After just a few recent minutes in conversation with Michael Alig, we'd fallen right back into the intellectual relationship we'd developed over two prisons and several shared years in the incarcerated world. I always liked him; I'd even forgiven him for when he tried to rat me out. (He did graciously apologize.)
I was doing 10 years for robbery; his bid was both longer and just slightly better publicized. The tabloid-haunted "Club Kid" kingpin served 17 years after turning himself in for the 1996 manslaughter of Andre "Angel" Melendez—what he now calls "a silly, pushy catfight" over an unpaid debt that ended with codefendant Robert "Freeze" Riggs attacking Angel with a hammer, Alig joining in after wrapping his fist in a sweatshirt. The 2003 film Party Monster, starring Macaulay Culkin (why not), sensationalized the lifestyle of drugs and partying and NYC club-hopping that Alig helped create in the '80s and '90s, but it did not help the man at parole hearings, depicting Melendez's death in a callous, brutal, and to Alig's mind, wildly inaccurate way. Drano was involved. Parole boards denied him his freedom several times, while his co-defendant, Robert "Freeze" Riggs, was released years ago.
Of course, 10 dirty urine tests played their part in delaying his freedom—Mike continued to use drugs inside up until 2009. But he was finally released a few weeks ago (triggering one of the queasier publicity tours of recent years), so I called him up to see how he was doing, ask some pointed questions, and generally philosophize with the guy. Exactly what we used to do in the yards of Eastern and Coxsackie. Back before the whole ratting-me-out thing.
"Fame in prison is a double-edged sword," Alig says. "Some treatment is preferential, because cops see you as something other than as a criminal. Someone who made a mistake. And I got bags of mail from all over the world. At the same time, other officers and even prisoners resent that sort of thing, and used to play it extra hard with me. That is how I went for a lot of urinalysis tests."
My own last day in the free world was in November 2003. I had committed five desperate robberies; two years of heroin addiction took me from my desk at a literary agency to sticking people up with a pocket knife. By then, Alig had already been in for years; I actually worked at the Tunnel, one of the NYC clubs he managed, as a promoter the summer after he went away. By the time I met him, he already had experience in several prisons and a history of spells in solitary confinement.
Even though I never knew Alig in the free world, inside, we had enough in common to have some good talks. I could identify with his malaise, as I certainly knew the feeling of being out of place inside. The onset of my own bid was a clumsy, steep learning curve. But Mike's experience was even more extreme. In one prison we were in, Coxsackie, there were six phones for 1,000 inmates. As a result, each one was claimed by a gang. Nevertheless, every day I would see Alig making many a phone call. I asked how this was possible, suspecting a financial arrangement with the Bloods.
"I didn't have to pay," he tells me. "They were investing into their futures. To be a leader of a gang takes a modicum of intelligence. The soldiers didn't have enough to even be interested in me, but the chiefs all tried to cultivate a relationship. They had all seen Party Monster, so they imagined themselves selling overpriced drugs to these rich, clueless, and very white people. Dutch, the Blood general in Coxsackie, made sure I had phone privileges. And access to whatever chemical they were trafficking in that week. But there was more to it than that. I felt that the gang headmen, the shot-callers, they saw in me a fellow leader. My gang of Club Kids was different from anything they had any experience with, but the principle was not too far off. And as surprising as this might sound, they respected me in this way."
Michael Alig, gang-leader. Having actually known Dutch myself, I can't say I disagreed: Little, fey, openly gay Michael Alig really was respected by some scary people. And not just because of the Drano.
"The Drano," Alig says. "I asked James St. James"—the Club Kid cohort who wrote the memoir that became Party Monster—"why he had to put in the Drano, and he shrugged it off as the price of fame. You know, it is not actually possible to inject someone with Drano, and that is not what happened to Angel. Nor was the Drano poured down his throat like The New York Times had it. When we grew scared that Angel's body might smell, we poured the stuff over him. I wish I never saw that Drano; it probably cost me years of my life."
Sometimes it's hard to find someone to talk to in prison—someone with whom you can talk candidly. When I found someone like that, I often had to overcome moral qualms about their own reasons for being there, not that mine were so glamorous. Better a chat about Tolstoy with a wife-beater than discussing motorcycles and pitbulls with the "respectable" criminals. I often felt like a stranger in a strange world; it's a lonely place, and sometimes a conversation in French is worth the price of talking to a rapist.
