MY FRIEND MICHAEL
An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man
By Frank Cascio
With Hilary Liftin
As I drove my car through the dark cobblestone streets of Castelbuono, Italy, I turned my phone on. Text messages started rolling in, one on top of another, so fast that I couldn't read them. Flashes of phrases like "Is it true?" and "Are you okay?" piled on top of one another on the screen, layers of questions and concern. I had no idea what news they were talking about, but I knew it wasn't good. In Castelbuono, my family's hometown, many people have two homes, one in the town, where they work, and a summer retreat up in the mountains, where they plant vegetable gardens and tend fig trees. I had spent the evening at the summer home of the man who had rented me a house down in the town. He had invited me to a dinner party with six or seven other people, and I was the guest of honor, because in Castelbuono, having flown in from New York is reason enough to be warmly and widely welcomed. It was June 25, 2009. There weren't many of us at the table, but as at any good Italian dinner party, there was more than enough food, wine, and grappa. During the dinner, I turned off my phone. Having spent years of my life tethered to a cell phone, I've grown to love those moments when good manners force me to shut it down. The other guests and I lingered in the balmy night, then finally said our good-byes to our host, and around midnight I headed with a few friends back to the house I'd rented, following my cousin Dario's car down the dirt mountain roads into the city.
Now, as the stream of text messages flooded my phone, my cousin Dario's car swerved suddenly to the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop. As soon as I saw him pull over, I knew that what I was starting to glean from the texts had to be true. I rolled to a stop behind Dario. He ran toward my car, shouting, "Michael's dead! Michael's dead!"
I got out of my car and started walking down the road, with no plan or destination. I was numb. Shocked. I don't know how much time passed before I finally dialed one of Michael's most loyal employees, a woman I'll call Karen Smith. Was this one of Michael's schemes? A prank on the press or an ill-conceived attempt to get out of a concert? Sadly, Karen confirmed that what I had heard was true. We cried on the phone together. We didn't say much. We just cried. After I hung up the phone, I just kept walking. My friends were still waiting back in my car. My cousin was following behind me saying, "Frank, get in the car. Come on, Frank." But I didn't want to be around anyone. "I'll meet you at home," I called out as I walked away from them. "I just want everyone to get away from me."