To sit next to Mike Nelson in a sunlit park is to be in the presence of celebrity. Nobody misses him. He’s 6-foot-4, with a 50-inch chest, a 34-inch waist and 19-and-a-half-inch biceps attached to shoulders the size of bowling balls. His dark brown hair is shoulder-length. Typical dress is a tight-fitting undershirt with a deeply stretched-out collar tucked into cargos. The urban gladiator effect is further enhanced by a choker necklace: leather strap, a string of white seashells.
“People always say, ‘Hey, Fabio!’” said Mr. Nelson, 37, known to his more dedicated followers as He-Man. “Fabio, Tarzan, Hercules, I get all of those.”
Recently, he filmed a role in a low-budget movie in which he chased a man across Union Square Park with a baseball bat. He was paid $400. “I think I’ve got a good shot with the acting thing,” he said.
But Mr. Nelson’s true passion is bodybuilding. He’s aiming to be ready for competition by the end of summer, after he loses 25 pounds of fat, and then gains 40 in muscle. No tattoos. He does, however, have track marks down his massive forearms.
You might have seen him clomping down 23rd Street en route to the Asser Levy gym near First Avenue for his daily workout. He has a distinctive walk: enormous torso erect, shoulders flexed, legs jiggling out in front of him. He spends a lot of time around Madison Square Park, where he was sunning himself on a bench on Friday, May 15 and agreed to share his life story.
Mr. Nelson began with a dramatic slurrrp, plucking out his rubber left eye.
“Isn’t that wild?” he said with a big grin.
He lost the eye in 2003 while in Bergen County jail, he said—incarcerated after he violated a restraining order filed by his father. Mr. Nelson said he was shackled to a bed for 17 days and bum-rushed by cops after he flipped a tray of food at one in frustration. “A guy pulled out a wand and smashed me in the face, and the eye just exploded. I’m bleeding on the ground and they said I did it myself. They put me in a police car and rush me straight to Hackensack Hospital.”
Mr. Nelson said he filed a lawsuit against Bergen County and was awarded a $270,000 settlement in December 2007, one that did not hold the police accountable for the eye incident but rather for having neglected to give him medication to calm him down. (“The county feels that the resolution reached was satisfactory for all parties involved,” said Ben Feldman, spokesman for the Bergen County sheriff’s office.)
HE-MAN ARRIVED in New York in 2005 from Rutherford, N.J., and—with the exception of one five-month hiatus living out of hotels in Newark and Passaic, spending $1,000 a day on junk, money that he got from the court settlement—he’s been here ever since. There are the soup kitchens (Holy Apostles over on West 28th Street has good veggies and allows for seconds), the city gyms ($75 for the year at Asser Levy), the adventurous women (there have been many; a few have solicited his services as a male dancer). Inevitably, even bloggers embraced him (findheman.com singled him out for superhero status and has been tracking his movements since July ’07).
Michael Nelson was born in July 1971, in Passaic. His father designed packaging machines for Nabisco and Kellog; his mother was a school bus driver for disabled children. Mike was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and placed in special programs in school. His cousin Gary Nelson, an IT technician at NBC, says he remembers Mike getting frustrated with special classes. “They would promise him he would be put in regular classes if he did good, and then he would do good and they would renege on the deal,” he said. “I think that bothered him a lot.” He said Mike distinguished himself outside of school: At age 9 he had a paper route, through high school he mowed lawns and trimmed hedges.
“I took care of rabbits as a kid,” Mr. Nelson recalled. Big smile. “So it taught me how to be a little more affectionate as I got older.”
He thought the first girl he had sex with was going to be his girlfriend. She told him she had only wanted a physical thing. The summer after graduating high school, big Mike got into LSD. “I noticed once I got into the drugs, all of a sudden I had a girlfriend, dating, everything just came into my lap.”
Pretty soon he was taking up to 16 hits a day. One day the cops were after him so he gobbled all of the 48 tabs in his pocket. It took him a year to recover, he said. Lost his speech. Had trouble walking. It was during this time that he reasoned he should get into weight training and nutrition.
“It’s helped save my life a couple of times,” said Mr. Nelson. He went from acid to angel dust to coke to heroin. “When I got real bad, I’d look in the mirror, see myself losing weight: ‘Uh-oh, I gotta get back in the gym.’ I’d clean up for a while. Then I’d slip up again.”