Sharing Their Grief

Fan Reaction

Baltimoreans Who Couldn't Be There Gathered In Public Places To View Memorial Service

July 08, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

They might not have had the coveted wristbands guaranteeing them seats at Michael Jackson's funeral in Los Angeles. But the singer's fans in Baltimore and across the country found other ways to bid farewell to the King of Pop.

In New York's Harlem neighborhood, chants of "Michael! Michael!" rang out as hundreds gathered to watch the memorial service on a giant screen. In Gary, Ind., a steady stream of fans wearing Jackson T-shirts and listening to such hits as "Billie Jean" visited the singer's boyhood home.

Baltimoreans rearranged work schedules Tuesday and took their lunch breaks at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, where the ceremony was projected on a large video screen in the central hall. Just 20 chairs were set up for spectators, but more were added as the crowd grew to about 50.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's editions incorrectly stated when Stevie Wonder's ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" was written. The song originally was released in 1971.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

It seems that grief, like music, is meant to be shared.

"I came to the Pratt because I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people who really care about Michael Jackson," said Tiffany McDonald, 36, of Baltimore, who arranged for backup help to staff the day care business she owns. She attended the funeral with her 12-year-old daughter, Nyah, an aspiring dancer who hopes to someday moonwalk as well as her hero.

"Michael's music expressed his compassion and love for people," Tiffany McDonald said. "He was a great humanitarian. We all have our shortcomings, but the good he did greatly outweighed the bad. Look at all the charities he's given to, all the other artists he inspired and helped."

As Stevie Wonder sang a tune he composed for the occasion, "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," tears streamed down Cookie Wallace's cheeks. A co-worker at the Pratt, where Wallace works, got up to fetch her some tissue. "Here you go, crybaby," she said, her tone teasing but affectionate.

Aside from the wall-to-wall television coverage, the memorial service was streamed online by many news outlets and Web sites, including MySpace.com, the Associated Press' online video network, and The New York Times' Web site.

But not everyone was fixated on their computer or television screens. Some have tired of the media barrage and nonstop testimonials since the singer's death on June 25. A Pew Research Center poll published last week found that 64 percent of those surveyed said Jackson's death has received too much coverage.

Perhaps that explains why no one called in to WERQ-FM, Baltimore's top-rated radio station, to reminisce about the King of Pop during the first half of the two-hour funeral service.

"I think maybe we've worn them out," said Neke Howse, the midday DJ, just before pushing the button to send Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" over Baltimore's airwaves.

But other mourners gravitated to public places.

Vanessa Buenger, one of a half-dozen people crowded around a flat-screen TV in the lobby of the Downtown Athletic Club, teared up when Michael Jackson's daughter, Paris, told everyone how much she loved her daddy. And she bent her head prayerfully as the service concluded.

The Baltimore woman, who's just a year younger than Jackson, said she felt like she grew up with him. She'd been glued to the television all day, and planned to return there later Tuesday when she got off work at the gym.

"It's just very surreal. I can't believe it really happened," she said. "I feel like he was part of my family."

For Regina Penton, 50, of Baltimore, Jackson really did provide the soundtrack for her life. When she was in elementary school, she would "perform" "ABC" along with the Jackson Five in front of her television set. When she was pregnant with her own two boys, it seemed that every time she turned on a radio she heard "Billie Jean."

"When I heard that Michael had died, I couldn't believe it," Penton said.

"I screamed and dropped the phone. I watched television all day and night. I cried, and I couldn't sleep."

But she is glad that the central Pratt made plans to show the funeral.

"I was hoping there would be somewhere I could go and watch with other fans," she said.

"Michael Jackson brought people together. There will never be anyone like him."

Baltimore Sun reporters Chris Kaltenbach and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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