Those Were the Days

     By the time the third helicopter arrived, I knew I had to get to the courthouse.
     The oddsmakers had ruled out the possibility of a verdict, but those helicopters suggested otherwise. So I quickly returned my rented bike and hustled toward the Santa Monica Courthouse, where I’d soon be one in a crowd of 3,000.
     When I began watching the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial on TV 20 years ago, I had no idea that I would eventually see The Juice in person. But by 1997, I needed some California sun, so I booked an Amtrak from Chicago to L.A.
     Not knowing where I was headed, I asked a fellow passenger for advice, and he suggested Santa Monica.
     “Isn’t that where the O.J. civil trial is taking place?” I asked.
     At the time, two weeks of jury deliberations had stalled the action. Still, as I headed toward the beach on a Tuesday morning, I figured I’d drop by the courthouse to view the circus. A half block from the courthouse, Ken Ober – the former host of MTV’s “Remote Control” – walked past me with his dog.
     I didn’t say anything about his show, famous for spawning Adam Sandler’s career, but I shot him a knowing glance.
     Had he been to the Brentwood house, too?
     There wasn’t much going down outside the courthouse, where members of the media were impatiently waiting. Greta Van Susteren was resting in a director’s chair on the lawn while a guy from “Hard Copy” used a side-view mirror to fix his hair. Reporters were speaking German and Korean, presumably telling people across the world how bored they were.
     Meanwhile, an old guy walked around wearing a Hefty bag poncho with the words “Not Guilty” taped on the front.
     When I asked who was not guilty – him or O.J. – he firmly answered, “O.J. SIMPSON!” then told me about his own troubles with LAPD. If he had been framed, then most certainly O.J. had.
     Interesting stuff, but I had better things to see: Muscle beach. That guy who rollerblades while playing guitar. Pamela Anderson?
     But as those three helicopters became six, I was back at the courthouse, which was suddenly beaming with excitement. As the crowd grew, some held signs: “O.J. = murderer,” which suggested that Santa Monica was not a Simpson crowd.
     When one man shouted, “Free the Juice!” the crowd jeered him.
     The crowd grew impatient and hungry as we waited endless hours for the main actors to arrive. As things began to get tense, a voice in the crowd channeled Rodney King, asking: “Can’t we all get along?”
     Five years after the horrendous riots that followed King’s conviction, those words seemed poignant – until everyone turned around and saw it was the “Free the Juice” guy, who was jeered again.
     The Goldmans were the first to arrive. When they stepped out of their cars, the crowd greeted them not like survivors of a murder victim, but like celebrities walking the red carpet.
     When O.J.’s limo arrived some time later, the crowd was angry. He had gotten away with murder, they thought, and – even worse – he’d made them wait. The driver exited first, causing one premature heckler to shout, “Murderer!”
     Then everyone stood on their toes, extended their necks and nudged their neighbors as O.J. Simpson, the charming Hall of Famer accused of murder, stepped out of the car.
     Only Steve Bartman has been booed more.
     Once verdicts were read, the few African-Americans in the crowd were likely to be interviewed by two or three TV crews. A shady-looking white guy stepped in front of the Korean crew’s camera and shouted, “O.J. Simpson gives killers a bad name!” And when the survivors of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson re-emerged, their heroes’ welcome was so zealous, I half expected ticker tape to fall from the sky.
     I glanced at those choppers above and thought: “Only in L.A.”
     And especially Santa Monica.

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