On a warm June night 25 years ago, O.J. Simpson was sitting in a far, dark corner of a Manhattan bar called Bachelors III, waiting to meet one of its owners, Joe Namath. It was a '60s scene, the air steamy with youth and sex and power; now, with O.J.'s freeway run overlaying every memory, it becomes a portentous prelude.
"It's a better crowd since last time I was here," Simpson was saying then. He was warm, humorous, totally relaxed, his quick eyes checking the house. "It was kind of slummy then, come as you are, but now it's more shirt and tie. Not real class, but comfortable. It's nice for Joe to have a place of his own."He was hard to read; as open and easy as he seemed, there was a subtlety to O.J., a sense he kept double books in his head, one for the world, one for himself. Was there a touch of condescension toward Namath, the 26-year-old hero of that year's Super Bowl? Simpson was not quite 22 and yet to sign his rookie pro contract. He was holding out for a better deal.
Sometime after midnight there was a stir at the door, men's booming voices, women's squeals. O.J. did not acknowledge being aware that Namath had burst into the bar. He was so very cool. Howard Cosell, who had arranged the meeting, said, "I'll tell Joe you're here," but O.J. stopped him. "No, Howard, you don't rush the great ones."
O.J. was so graceful, so ingratiating, that was it was easy to forget how he got here, a ghetto gang leader, a high school, junior college, major college Alpha male who had learned to knock down anything in his way. He was a prince of jock entitlement. By 1969, everyone wanted a piece of him, and he could barter for money, flesh, the front row, his picture on the cover.
Even the rougher-edged sports stars in the American Powerboy rankings - Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, Darryl Strawberry, Vince Coleman - are given too many social waivers. But a stylish pleaser like O.J. Simpson has to be accused of murder to get critical attention.
It seemed as though Namath took forever to land at our table that night. Cosell fumed and finally left. O.J. never looked up from his ginger ale or me except to politely brush off young women. We talked about his negotiations with the Buffalo Bills, which he said were purely a matter of "finances, no principles involved."
It would turn out to be an industry standard. He talked about his appearances for Chevrolet and an upcoming TV dramatic role. He believed he would get good TV and movie roles only after he established himself as a football pro.
He talked about the house he was building in Los Angeles. Raised in public projects by a single mother, until her salary as a hospital orderly was raised just enough to force the family into "a really bad apartment," he had never lived in a house before.
"The biggest moment I've had was buying her a house, and you know, it's so sad, my wife and I drove around with her to pick it out and she kept seeing old, run-down houses and saying, `That's good enough for me.' "
In retrospect now, his run toward home, to the house in Brentwood with the park-sized children's play area, seems like a symbolic flight toward some childhood he should have had; but that sounds like the kind of pop psychology we will make fun of in the days ahead as the old police reports of domestic violence tumble out.
This was a man who beat his wife. There are millions of such cases of spousal abuse every year, and thousands of them end in a woman's death. The justified rage over this will be directed toward O.J. Simpson and the authorities who let him slip through the line because he was a jock Powerboy.
After perhaps an hour that night, Namath swept past our table. O.J. tracked him from the corner of an eye and smiled. "He's playing his little game, but that's all right, we all have our little games, everybody's got to do his thing. Even me, I got my little games."
When I asked him what that was, he said: "I want people to like me, I think that's my biggest motivation. I was in New York for a party, the party for All-Americans last winter, and this white guy hit a white cheerleader. She ran behind me and hid. He came up, and I asked him what was the matter, and he said he had a hang-up about white girls talking to black men.
"I liked him for being straight, it was real groovy. We talked about it. Why didn't I hit him, like in the westerns? Why should I? He hit the girl already, I couldn't change that. And he certainly wasn't trying to come through me to get at her again."
One minute after 2 a.m., O.J. looked up and said, too casually, "Hey, Joe," as Namath slipped into our banquette with a too cool, "Ooooooooooo Jaaay."
They talked about the bar, football, mutual friends and others came to the table. I soon left and didn't think too hard about that night until last week while watching O.J. on TV, running again.