Michael went through the same process. "Two or three in each prison, that was usually about it," he recalls of the few friends he made. "And the compromises ... sometimes it was the pedophiles who were smart enough to enjoy talking with. Of course, I'm hardly in any position to judge anyone myself, and try not to, but some people really do belong in prison forever. I knew one guy, with whom I had to deal with all the time because he was the head of the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee. Nicest guy in the world, understanding and witty. Only it turned out he kept five kids in cages in his basement. Hard to reconcile that with the man's intelligence and friendly demeanor. I had to judge it case by case."
My own case was a bit of a strange one.
Soon after Alig and I first met, he noticed me speaking in Russian with the facility doctor, and assumed a bond closer than the reality of the situation. He had already had several dirty urines, and was desperate for a prescription for an opiate medication—something like Percocet, so that his urine was always legitimately dirty, and the cops couldn't tell that he had done heroin. Some evil spirit took over my tongue, as sometimes happens to me, and I told Mike that $1,000 in my account, which I would then "donate" to the good doctor's church, would do the trick. This was total nonsense, because the doctor was not corrupt in the least, and a Jew to boot. But I paid dearly for my little game with Michael Alig.
The shitstorm arrived about two months later. After the disciplinary hearing for one of his many dirty urines, Alig was found guilty and given four years in solitary for having consumed an opiate of some sort. He appealed (and eventually got the sentence reduced), and sent the tape of his hearing down to the law library. Since I was considered a "stand-up guy," my compatriots at the library immediately provided me with the tape. I was able to hear exactly what was said. The four-year sentence brought Alig to tears, and so he offered them a "real" bust: He accused me of having a secret pact with the Russian doctor, in which $1,000 sent to a phantom church gets you a morphine prescription. I was the doctor's shill, in this story.
The guys in the law library refused to write a "rat's appeal"; Alig got his time cut only when the rules changed, reducing urinalysis-violation dispositions to a max of one year. Meanwhile, my cell was searched once a week, my mail was read, my phone calls were bugged, and I was dragged down for urine tests many times. Since I was innocent of the accusation, nothing actually happened beyond the harassment, and the doctor was not bothered in the least. But my friend Michael Alig had snitched me out.
I ran into him again in Coxsackie about two years later. There was fear in his eyes, because he knew that I knew, and according to prison rules, I was supposed to cut his face or something. As for Alig, he took the path of apology: "I was scared, I was desperate, and I'm sorry. They tried to give me four years for that ticket. I was terrified."
What could I say? There just weren't too many other people in there for me to talk to. He offered to let me read his cleverly titled memoir, Aligula, and that helped, too: I forgave him partially out of my own loneliness, but it was really the excellence of his writing that allowed me to get over what he had done. At one point in prison, I ceased reading the work of other inmates, because I grew tired of the violence and rape fantasies and bad grammar. Also, it was hard (and dangerous) to tell Hell's Angels that their novels were probably not slated for glory. But I made an exception for Aligula, and came away impressed: It was one of those rare cases when art had a very material affect on my real life. (He's currently readying it for wider publication.) After perusing its pages, I could look at him again. And it just made no sense to argue with one of the few people in there who knew the difference between Tom Wolfe and Thomas Wolfe.
Now, on the phone, we only talked briefly about the whole doctor incident; he wasn't eager to remember it, though he did remind me of how sorry he was. Since we were two ex-cons reminiscing about our stays in the state's finest institutions, I asked Mike whether he suffered for his use of drugs. Unsurprisingly, he did: Alig served about five years in solitary confinement. Not all at once, and if he had not gotten time-cuts, it might have been double that, but it was plenty. I did only a year, in total.
"It was difficult to resist at times," he says. "I was always sent to actual solitary, in Southport, where there is no bunky. I read plenty: Eggers and John Waters and Crime and Punishment, but when a porter comes by and wants to give the notorious Michael Alig a bag of heroin, it's hard to say no." And in the end, it was just as hard to stay mad at the guy.
