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  WELCOME HOME, MICHAEL JACKSON.  
   
   
  At the gates of Neverland Ranch, a perspiring elderly woman is telling the BBC correspondent what this day means to her. It's the happiest day of her life, she tells him in a thick German accent. The BBC correspondent smiles and nods understandingly, thanks her, and  
  then he and his cameraman move on to the next nearby person, a young guy with bad acne. He asks the acne-riddled young guy what this day means to him, and the acne-riddled guy tells him this is the happiest day of his life. The BBC correspondent smiles and nods understandingly, thanks him, and then he and his cameraman move on to the next nearby person. And so forth and so on.

It's late afternoon, about four o'clock, and these two hundred plus people have been milling around in front of the Neverland gates for about two hours or so, ever since the "Not Guilty" verdict came in. A helicopter chops overhead, and a firetruck and a great deal of police officers are on hand, located slightly to the side of the brouhaha. Every ten minutes the gates open, the crowd cheers, and then, in a moment that is always the definition of anti-climatic, a car drives out, the crowd is parted by big guys with no necks wearing pinstriped suits, cameramen frantically snap shots of the departing car, people put up "V for Victory" fingers, clap, shout, loudly profess their love and support for Michael Jackson to whoever is listening, and then the gates close. Then the people resume their milling. The common belief held by the gathered milling masses is that Michael Jackson, in response to his acquittal earlier in the day, will eventually open up the gates and invite the loyal fans and media types to come in and party.

"I wish they would come out here and tell us what's what", says a middle-aged black woman with long straight hair to the older black woman she stands with. The older black woman sports crazy-looking long curls that are literally striped blonde. A little girl of about eight is with them wearing a t-shirt that reads "J. Lo."

"I thought there was going to be a party," says the little girl.

"I wish they would let us know if they were going to let us in or not," grumbles the older black woman with the crazy-looking zebra hair. "Making us stand around like this."

"When is the party going to start?" asks the little girl. "I thought there was going to be a party. I don't get it."

Bored, the little girl stoops down, picks up some of the gravel they're standing on, and starts casually tossing the pebbles at the ranch's wall.

"Sharice, Michael says stop throwing rocks," says the older black woman with the crazy-looking zebra hair.

"No he doesn't."

"Yes he does."

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs.

There's an abundance of signs here. Most are heart-shaped pieces of paper taped to the fences around Neverland Ranch. There are hundreds of them, covering every inch of fence space, and the majority read things like, "We're so proud of you, Michael!", "You Are Not Alone!" and "We're With You, Michael!" One reads "Make Love Your Weapon Against Evil! From Japan, Popoco Love". There are more heart-shaped pieces of paper on the mailbox, which is a few feet from the ranch's entrance. One of them, in small, chicken-scratch writing, reads, "Dear Michael, you are the child of God. We all believe in you. Stay strong, Peter Pan. You are beyond this universe. You're the beat in my heart, you're the sunshine, you are the earth's breath. We would be NOTHING without you! Stay strong!!!"

         
     

 

Standing at the Gates of Heaven: A Photo Essay.


The crowd outside Neverland stands at the gate, staring off into the distance, waiting for the spaceship to come and get them.


The Spanish brought posters of Michael with Pinoccio, a little boy who's always packing wood.


Now that Michael's innocent, the Japanese brought posters imploring him to use his love in a violent way.


Eager fans plastered Michael's visage on their totebags and took their Michael Jackson dolls for a little walk.


The French were there and waving the flag, because when you think Michael Jackson, you think "France."


Of course, the cameramen who weren't actively running down celebrities on the freeways were photographing the freaks.


While the media tried their best to keep a straight face.

 

   
           
 

Off to the side, on the ground to the left of the gate, is a long yellow poster that reads "We (Heart) Neverland". It has stickers stuck all over it featuring the images of Michael Jackson, Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Minney Mouse, Daffy Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Peter Pan, Snoopy, and a baby dressed as a teddy bear and laughing.

