Monster’s Nest: At Home With Michael Alig
“I need you to help me with something,” says Michael Alig, somewhat sheepishly. “Can you show me how to make a new email account for, you know, sex stuff?”
It’s midafternoon and I’m with Alig in his friend’s spacious three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, where he’s staying in a spartan spare room until he gets back on his feet. He’s sitting on a white folding chair pawing at a laptop, and I’m on his unmade single bed, next to a pile of dirty laundry. On a bookshelf behind him sits a Michael Jackson figurine and a vase holding a single, wilting red rose.
He’s been holing up here since his release from prison on May 5, trying to adjust to life after 17 years on the inside. One thing he’s struggling with is technology. The 48-year-old says he didn’t know how to turn on a computer at first, and he’s still coming to grips with texting. “I can only handle learning about one new thing each day, otherwise it’s overwhelming.”
But he’s a quick study, taking to Chatroulette and gay hookup sites after being introduced to them by his roommates, Ernie Glam and Glam’s husband, David. Now he wants a new email account so he can browse more discreetly. A friend is helping him manage his email and passwords, just until he can figure things out for himself. “I need one that’s just for me,” he says. “For private stuff.”
Privacy is a relatively new concept to Alig. In December 1996, the former New York club kid was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter over the murder of his friend, Andre “Angel” Melendez. The ordeal was chronicled by fellow nightlife fixture James St. James in the book Disco Bloodbath, which was adapted into the cult movie Party Monster, starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig.
In March 1996, Melendez came over to Alig’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment and the pair began fighting over money. They started to scuffle and, as Alig tells it, Melendez pushed him through a china cabinet, a piece of glass piercing his back. It was then that another friend, Robert “Freeze” Riggs, hit Melendez on the back of the head with a hammer, causing him to fall over. Alig, Riggs and a rarely mentioned third party, Daniel Auster, then piled on top of him, and Alig smothered him with a sweatshirt. Once Melendez had stopped writhing they propped him up on the couch, assuming he was unconscious. They were high, Alig says, on a cocktail of Special K, crystal meth and Rohypnol, and conducted a series of crude tests to make sure he was still alive.
“We put a spoon to his nose and we thought we saw a breath. Maybe he was still alive then? Maybe he died on the couch? I’m not sure. We were watching his stomach and I swore I saw it go up and down. Freeze checked his pulse and we kept checking on him every so often in between our drug use,” he says, adding that about nine hours later it finally dawned on them that they’d killed their friend. “We realized because Daniel threw some water in his face. We filled the bathtub up with water and put his head in the bathtub to see if bubbles came out, and they didn’t.”
Not knowing what else to do, and afraid to call the police, they put Melendez’s body in the tub, and covered him with ice, Drano and baking soda to mask the smell. They also poured Drano down his throat. They left him there for nine days, before Alig and Riggs dismembered him with butcher’s knives, put his legs in a duffel bag, his head and torso in a TV box and disposed of them at two separate sites along the Hudson River. Though Alig has never denied his involvement since the arrest he is eager to discredit a couple of rumors, including one that he injected Melendez with Drano.
“In the movie, they have Freeze hitting Angel with the claw end of the hammer and there’s blood spurting all over,” he adds. “Freeze hit Angel with the wooden part of the handle and there was no broken skin, he didn’t even cut his skin. There was absolutely no blood. When they came with the Luminol the only blood they found was mine from falling through the china cabinet.”
Finer details aside, the murder was indisputably gruesome, and Alig spent the next 17 years being shuttled back and forth between eight different correctional facilities. Throughout this time, he managed to stay in sporadic contact with the outside world thanks to World of Wonder’s “Michael Alig: Phone Call from a Felon,” a series of comic conversations between Alig and his friend James St. James, and, more recently, by phoning in tweets to Esther Haynes, the editor of his upcoming memoir, who posted them on his behalf.
However, for much of his sentence he was locked away in solitary confinement, an 8-by-6 cell known as the box, where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules. Alig went down when his urine tested positive for drugs, heroin being his substance of choice. Though he’s been clean since 2009, he says it was easy to score in prison; the porters, inmates who go from cell to cell handing out supplies, are often dealers, and his notoriety as a drug-addled murderer made him an easy mark.
“I’d say, well, fuck it. I’ve committed this awful crime and nobody’s ever going to forgive me,” he says. “It’s pointless to even try to do the right thing because I’ve already done something so bad that nothing I do now will matter anymore.”
His first stretch in the box lasted two years, with the second clocking in at three. The latter almost broke him. He was initially sentenced to two years but had a third added at the last minute following an argument with an officer. The thought of 12 more months in isolation was too much to bear.
“I felt that my head was going to explode with all of this anxiety and panic. I had a paper clip and I just started cutting my arms and chest,” he says, pulling up his sleeve to show me a series of long, raised scars. “The physical pain was actually more bearable than the psychological pain and it took my mind away from where I was. If you do it once or twice, they don’t really care, but I was doing it over and over. Then I drank toilet cleaner and they took me to an observation room.”
He describes solitary as “cruel and inhumane punishment.” He was kept in his cell for 23 hours at a time and only allowed out for the legally mandated one hour of fresh air each day; in a second, smaller cage located behind a door off his room. Even then, he rarely took them up on the offer because he didn’t want to get too close to the prisoners in adjacent cells.
