There was no obvious explanation for this. It wasn’t a special occasion. No event was taking place. But for some reason, on an otherwise normal sunny afternoon, there was a man dressed like Michael Jackson dancing on a carpeted sidewalk in front of a gas station on Eight Mile Road.
Traffic slowed down to check him out. Some drivers pulled into the gas station parking lot to watch. A few people wandered over to take a photo. No matter what their reaction was, though, everyone was showing him appreciation.
And it was all he ever wanted.
“See? That happens every time I’m out here,” he said with delight. “That’s just love.”
Calvin Nelson is a Michael Jackson impersonator. The 65-year-old has been performing for several years outside the Marathon gas station on Eight Mile, just east of Schaefer Highway, on the city’s west side. Almost every weekend — except in winter — he lays a worn strip of carpet on the sidewalk, plugs a boombox speaker into his car’s cigarette lighter, connects it to a cassette player and blares Michael Jackson songs at deafening volume while he dances and lip syncs to the music with the earnest seriousness of a performer on stage at a stadium.
“Once you embrace something, you got to become that character,” he said. “You can’t just do it. You got to become that character in mind, body and soul.”
He was wearing a black wig, a black suit and a ruffled white shirt on his beanpole frame. Strangely, he didn’t have a tip bucket out next to him, like most street performers trying to make money. He had a more personal motive for being out there.
A woman pumping gas approached him, shooting video on her phone. A grinning couple in a car pulled to a stop in the parking lot to watch for a minute. “Hey Michael!” shouted someone from a passing car, sticking his fist up high out the window. A young woman pulled up to meet him. “I like his whole little get up,” said Chelsea Atkins, smiling. He smiled back wide.
During the week, Nelson is a mild-mannered janitor. But on the weekend, up at this gas station, he becomes the “Eight Mile Michael Jackson,” as people call him; a polished performer who’s indifferent to the revved engines, the squealed tires, the cars without mufflers, the sirens wailing in the distance.
“From that first note people know what that song is, and once I see that response, as soon as they hear this record, I become that character,” he said. “And I see how they respond, and I become more that individual. It’s almost like I’m a reincarnation of Michael Jackson. When I’m out here, I’m not Calvin no more.”
That’s because, early in life, it seemed he got more affection if he wasn’t himself.
At first, he was just Calvin. And as a kid, that was tough.
“I was always bullied, ‘cause I was small,” he said. “I didn’t like to fight, but as I was growing up I had to, ‘cause I had guys who didn’t like me.”
His mother would urge him not to let the naysayers get him down. “No person place or thing shall ever steal my joy, ever,” she told him to repeat to himself.
“My mother always told me, ‘You don’t let nobody do that to you, ever.’ She was always pointing the finger, she got in my face and said that when I was about 8 years old, because I was going thru the bullying thing.”
He always had a knack for impersonating celebrities. In high school it was James Brown. Later it was Prince. He even tried Elvis. Now it’s mostly Michael Jackson. He first saw Jackson perform with the Jackson 5 on TV when he was 10, and he was infatuated.
“Michael was special. There will never be another one like him because the man worked hard at everything that he did. And you’ll never see another one like him. Never.”
Maybe that’s why people reacted so positively at the sight of his Michael Jackson impression, especially after the real MJ died. When he was in character, people treated him like he was special. Women were playful. Guys were friendly.
“Man, it’s a total different thing — totally different — because you see me as Calvin. But then, all of sudden, once I got on this,” he said pointing to his Michael Jackson outfit, “people just run up to me like the paparazzi: ‘Oh, hold up, can I get a picture?’ It’s overwhelming.”
Some people devour self-help books trying to become different than they are. Others resort to alcohol or drugs to escape their insecurities. But Nelson simply adopted the persona of someone who was already loved by many people, and he basked in the refracted affection.
He spent hours watching old videotapes, studying MJ’s dance moves. He mastered the crotch grab, the circle slide, the robot, the kick and, above all, the moonwalk. And after years of practice, his imitation is uncannily accurate. He can mimic every single dance move from every hit song’s video.
Through it all, his mom was his biggest supporter.
