Case Study: Street Bum, Angel or . . .

Detroit, Michigan; Summer of 1981. I was with two of my long time friends at our local dance club where our favorite band plays most weekends. We are regulars there. I ordered a coke and both of my friends were appalled and demanded I purchase a real drink. What would people say if they knew … Continued

Detroit, Michigan; Summer of 1981. I was with two of my long time friends at our local dance club where our favorite band plays most weekends. We are regulars there. I ordered a coke and both of my friends were appalled and demanded I purchase a real drink. What would people say if they knew I wasn’t drinking? My reply was, “who cares, people can think its Rum and Coke. What difference does it make?” They insisted on buying me a real drink but I declined. I was getting tired of their discussions as if I somehow wasn’t there hearing them pass judgment on me.

Just then a man came up to the table and asked me to dance. He had an Afro-style haircut, wore a long coat and rumpled clothes and looked like a bum. His voice was soft despite his rough appearance. I had a feeling this guy was someone special and my thoughts jumped to the Good Samaritan story. With absolutely no hesitation, I said “yes.” He helped me out of my chair and I led the way to the dance floor.

I’d started dancing when I was three years old and throughout my childhood I performed in dance recitals, talent shows, in hospitals and retirement homes. When I wasn’t performing I was taking dance classes or practicing. I love to dance.

It has been my experience that most guys don’t dance well and I usually lead on the slow ones. So I was doing my thing on the dance floor when I looked over at my partner and realized this guy was nothing short of an amazing dancer with moves I’ve never seen before (and I went out dancing a lot!) I was excited to find someone who could challenge me, so I stepped up my moves. Who was this guy; and how lucky was I to be dancing with him?

The song ended and I hoped we would stay for another but he walked me back to my table, thanked me for the dance with a slight bow then disappeared. My exhilaration turned to disappointment. It was too fast. We didn’t even talk. I wanted more.

My reverie was cut dramatically short when both of my friends took turns reprimanding me for not only dancing with a bum but a bum who was a Black man. ‘What was I thinking anyway? I should stick to my own kind. Didn’t I notice his flapping shoes?’ They told me it was embarrassing for them to be with me. I thought: “who are these people I thought were my friends? We are so very different now and I no longer seem to have anything in common with them anymore.”

Through my life, I have often thought about that evening—sometimes because of my now ex-friends’ behavior and the criticism about my choices in drink and my dance partner. Mostly I think about the fact that whoever I danced with that night was someone special. It was obvious the guy was in disguise and I wondered why he would do that. Was it God testing my ability to accept people as they are and not to judge? I believe that was the case. The guy didn’t smell like a street person at all. Although his clothes were worn and rumpled, they were clean. I never even noticed his floppy shoes. And you have to get past a bouncer and show your ID to get in to the place and they didn’t have a problem with him. I felt very safe with this person. His energy was magnetic and he had manners far better than most guys who ask me to dance. I really wish the experience had lasted longer. It was a highlight in my life that I have returned to many, many times since and wondered who this person was and why it happened.

Cut to July 7, 2009, Staples Center; Los Angeles, California—Michael Jackson’s Memorial.

His brother, Marlon, is on stage relating a story about this guy he saw in a record store. He described him as dressed in rumpled clothes, an Afro . . . I froze. He was describing the man I danced with that night in Detroit so many years earlier. He continued his story … ‘So I said, Hi Mike, what are you doing here?’ In that moment I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever who I had danced with that night so long ago. I had danced with Michael Jackson!

I told myself it was crazy: ‘what would Michael even be doing in Detroit?’ Then I found out that in that very time frame he was on his Triumph Tour, and one of the stops was Detroit. I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out they were performing on August 29th (Michael’s birthday but he and his family did not celebrate birthdays at this time) at the Joe Louis Arena which was an easy drive to the club. So it was possible. Later I saw a picture of Michael dancing with Tatum O’Neal where he was in mid-move—that distinct move. He also did it in the Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough video where first there is one of him doing it, then two and finally three. He leans back a certain way with his leg in a specific position. That was the move I saw across from me on the dance floor back in Detroit.

Now that I know it was him, I wish more than ever we had danced longer, exchanged a few words, and that he might have revealed himself. That evening when I left the club, feeling a bit down from the treatment from my so-called friends, and the all too short time with the mystery dancer, the bouncer made an odd comment to me that made no sense at the time. I remember this because he rarely spoke to me beyond “ID please” and “go on in” but whatever he said was something about my dancing that lifted my spirits a little even though it was cryptic. Now, knowing who I danced with that night, I realize his comment must have been something about me dancing with Michael without coming right out and saying it given the man’s desire and need to be in disguise. He had to have known since he checked everyone’s ID in this small place and he had a bird’s eye view of the action, including the dance floor.