“They throw shit and piss because they’re in solitary confinement and they go a little bit crazy,” he says. “They’re kind of like animals in a cage that are cornered and can’t do anything to hurt anybody. They usually do it at officers but, you know, you’re in the way. Once you get caught doing it you have to go outside with your hands cuffed behind your back. But then they’d just put the shit in their mouths, and if they had to wait 15 minutes for whoever to walk by they would—and then they’d spit it at them.”
When he was out of the box, Alig spent a lot of time with his prison boyfriend, Mike, whom he describes as closeted but sweet. Though he got plenty of interest from “admirers,” Alig insists he had sex only once in 17 years, and that was with Mike after a friend kept guard while they went at it in an empty room. When pressed, he admits there also may have been a blow job here and there—but only with Mike; a level of monogamy uncommon among gay men in prison.
“They’ll suck any dick, no matter what the guy looks like,” he says. “I was never into that. And the guys, all these straight guys, would be lining up for their turn.”
Alig says he and Mike had something approaching a life. They were affectionate, spending quiet days drinking coffee and playing backgammon, watching TV or playing bocce. “We were the bocce ball champions of Elmira,” he says. “Nobody ever beat us.” At night, they’d head back to one of their cells to cook dinner, which usually consisted of lo mein or tuna wraps.
The quiet routine offered a certain stability, which he currently lacks on the outside. There was a minor media circus when a 15-person van, paid for by the production company shooting one of two documentaries about his life, arrived to pick him up on the day of his release. With crews for both films, his editor, a reporter and two old hangers-on from his club days along for the four-and-a-half-hour drive back to New York, it was a spectacle that has yet to fully die down.
His days have since been kept busy with back-to-back interviews, shoots for the documentaries and meeting up with the friends who have stood by him. He’s excited to see his mom and brother, but they’ve decided to wait for the initial wave of attention to pass before reuniting. Then, of course, there are the stipulations of his release, which include Narcotics Anonymous meetings, drug counseling and appointments with his parole officer; all before his 8 p.m. curfew.
Alig comes across as affable in person, yet there’s a manic quality to him; he flits between subjects with barely a breath in between, gesticulating with hands that are almost always faintly shaking. Over lunch at an IHOP near his apartment, he appears rattled. “I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he says.
Throughout the day, his mood fluctuates wildly. He giggles at inappropriate times, grins through dark stories and cries easily—three times in the five hours we spend together. He also seems to struggle with the simplest of tasks; for the first six days out of prison, he didn’t shower, simply because no one had ordered him to.
“I don’t know how to manage my time anymore. What I need to do is learn how to prioritize things. I see 20 things on my things to-do list I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t do anything,” he says. “It’s like the scene in that movie with the Mork & Mindy guy, Robin Williams. The one where he’s from Moscow and he comes over to America from Russia and he goes down the aisle with all the coffee and he starts crying because he can’t choose what coffee he wants.”
Back at his apartment, I suggest that maybe agreeing to all of the interviews and allowing documentary crews to follow him around isn’t the best idea in terms of his mental health, not to mention that it leaves him open to criticism that he’s capitalizing on it all. After all, he did kill a man, chop up his body and throw the pieces in a river.
“I’m torn,” he says after a brief pause. “My new counselor says she thinks I’m probably doing the wrong thing, but she also knows I’m the kind of person that has to be doing 100,000 things at once or else I feel like I’m missing out and that might cause me even more anxiety.
“In fact, this is keeping me from getting addicted to something online. If I had nothing to do I’d be on Chatroulette 24 hours a day. And I don’t know if they sell meth around here, but… Can you imagine doing meth and going on Chatroulette? The trouble you’d get up to, oh my god! ‘Come on over! Here’s my address!’”
Despite it all he is happy to be out, and cautiously optimistic about his future. Once all of the cameras have gone away, he plans on finishing his memoir, Aligula. He’s also working on a photo book comprised of the letters he received in prison, including correspondence from people on the outside and the ephemera he collected on the inside. He intends to continue painting, which he took up while incarcerated, and is in talks about a gallery show. Then there are the media possibilities. The New York Post has floated the idea of a weekly column and Gay Times in the U.K. has asked him to write for them. He also rattles off ideas for documentaries and TV shows that he wants to produce.
Alig tells me he’s grateful to have a second chance, though he feels “guilty for feeling grateful.” He thinks about Melendez often, even more now that he’s finally free again. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to forgive himself for what he did, or if he should even strive for that.
“I know that intellectually I should and that it would be better for everybody if I did, but emotionally I feel guilty even thinking about forgiving myself. I feel like I shouldn’t be enjoying anything,” he says. “I had a piece of pecan pie the other day, just a little Sara Lee dollar-fifty thing. I looked at it and saw how rich and creamy and sweet it was, and I just completely broke down. I mean, I killed somebody and here I am, the nerve of me. I was in a town car being driven from an interview to my house, with pie and coffee in the back and it just felt really obscene and wrong.”
The guilt is something he discusses with his new therapist. “She said, ‘This is your life and you just have to go on with it and pay homage to Angel and his family by not taking it for granted and not fucking up.’ Those were her exact words, ‘Don’t fuck up.'”