“She used to watch all my rehearsals,” he said. “Every time I did a rehearsal and come out of the basement with my outfit on, she’d say, ‘I love that.’ She’s always seen me when I dressed up to go do the shows at night, and she would always stay up until I came home. She wouldn’t go to sleep until I was in that house.”
He perfected his stage act at karaoke nights at local bars, especially one place where other celebrity impersonators likewise showed off their efforts to be someone else. Sometimes he’d perform at birthday parties, or charity events. Last year he talked a local cell phone store owner into letting him perform inside the store as customers shopped around him.
He started appearing on Eight Mile just after his mom died of cancer six years ago. The gas station is just around the corner from the house they shared and where he now lives alone, and it provides a quick, easy way to put himself on stage and draw affection from the public when he needs it.
Sometimes it’s more affection than he expected, like the time when nearly all the dancers at the strip club next to the gas station got a look at his act and came out to his side to dance with him, causing a traffic backup and drawing a plea from the bouncer at the club for Nelson to come inside and bring the girls back with him.
“My friend Big Red came out the door,” Nelson remembered, “and he said, “Mike, can you come inside with them? I’m losing money ‘cause they’re supposed to be dancing on the stage, but they’re over here dancing with you.’”
Not everyone appreciates what he does, though. The bullies weren’t just a childhood thing.
“They’re like, ‘Aw man, you need to stop all that. You don’t look like no Michael Jackson.’ Or people be driving by, ‘You need to get your ass down, you don’t look like Michael.’ But see, you kill them with kindness. You don’t get mad. Just smile in their face all damn day. Because no person, place or thing shall ever steal my joy. Ever.”
Eight Mile Michael Jackson knelt in front of a mirror propped on top of a small cabinet in his living room. He slowly drew a moustache and eyebrows on his face using a black Sharpie pen. “That way it don’t come off,” he said.
Behind him, next to the television, were tall stacks of VHS tapes featuring his idol’s performances. They were his study materials.
Another weekend had arrived, bringing another opportunity to perform for the public.
He stepped outside and saw his elderly neighbor on her porch. He walked over to greet her. “I wanna let her see my outfit, see what she thinks.” He wore a flamboyant shirt of swirling pinks and reds.
She told him he looked great. “He’s a wonderful young man. His talent is wonderful,” said next-door neighbor Bobby Jean Williams, 81, smiling at him. Suddenly, her little dog Ringo bolted from the open door, and Nelson chased after it to bring it back, running this way and that, while stooping over unsuccessfully to grab it; while passing drivers stopped in their tracks to witness what appeared to be Michael Jackson chasing a poodle down a Detroit side street.
Nelson drove his 2004 Ford Explorer around the block and parked at the gas station. He hauled out his massive boombox speaker and his tape deck. He carefully laid his worn strip of carpet on the sidewalk next to the uncut grass. Gas station customers stared in curious confusion as he set up. “See, people are looking already!” he said with a big smile. “It don’t stop!”
He inserted a cassette he made several years ago of a Michael Jackson marathon on the radio, which included jarring interruptions by commercials, station identification breaks and DJ announcements between the songs. He’s used this for years; this instead of just buying a greatest hits CD for its seamless music.
“You ain’t gotta worry about the CDs getting scratched this way,” he explained.
A woman who works at the gas station saw him setting up and stepped outside to say hi. “Everybody’s used to him being out here, because most of our customers are regulars that live around here,” said Cindy Pryor, 56. “They know him. They know who he is. He comes out here, has a good time and everybody enjoys him and what he does.”
And that’s the thing. In reality, none of the people watching or taking photos of him did so because they thought he looked like Michael Jackson. They did it because they thought he looked like Calvin Nelson doing an imitation of Michael Jackson. Because ironically, in his effort to be someone else, the real him shone through by contrast. And people truly appreciated him for the effort he gave.
But he wasn’t aware of that. All he figured was that for most of his life, people have smiled at him when he dresses and dances like Michael Jackson. “My motivation is, like, when I see people happy, as soon as I get up there, just the love and the warmth, just for that moment,” he said.
He stood on the sidewalk and turned on the music. The familiar bass line from “Billie Jean” began thumping. His feet started moving. People were taking notice. Once again, he wasn’t Calvin anymore. And he felt loved.
John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.