Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What O.J. Meant

James Poniewozik (NYTimes) reviews two programs about O.J. Simpson, one a documentary and the other a TV drama. About the documentary he observes:
“Made in America” takes a long breath and says: O.K., first, here’s what O. J. meant.

Here was what it meant for white America, after the turmoil of the ’60s, to embrace a charming black athlete, not just as an athlete but a celebrity, an actor, the face of major corporations. (This was the period of attempted racial détente in pop culture that brought forth the original “Roots” mini-series — in which Mr. Simpson had a bit part.)

And, it adds: Here’s how hard that was. Here’s how radical those innocuous-looking Hertz commercials were. A strong black man, running through an airport. Would white viewers be scared? Would he look like speed personified — or like a criminal?

And here’s how you fixed that problem, in America in 1975, by making sure every other delighted face we saw, cheering, “Go, O. J., go!,” was white; they “endorsed” the endorser. (It worked. Part of the dissonance, when news of the murders broke in 1994, was the contrast with the innocuous O. J. from TV.)
That is so. I remember those commercials. The rest of this post is more personal, what O.J. meant to me.

The Day “The Juice” Died

“The Juice,” of course, is OJ Simpson, running back extraordinaire. And – I know – he’s not dead.

He’s currently doing 33 years in a Nevada prison on various felony charges. But, as you may recall, he was acquitted in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in a long extensively televised proceeding known as “The Trial of the Century.”

But, as I explain below, for me he died on June 19, 1994, two days after the much-televised chase in a white Ford Bronco. Why’d they have to pre-empt my Friday night TV to televise THAT? Where they expecting, maybe, a dramatic crash, or a shoot-out?

I originally wrote this piece, one of seven, for a special issue of Meanderings. This was back in the early days of the web when you couldn’t tell the little guys, like us, from the big guys, like Vibe magazine. And Vibe was happy to team up with us for special coverage of the OJ trial. This is one of the pieces I wrote for that special issue, Meanderings 2.05, Squeezin’ the OJ Hype!

For what it’s worth, while I spent far more time watching Bill Cosby than I did OJ Simpson, his arrest hit me harder than anything we've learned about Bill Cosby.

Breakfast at Manory’s: Sunday Morning June 19, 1994

I have a fairly standard Sunday-morning routine: awake between 6 AM and 7 AM, out of bed a half-hour or so later. Then I shower, perhaps shave, dress, and it’s out the door for the short walk to Manory’s Restaurant–in Troy, NY, where I was living at the time. Once there I pick up a New York Times, checking to make sure all of the sections are there—the people who assemble the paper mess it up so often that checking is essential. I don’t mind if the travel section is missing, for I don’t have the money you need to travel to those places and my dreams generally run in other directions. Other sections of the paper are more important. Once I’ve gotten my paper I sit down and start reading, generally with the “Book Review”. When the waitress arrives I make my standard order: coffee, large orange juice, Belgian waffles, and bacon—not exactly a state-of-the-art breakfast, but then I’ve always taken better care of my mind than of my body. I continue reading the paper during breakfast, sometimes making it to the magazine after finishing with the book reviews. Then it’s time to head back to my apartment where I spend the rest of the morning reading the paper, moving from the magazine, to the arts, to business, to the “Week in Review” and then perhaps the society pages and the want ads.

June 19 was like any other Sunday. Once I got out the door I headed north on Second Street. About two blocks north, with the Russell Sage campus on my left and the Troy Public Library on my right, I came to one of those sidewalk newspaper boxes, you put your coins in the slot and take out your paper. There I saw it, OJ’s face. I didn’t need to read anything. I’d seen bits and pieces on the TV news, and I’d had my Friday-evening TV-watching thwarted by pointless babbling about the ongoing chase. I knew why OJ’s picture was on the front page.

And I was sad. My throat constricted and tears came to my eyes. I went on with my standard routine. But my mind kept coming back to that ruined man.

I have no particular interest in sports. I don’t follow any teams, professional or college, national or local, in any sport. But my passion for excellence drew me to OJ. During the mid-70s I was in graduate school in Buffalo. And I watched the Bills on TV just to see OJ run. He was so good that your eyes didn’t have to be trained in the nuances of the game to see how very good he was. He had a speed, power, and agility that transcended the game he chose to play. It was happy to see him post the numbers, to set records. But the greater joy and satisfaction was in the moves themselves. OJ was magic on the field. He did the impossible, running through holes that weren’t there, not even in slow-motion instant replay. We were indeed fortunate to see such things, to imagine running the magic ourselves. In those moments we became a virtual community united by the athletic grace and power of No. 32.

When I saw that photo I remembered those moves and the pleasure they gave me. OJ had taught me that excellence was important in and of itself. The particular kind of excellence—intellectual, artistic, athletic, interpersonal, contemplative, expressive—was secondary. That photo and the news it bore didn’t touch the excellence, but it forced me to separate the man here and now from the excellence he had once displayed, the perfection he had once known. That is why I was so moved. In that moment OJ had died and citizen Orenthal James Simpson was left in his place.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, so who is the heartbeat of the drive of competitive heat? the race to override the place of excellence? not be out done by anyone any time any place?