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.”
He said that about a decade ago, desperate for cash, he plundered a Newark cemetery and sold skulls to practitioners of Palo Mayombe. “That was crazy.”
Mr. Nelson dated a woman named Elise, a prostitute. He would carry empty bottles in his jacket pocket to defend her.
His time in New York has been a succession of relationships, mainly because he needed a place to live but also because he likes to find a girl and stick with her. First was Christine.
“She used to live with this 70-year-old man. And he paid $200 a month toward the apartment on MacDougal. So she’d rob him for a few hundred dollars, once a month. We’d go out and get high and all and come back. And this guy was senile. She’s like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna take all of his money and just get outta here, you know what I mean?’ I say, ‘Listen, don’t do that, just take a little bit and this way you always have the apartment.’”
The elderly tenant eventually dropped dead, Mr. Nelson said, but Christine wound up moving to Florida.
HE MET INA in detox on Staten Island. She was a stripper, married with kids, who’d let him crash in the basement of their place on 69th Street and Queens Boulevard. Eventually, the husband and kids moved out, and Mr. Nelson moved in. All she wanted to do was get high, watch TV and have sex. “It’s like the night of the living dead. You don’t do nothing, you’re sleeping all the time, you’re groggy, you’re a vegetable.”
He dropped Ina and got sober for real for the first time, in November ’06. By summer, he was benching 460 pounds. It was around this time that the folks behind findheman.com were taken with him. Some of the cops around Tompkins Square Park told him about it, made a few cracks about superhuman powers. One day a woman came up to him on the street and asked him if he would do a striptease at her bachelorette party out in Queens.
“I said, ‘I really don’t know how to dance,’” he said. “They offer me $350. ‘Well, I can probably, ya know, do somethin’.’” He picked up a G-string on the way over. “So I get back to the house and women are just gawking at me. I wind up gettin’ blue balls so bad.”
Word spread. He was contacted about a few more parties, all up in Queens. “A girl that was at one goes to me, ‘Listen, this girl, her boyfriend beats her all the time, treats her like garbage; ya know, I’ll pay you $40 if you could do somethin’ with her.’ So we go in another room, and we start foolin’ around, and she says, ‘Oh, listen, I’m so sorry but I can’t, I gotta boyfriend and I really don’t know if I be able to fuck, ya know what I mean, because, uh, I think it’d be cheatin’. But she goes, ‘If you wanna just go down on me, I think it’d be all right.’”
How was that?
“You know, I kinda like goin’ down on women. I could do that all day.”
Mr. Nelson said that great sex requires patience and communication. Which is impossible in a coffee shop bathroom or under a blanket in the park.
“It takes both youse to have great sex,” he said. “Foreplay is the main thing with women; you gotta warm them up.”
There was a Jewish girl named Danielle—also a junkie who wound up in rehab in Florida.
He was back in Jersey when his settlement finally came through, and there he ran into Diane Rio. Mr. Nelson had dated her sister back in the day, before she OD’d on pills. Five months and $70,000 after he got his court settlement, his father took control. “He said, ‘I’m holdin’ the money. You wanna fight me, go ahead, you’re not getting it unless I die or you quit using drugs, whichever comes first.’ That was the best thing he ever did.”
Mr. Nelson chose life and New York City. Ms. Rio went clean, too. For a while, the couple were living under scaffolding on 26th Street. In August ’08, they got placed in a one-bedroom at a shelter in Jamaica, Queens; pretty soon, he said, they’re going to get their own Section 8 apartment. These days, Mr. Nelson wakes up around 7—usually because of a phone call from his father. Then he swings by the clinic. At around 1 he rides the train to Asser Levy. Lately, he’s been training people on the side for a few bucks. Sometimes, in Madison Square Park or elsewhere, a nice-looking woman will come up and ask to have a photo with him. He often carries a small gym bag. He read a blog post on findheman.com that featured a picture of him carrying such a bag and speculated that he had ripped apart a school bus in order to rescue the bag, which he then delivered to a distraught schoolgirl.
“I don’t why, they make me into some kind of a hero,” he said. “It’s just a goof, I guess.”