I've closely monitored the current media coverage of Mike, even going so far as to read the comments. I hope he didn't. "Just overdose and die already" is an example. I asked Mike how he deals with this, the enmity, considering that there are plenty of freed murderers running around New York City who have committed far more heinous crimes and received only a fraction of the attention or scorn that he has.
Alig explained that although there must be an element of homophobia to it, that's not something he wishes to dwell on. Instead it's the problem of appearing privileged and snotty; he's not disregarding the awfulness of the death that he caused, but he believes that the extra attention stems from a general disdain for the culture of VIP rooms and scowling doormen and lines to clubs.
"Every time someone didn't get into Limelight 20 years ago, I pay for it," he says. "Of course, I left that door wide open by taking a life, but there are still plenty of people around who never got that the Club Kid movement was mocking the superficiality of celebrity. It was satire, but people took it at face value, as if we thought we really were superstars. They didn't get the play on Warhol, and now they feel I deserve a comeuppance for undeserved arrogance and claim to fame."
It turns out that the difficulties Alig has faced since his release go beyond the digital realm. Apparently, one night a club promoter tweeted that Alig was at his party doing drugs. The promoter was trying to capitalize on his notoriety, and perhaps even to get him in trouble. (After all, Mike does have a curfew and is not trying to break it.) Even Perez Hilton got a text about it; Alig was further accused of taking drugs with James St. James in a restaurant bathroom.
But he was philosophical about this, too—the unlikeliness that the world will permit him to fade fully into obscurity. He concedes that he made this bed for himself 20 years ago to satisfy his craving for attention and notoriety, so now he has to live with it, for both good and ill.
"I am an artist," he says. "I paint and I write, but it's my life, really. My entire life has been performance art. Party Monster actually captured a bit of that, though without the satire. In any case, I see art as a fluid medium, and it's what I live and breathe, whether inside a prison or here in New York. There is no other choice for me."
Mike also believes that he helped move along the acceptance of homosexuality in American society, by being open and proud. While he missed most of Will and Grace and had to watch the ascendance of old friends RuPaul and Richie Rich from a jailhouse television, he feels that in some way he helped make all of this possible. One day he would like the chance to talk to young people in danger of following in his glittery footsteps. His life makes for great art, but it works even better as a cautionary tale.
I ask Mike if he ever found someone truly special inside, someone with whom he could have a relationship more meaningful than conversational. Turned out there was somebody, a guy named Mike (no last name—gay relationships are forbidden to prisoners). Alig acknowledges the narcissistic absurdity of loving a fellow Mike, and he admits to having loved many of them.
"We were together for the whole 17 years and managed to be in the same prison five times," he says. "He gets out in a year, and I hope we can build a life together. There's no place like prison to really get to know someone, because you have the time to truly talk over every subject, including the painful and deep ones. My Mike knows me better than almost anybody else."
When you start your bid, the end seems so far off that the only way to avoid a breakdown is to accept that, for now, this is your reality. But when half of it passes, and the end gets closer, the time begins to weigh. I felt this myself when I had five years left. And I managed my discomfort with art. I began to write more than journals and letters, and eventually emerged with a novel in hand.
"Writing kept me sane in prison," Alig agrees. "Made the time go by, allowed me to escape into my memory, allowed me to feel proud of a creation. Plus they quadrupled my Wellbutrin dose. ... Before prison I never painted, but the sense of accomplishment I felt when I completed a painting or a chapter almost gave me an erection. Creating something for immortality, locking an idea into a work of art ... it's wonderful. My favorite part of Proust is the beginning, when little Marcel yearns for his mother's kiss but also delays it as long as possible, sad that the delight will then be over with. I felt the same way about painting and writing. I did not want it to ever end, because then I was back in prison."
This came as a shock, as Proust was the writer who had the greatest influence on me during my own incarceration. Apparently Alig had also enjoyed In Search of Lost Time; Haruki Murakami, in fact, recently wrote that prison is the only place for a modern person to read and understand Proust.
"Art redeems morality, does it not?" Alig says. "Our culture forgives Woody Allen and Roman Polanski for the accusations against them. Ezra Pound was basically forgiven treason for his brilliant poetry. You say you managed to get over what happened between us because you found me talented. I hope the world can do the same."
Art by Jim Cooke and Sam Woolley.