Tuesday, July 7, 2009 | 3:34 p.m.
They sat on the concrete as if they were lifelong friends. One guy wore a New York Mets cap and a crimson T-shirt reading, “Sin City Las Vegas,” the type of shirt that shouts “tourist!” and is sold at those little gift shacks all along the Strip. The other guy sported a white British driving cap, a peach golf shirt and a heavy cross hanging from a long, silver chain.
They watched the glowing figures on the big screen high above the Strip at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. As Jermaine Jackson sang and cried through “Smile,” they shook their heads in silence. As Brooke Shields spoke of the late Michael Jackson as the “boy prince” rather than the King of Pop, they smiled and nodded. They made fists and rocked slightly as John Mayer plucked out “Human Nature” on his Fender Stratocaster.
They’d been sitting next to each other for hours, even before the start of today’s live CNN coverage of Jackson’s memorial from Staples Center in Los Angeles. They plopped down at 9 a.m.
But at 8:30 a.m., they were strangers.
“I actually met him just today,” Brooklyn native Jon Hanfling said, tipping his head sideways toward Detroit-born but Phoenix-residing Andre Stephens. “We have been seated here the whole time. We got here extremely early.”
What the two share, other than a tiny piece of Strip real estate during one of President Obama’s quick trips to Vegas in the middle of the week, was an appreciation for Michael Jackson.
“I think he’s the greatest entertainer of all time,” the 42-year-old Hanfling said. “I got into him when he was with the Jackson 5, when he was a kid. But my favorite period for him would be the early 1980s, the ‘Off The Wall’-‘Thriller’ era. I really appreciated his growth as an artist, from the Jackson 5, all the way to today.”
At age 31, Stephens caught Jackson a little later than the guy from Brooklyn.
“My first album, ever, was ‘Bad’ -- on vinyl,” he said, laughing. “I was in fifth grade -- I’ll never forget this -- in a math class, and our teacher formed a glee club out of the class. Made us wear matching outfits, everything. We couldn’t show up to sing unless we were all dressed the same. One of the songs we sang was ‘Man in the Mirror’ from ‘Bad.’ We sounded good, too.”
Stephens soon fell under the spell of rap, LL Cool J and Run-DMC in particular, in the late-’80s, and it was not so cool for a kid in Detroit to walk around humming the tune to “Man in the Mirror.” However, as Hanfling said, finishing Stephens’ point, “Most of the rap artists that came after were inspired by Michael Jackson.”
“This is true,” Stephens concurred.
Oddly enough, Hanfling and Stephens were both staying at the Tropicana -- a fact unearthed when Stephens was asked where he was staying (he got a wicked deal, too: $119 package, three nights in a mid-level suite at the Trop and round-trip airfare).
Accurately gauging the size of the crowd that watched the nearly three-hour memorial, which ended with a brief but wrenching appearance by 11-year-old Paris-Michael Jackson, was nearly impossible. People just came and went, some departing as the sun moved high overhead and erased the shade created by Planet Hollywood. At times, several dozen onlookers were positioned outside Hawaiian Tropic Zone and below the big screens. Moments later, maybe 100 people were peering skyward.
Some were just curious onlookers. Others were lifelong Jackson fans.
“When I was 10 years old, I was sure I was going to marry Michael Jackson,” said 26-year-old Sydney Suttie, who was seated against the shaded barrier at HTZ while wearing a vintage 1971 California Angels cap. Suttie was visiting from Newport Beach, Calif. “Most of my friends wanted to marry one of the New Kids on the Block, but I was into Michael Jackson. He basically made pop what it is today.”
One of those watching the piece of pop history was Anita Moore, who actually works in downtown Los Angeles when she’s not off taking a break in Vegas. She works for the City of Los Angeles as a management analyst (which means she is qualified to say that the city will need some donations to offset the cost of the Jackson memorial service). “I’m a big fan, ever since he was in the Jackson 5. To me, he’ll always be the King of Pop. He just seemed a real sensitive person. I was looking forward to his shows in London, to see how he’d do over there.”
When asked her age, Moore paused for a moment and said, “Fifty. Same as him. It’s just so sad.”