I don’t know why I chose not to have alcohol that evening but I think none of this would have happened if I had indulged, especially now knowing that at that time, Michael did not drink. No matter how short that moment when I didn’t know who I was with, it was already tucked away as a standout experience in my memory. Now it is something I will be eternally grateful for having in my life. It fits with the message Michael Jackson told repeatedly: “It doesn’t matter what we look like, we are all a part of each other. Don’t judge, accept and above all L.O.V.E.”

Lessons, Discussion Point and Questions

 FRIENDS – their view of my actions and my experience or relationship with them

to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  e. e. cummings

  • Ideally, accepting each other in friendship
  • Friends worried about hanging out with the right people
  • Friends’ shock at dancing with a Black man (growing up living in a bubble)
  • Doing something different and your friends feel threatened
  • Drinking – what it looks like to my friends if I don’t
  • Friends talking to each other as if I wasn’t there in a negative or judgmental way
  • Pressure to behave like your friends want you to behave
  • How do you handle the pressure your friends place on you to be like them?
  • Be who you are and have the courage to be true to yourself (e e cummings poem)
  • Friendships – what’s important, boundaries, what are you willing to accept, put up with; changes at different ages
  • Tolerate more when you’re younger in certain areas?
  • When older there is less peer pressure?
  • Knowing when to let go of a relationship when it’s not good or work through them if possible
  • The need for acceptance – how far will you go?
  • Fear – friends feel threatened and think they are losing you when you change
  • Advice to “stick to your own kind” – do friends reflect what the community lived in believes or what people are brought up to believe?

BUM or ANGEL – my relationship and experience with him

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  James Russell Lowell

  • Saying yes to a bum – is that a danger, against social rules . . . or was there an instinct or intuition to accept without logic or mentally processing the decision?
  • How I felt with this person – safe, comfortable; there was no consideration needed; there was just a knowing that they are fine. I wanted to be with him, in his presence and was disappointed our encounter was short. I have never had that kind of feeling from anyone before or since.
  • Ability to see beyond the outer appearance – literally and figuratively. If anyone bothered to notice (including my friends), his disguise was obvious and executed poorly and I could see this young face underneath all the facial hair and wig. His eyes which seemed to me to be sad and lonely and very kind.

Usually, when encountering someone sad and lonely, their desperation is a turn off but this time it was just the opposite. Most likely because I saw kindness in his eyes and saw into his soul and that was what I found so magnetic, was attracted to, and wanted to be around. Those eyes have been part of the reason this memory has stayed with me so strongly. Was there a knowing that this person was so much more than what he appeared to look like in the physical? How does that occur?

  • Open mindedness allows us to see the person within and does not judge based on outer appearances. The focus was not on what the person was wearing but on their talent as a dancer.
  • This bum or angel was a catalyst who stirred things up in my relationship with my friends and as a result of this experience, I made the decision that I no longer wanted to be friends with them.
  • When you just know the inner part of a person, the outer changes too. Have you ever met someone that made no impression one way or the other, but once you got to get to know them and learn how great they are, they become more physically attractive?
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
  • Discuss: The Beauty and the Beast story;
  • Discuss: the Good Samaritan story

Questions to Ponder/ Point of View (POV)

What motivated him to dress in disguise and go places? This, we do have an idea about; he wanted to observe real life this way because he couldn’t by being himself. But why dress like a bum? Why make it obvious he was wearing a disguise? Maybe he’d already observed that people were afraid to look closely at someone who most people would normally avoid, someone who would normally repel others, or might cause discomfort or fear. What do you think?

Had he approached women before in this disguise and asked them to dance? What were the results? Did he get rejected and kept trying or did others instinctive say yes too? Is there some kind of information transfer that takes place in interactions which has no name?

What did he think when I said yes? Did he expect it? Was he surprised? Was this the kind of experience he was hoping for? Was this, perhaps, his private study of human nature?

He may have just wanted to dance and I happened to be the lucky one he asked. Why would someone go through all that trouble of dressing in disguise, going to the club, and then only dancing one dance only to leave immediately? What might have happened had he been recognized? Why do you suppose he took that risk?

General Questions

Using as an example, the movie Vantage Point that shows the same incident from the point of view of different people – police, victims, observers, rescuers, we get a glimpse of each version unique as we follow the individual and their role in the experience. We make conclusions based on how we see things referenced from personal knowledge and experience. We only know what we know.

