LOS OLIVOS, California — On Thursday, Michael Jackson finally got something he perhaps had always wanted at Neverland Ranch: his very own circus.
Nestled in the sun-drenched mountainous valley just off of CA-154 and not far from Santa Barbara, California, a normally quiet patch of road that leads to the gated main entrance of Jackson's property was swarming with cameras. It was a show of media arms rivaling the dozens of law-enforcement officials who had descended on the place just two days before.
The street was lined with journalists — their vehicles parked haphazardly on the shoulders of the road — from a multitude of television and print outlets, like local papers and "action news" type stations to CNN, FOX News and the Los Angeles Times. They spoke a variety of languages, as Japanese reporters stood side-by-side with their Spanish-speaking counterparts and the BBC, and all of them anxiously yearned to grab a glimpse of the beleaguered pop star.
Everyone was acutely aware that in our media-obsessed culture, it was a shot that they had to have, as arguably the most recognizable celebrity figure in the world came home to face new allegations that he had engaged in lewd conduct with and the molestation of a person under 14.
They talked loudly about whether or not he had snuck into his home the night before, through any number of rumored "secret entrances" and "hidden tunnels"; whether he'd be flown in by helicopter; if he'd come by to shower before hitting the courthouse; or would, perhaps, arrive in some spectacular JFK-style motorcade.
It was a scene being played out in several parts of California: at the airport and at two different sheriff's offices where Jackson could have turned himself in.
Except that here, the only interesting thing to cross Figueroa Mountain Road was a spider.
By early afternoon the palpable anticipation in the air had turned to only mild alertness, with bored journalists setting up tailgate-party-like lawn chairs and breaking out coolers, talking shop and trading whichever rumors their assignment editors had most recently phoned them. One crew picked up a pro-Jackson sign discarded by a fan the night before and had a producer pose with it in front of the gate, openly joking that they were faking a shot because nothing was going on.
And then, along came an arachnid. A furry tarantula, like so many that are native to the area, was spotted crossing the road. A debate erupted as a CNN cameraman attempted to smash it.
"Don't kill that spider!" yelled one woman from the foreign press. "We need to save him from the cars coming down the road!"
"Fine, I'm not going to kill it," the guy shouted back. "How about I just nudge it into the bushes?"
As the spider was harassed into moving closer to the small green gate and lone guard that conspicuously marked Neverland (the fabled Ferris wheel and giraffes, alas, must have been obscured by the rolling hills and handful of cows, as on Thursday the view wasn't much different than in an episode of the '80s soap "Dallas"), a photographer from the Associated Press began pontificating on the finer points of tarantulas — their eating habits, webbing, agility and speed. His camera, seemingly forgotten, languished on its strap at his side.
"This looks like the most news we're getting today," one woman joked, sounding more annoyed than comical.
Someone brought up the spider bite that allegedly kept Jackson from a court appearance during a different scandal (see "Allegedly Attacked By Spider, Michael Jackson Skips Court Date"), which led a photographer from a Santa Barbara paper to quip, "You know, during that trial, you never knew what Michael was going to do, when he'd show up, or if he'd talk to you. He very well could show up here today, step out of his limo, and take a few questions."
Not long after, cell phones were abuzz with news that Jackson had turned up with the Santa Barbara sheriffs (see "Michael Jackson Surrenders To Santa Barbara Police"), which meant he'd be released within the hour, and likely show up at Neverland shortly after. Crews quickly set up their tripods to best capture the surely soon-to-be-happening moment.
The easygoing vibe of cooperation and mutual respect gave way to the idea that, ultimately, everyone there had a job to do. And hanging out was cool, but now, "Get the heck out of my shot, man!"
A few local kids, thought by many reporters to be more curious glory-hounds than genuine fans (yet interviewed anyway), showed up to lend their support. A large man wearing a Confederate hat sped down the road in a pickup with blatant disregard for those assembled, yelling epithets as he went. A few soccer moms followed suit, albeit with (slightly) more restraint. Across the street, elementary-school-aged students from a private school played kickball in the grass.
The press waited. And waited.
More calls came in. Nothing was happening, most were told. Jackson was at the airport and surely venturing somewhere other than Neverland. Some crews packed up. Most journalists kept chatting with each other. Yet more B-roll of the same boring shots of the gate, the bushes and the cows was filmed.
And then, out of nowhere, came a limo with a few cars in front of and behind it. It was lightning fast. Only one TV cameraman captured a clear shot.
"Was that it?" one guy yelled, frustrated. "Man! Of course Jacko blows through just as we are all standing around with our thumbs up our butts!"
A Neverland security guard emerged soon after to yell at everyone to get out of the street. Then the cell phones started blowing up again: Everyone watching their TVs back at the office said that Jackson had just landed in Las Vegas.
Two 18-year-old local Mormon boys, one of them wearing a T-shirt that read, "Arrest me, I'm a skateboarder," cranked Jackson songs from their beat-up truck, smirking their way through interviews about how Jackson can't be guilty, "just because." A print journalist, clearly defeated, sat down on a rock and cracked a book as some of the cars and trucks started to pull away and the sun headed down.
"Careful," cautioned the AP photog. "That's where the tarantula is."
"Maybe it will attack me," she answered dryly, barely looking up. "Then you can snap some pictures, and at least something will have happened here."
For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."