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.