coming to visit them who buy them $500 Prada glasses. The other day, somebody sent me a case of tangerines from Florida. Just the smell! I hadn’t had a tangerine in ten years. People don’t get those things in here. And I have a support system of so many smart people who have continued to have faith in me despite the drug use and the havoc I’ve wreaked in people’s lives.” He reaches across the table and grabs my arm one last time. “I feel lucky.”