Jordan Neely's childhood friend had been searching the streets for him in months before chokehold death: ‘People still cared about him’
NEW YORK — The Michael Jackson hit “Man in the Mirror” now sounds a note of heartbreak for an old friend of Manhattan subway chokehold victim Jordan Neely.
Christophe Palmer, 36, first met Neely when they were teens living in the same building in Washington Heights and had even been out searching the streets for him in recent months.
Growing up together, Palmer’s younger friend was already honing his impersonation of the King of Pop — and taught Palmer to hear Jackson’s smash single with new ears.
“He said, ‘Listen to it and think of yourself as a human being — who you are and who you are to yourself are two different things,’” recalled Palmer. ”The same way that someone doesn’t know yours, you don’t know theirs. Treat them as if you at least know that.’”
The entire city now knows of the 30-year-old homeless man, his life and hard times recounted repeatedly since his May 1 death in a chokehold aboard a Manhattan subway car applied by an ex-Marine now charged with manslaughter.
But Palmer said there’s plenty they don’t know about Neely: His friend’s sense of humor, his hopes for the future.
“He was one of the most loving and funny people and always had good energy,” Palmer said. “He was eager to do anything that included his passion.”
Neely’s funeral will be held Friday at Harlem’s Mount Neboh Baptist Church, a final farewell 18 days after the struggling victim went limp on the floor of a subway car. Palmer is among the scores expected to attend.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who early on called for criminal charges against Penny, will deliver the eulogy.
After Neely slipped into homelessness, a concerned Palmer would often encounter him on the 181st station platform on the No. 1 line, or sitting on a staircase near 191st St. between Broadway and Wadsworth Terrace. On occasion, Neely appeared near New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia.
“I would make the transfer just so that I could see if he was there,” said Palmer. “On those nights that I did see him I would see how he was doing and I would ask if he had eaten.”
“Lately I started looking again,” he added. “When I started looking for him again that’s when I couldn’t find him.”
Another friend of Palmer’s would give Neely a place to crash from time to time and Palmer and the friend would ask each other about Neely if they hadn’t seen him.
“The last time I saw this friend was literally three weeks before this happened,” said Palmer. “People still cared about him.”
Palmer’s husband Michael Moore von Gaysen recalled his lone meeting with Neely, when the couple provided the down-on-his-luck man with a place to stay for the night and a gift of underwear and socks.
“He was telling me about his about his performance and you could see that inner light,” recalled von Gaysen. “He really spoke with passion and there was a fire inside of him. That’s when I became a fan.”
An emotional Palmer recalled being at a gathering and hearing of the fatal subway struggle from another friend who had also unsuccessfully sought to find the homeless man on the streets recently.
“I needed a moment,” said Palmer, his voice choking up. “I was visiting with friends. It just took me completely out of the moment.”
The caught-on-video death of Neely, whose favorite Jackson song was “Billie Jean,” divided New Yorkers into two camps: Many view Neely as a victim of vigilante justice aboard the F train, a scene invoking subway gunman Bernie Goetz and his 1984 shooting of four Black teens.
Backers of defendant Daniel Penny believe in his innocence despite the second-degree manslaughter charge, their feelings backed in cash donations and positive messages to the defendant.
A legal defense fund launched for Penny raised more than $2.6 million in less than a week from tens of thousands of supporters nationwide following the defendant’s release on $100,000 bail after a court appearance last Friday.
“Please stay strong and know that you are supported by so many people,” wrote one donor.
Palmer, then 18, met the 13-year-old Neely when they were introduced by the street artist’s younger brother.
“He was already performing, mostly for friends,” said Palmer. “When friends asked him to bust a move, he would. We told him on the block, ‘You’re not just good, you’re really good.’”
He was, until life went really bad for Neely across the years.
Palmer prefers the past to the present with his memories of Neely.
He remembers a friend and entertainer, with the city’s streets and subway his stage even as Neely’s life tumbled into disarray: No home, 42 arrests in the last decade and struggles with mental health.
He recalls the overwhelming sadness when Neely shared about his mother Christie’s brutal 2007 murder by her boyfriend, with the victim strangled, stuffed in a suitcase and dumped on the Henry Hudson Parkway.
“When I went back home, I had a good cry,” said Palmer. “I thought, ‘Damn, if it hurt you that much and it didn’t happen to you, imagine how much it hurt him.”
“Growing up, if me or my brother were doing something my father was right behind us,” said Palmer. “When I saw Jordan he was always alone.”
Neely’s father Andre Zachary told the Daily News in an exclusive interview earlier this month that the slaying of Neely’s mother sent Neely to a dark place, with his son also dealing with autism and often refusing to take his prescribed medications. Zachary last saw his son in 2019.
By the end of his life, Neely’s performances were less about style and more about staying alive. Palmer recalled running into his friend seven years ago in Washington Heights and asking Neely about the last time he took a shower.
“Not the same as before,” said Palmer. “It’s different when you’re doing it to survive.”
Palmer prefers to remember Neely from better times, before his friend landed on the city streets, before his final and fatal subway ride.
“He was eager to do anything that included his passion,” he said. “He was good at sharing and getting another person comfortable, being themselves.”