A little girl is wearing a shirt that reads "Innocent Like Me". A middle-aged man with a ponytail wears a homemade shirt featuring four pictures of Michael walking into the courthouse with his lawyer. The caption on the shirt is "Always By Your Side". There are stickers being sold that read "Know Michael, Know Peace, No Michael, No Peace." A cute male toddler in a baseball cap is holding up a sign that reads "Not Guilty" for photographers, per his father's instructions. Five cameras snap away at the cute male toddler while his father stands nearby, occasionally holding him still when he gets jittery. The cute male toddler is asked to hold the sign higher by one photographer. He doesn't understand, so his father raises his arms up for him. One of the photographers says "Perfect" and the cameras snap more adorable shots.

Who Are You? Who, Who? Who, Who?

Another hour passes, and another after that, and not much changes. Dozens of people are pressed against the gate, moving only when cars come and go through it, their hands wrapped around the gate's bars like prisoners in a cliché. It's getting dark and the assembled milling masses are getting desperate. A plump woman in a flower dress is shouting at the guards on the other side of the gate, telling them that she has to get in, that she has "something to give Michael." She doesn't specify what that something is. The guards politely tell her they can't let anyone in right now, so she begins to address Michael Jackson himself, who is nowhere to be seen. "Michael!" she shouts. "Michael! I have something to give you! I love you, Michael! Let me in! I have something to give you!" One person climbs halfway up the gate, then thinks better of it and gets back down.

There are many varieties of desperation on display outside Neverland as the sun dips down, but the most profound comes from those that clearly wanted the trial to go on forever. One man wonders what he will do with his life now that the trial is over. He quit his job in England so he could "be here in Michael's time of need." His job in England, he says, was "real estate and fighting racism." He's been living in the nearby homeless shelter for the past few months, and has no idea where he'll go from here. Many claim to share an almost identical plight, whether they're from France, Japan, Germany, Ireland, Mexico City, or elsewhere. For many of the people outside Neverland, this child molestation case became their entire reason for existing.

There are nine large news vans parked along the side of the road leading to the ranch, each of them white and each with expensive-looking communications apparatus on their roof. Cameras circulate through the crowd, trying to be at the right place at the right time. The right place is near crazy people, and the right time is when these crazy people are exhibiting their insanity to the fullest extent. One such right time and place is when the French contingent of the crowd, a group of eight guys or so, start jumping up and down near the gate, waving their large French flag around and singing "Bad", though they substitute all the song's lyrics with the word "La". About eight cameramen scuttle over and form a semi-circle in front of them. One cameraman arrives too late, just as they stop doing their thing.

"I only got a second or two of them," he says to the person with him, possibly his producer. "Not much usable footage."

"God damn it," says this person. Luckily, the French contingent repeats their actions verbatim about a half hour later, just in case any media types missed it the first time.

Na, Na, Na. Hey, Hey, Hey. Goodbye.

The moment of truth arrives around 7ish. A security guard -- like all the others, a large neckless guy in a pinstriped suit -- comes to the gate and yells that he has an announcement. People literally sprint towards the Neverland entrance and everything gets silent. Anyone talking is shushed by the crowd.

In a loud voice, the guard tells everyone that "Michael appreciates your support", but that he's resting, he's with his family, he's had a long day, and yadda yadda yadda. The overall gist of his announcement is that people need to go away, that they're not going to be getting inside and they're not welcome at the gates any more. After his announcement, which he ends by telling people to go to their cars, a palpable confusion and disappointment washes over the scene. People start talking to themselves. "This can't be how it ends," says one. "Yeah, Michael hasn't been feeling good," reasons a long-faced man to no one in particular. "Michael needs his rest. I understand. I understand this." A teenage girl somewhere in the crowd yells that "we should start singing Michael's songs. That's what Michael wants to hear right now. His music. Then he'll let us in! Come on!" She sings half of the chorus of "Billie Jean" before trailing off. Almost everybody starts leaving.

"I'm coming back tomorrow," says a member of the French contingent.

"Me too," says another.

"I'm staying right here," says a middle-aged woman with the wide, glassy eyes of a serial killer. She sits down near the gate with her arms crossed, defiant. She'll not be turned away so easily. In all, about thirty people remain at the gate as everyone else begins their hike down the two-lane country road to their cars. Cameramen scramble around to document the exodus from as many angles as possible, fans and media types alike make plans to meet up at a certain nearby bar for a post-trial celebration, hugs and numbers are exchanged like the last day of summer camp, and everybody drives away down the slim street. And that, for many, is a really big that.

 

Drew Atkins is a writer for the Santa Barbara Independent and the publisher of Knock magazine.