Trailer from the film Vantage Point

In this scenario, examine the point of view of:

  • The friends behavior towards each other, toward the author and the bum and examine the value they place on appearance
  • the author; each friend; the angel and her awareness or lack of it; the bouncer
  • the bouncer – observing who he lets in, and what goes on
  • the people at the club and what they were focusing on
  • the bum or angel – his: choosing this particular place, dressing in disguise to be able to observe in a detached way, his choice of dancers, his experience in the club—with the author and for himself.
  • The people who read this story – how would they have responded to this scenario at that time and place in history? Will they respond honestly?

General Point of VIew

  • Prejudice: comes from lack of knowledge and fear, usually irrational and comes from others influence and opinions
  • Discrimination: thinking someone is not good enough to be acknowledged as a peer
  • Social acceptance: fitting in, going along with the majority
  • Being different: causes people to be afraid and they feel they are in danger at some level
  1. Can age change our point of view?
  2. Does experience affect our point of view?
  3. Does our knowledge or lack of knowledge, expansion of knowledge change our point of view?
  4. Does our intuition, inner knowing affect our point of view on a subconscious level?
  5. Does seeing an event from a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual point of view color that point of view?
  6. Does history or era or then vs. now affect our point of view?

Why was this experience so strong in the author’s memory that she thought of it often throughout the twenty-nine years since it occurred? If this person was in disguise, why wasn’t the author afraid when he asked her to dance? Why did he choose her? Who was he? And most importantly, why did life present her with this experience?

What compels a person to do something without thought?

Discuss that inner battle where that little voice says “yes” and logic says “no.” Is there danger there? Why or why not?

Do you believe we have certain experiences to help us learn something? Are we sometimes the mirror for the other person with whom we are having an experience?  Are we ever there to give something to each other? To teach?

The author thinks that she certainly walked away with a sense of something powerful. Does she think there was a gift in this experience? Can you identify a gift or gifts? What did her partner get out of it? Was he the mirror? Did he receive a reflection or get something back too? Why?

This just may be a story about unconditional and universal love. Perhaps even a love for all mankind. How magical it can be and how it can change a person for a moment in time to be remembered for a lifetime? Is it magical? Do you believe in magic?

What lessons can be learned from this story? Do you have a similar story to tell?

How do you relate to the statements below?

  1. The Good Samaritan story: we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Just because someone isn’t just like us doesn’t mean we should reject them. What a boring world it would be if we were are all same!
  2. People are judged by how they look (outer beauty vs. inner beauty) An attractive person can open their mouth band suddenly become unattractive and vice versa.
  3. Racial prejudice and discrimination
  4. Peer pressure
  5. Staying true to yourself
  6. Accepting people allows who they are to emerge
  7. Beauty and the Beast story
  8. True love whether as a friend, lover or universally, is there for us if we listen to our inner voice that guides us. You only need to listen and follow it.
  9. Look beyond the mask or package and beyond what society is telling us to do, think and believe; do what you know is right in your heart.
  10. If something looks good in the store and you bring home the package and open it – you can find it is not what you expected. Paying more means better quality is not always true.
  11. Sometimes someone recommends something or someone and you find what they like, is not what you like. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends necessarily. We are all different and diversity is good.

The moral of the story: When you stay true to who you are and listen to your heart, magic happens.

Michael songs and lyrics that exemplify the lessons:

The Man in the Mirror


Aside from the two quotes with the authors listed, the following are referenced:

  • Jackson 5 Triumph tour (dates and info listed in Wikipedia)
  • Marlon Jackson’s speech for Michael’s Memorial at the Staples Center; LA, CA
  • Well known stories: Beauty & The Beast, The Good Samaritan
  • The film Vantage Point
  • Michael Jackson’s songs and lyrics or lyrics by others that Michael performed: Black and White, Can You Feel It, You’re Just Another Part of Me, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and Man in the Mirror

Description of Michael

illustration by the Author

  • Large Afro wig, large oversized eyebrows and moustache (An Afro haircut was a style in the 1970s characterized by a bushy head of hair shaped like a bubble usually worn by African Americans that connoted pride in one’s race. The racial pride movement began with James Brown’s song I’m Black and I’m Proud)
  • When the author got up to go to the dance floor, she looked into his face which is how she identified he was in disguise; she saw a smaller face hiding under the large Afro and excessive facial brows and moustache. His face seemed a confirmation that he was someone safe, kind and trustworthy – which was unusual for her as she rarely trusted anyone.
  • He wore a long duster type coat, below the knee in length; the color was a faded grey or brown
  • The duster and pants worn were baggy and rumpled but clean. They were definitely too big for his frame; the person was almost swimming in them.
  • His shoes were tattered and the soles were loose.

Case Study written by Nancy J. Caldwell:

Ms. Caldwell currently resides in Southern California.  She is an artist and writer and still enjoys dancing.


Violeta Parra (Chilean)

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