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.”