back in the summer of ‘94 before jon came to live with me and while beatrice was still visiting i took her to westwood to visit a friend and see a movie. we exited off the 405 freeway and made our way onto wilshire blvd. where we were immediately directed to the side of the road by a policeman in riot gear.
there was a line of cars stretching as far as the eye could see along what was known as the wilshire corridor. no vehicles were on the usually packed artery of west la, people sat on their cars and some held homemade signs that i couldn’t make out. we thought there must be some kind of parade or protest, maybe clinton was in town. we got out of the car and there was a cacophony of competing radios blasting the news.
suddenly the crowd seemed to surge and the police had to fortify the barricades that were placed intermittently along the boulevard. we followed the crowds eyeline as it focused down the street at an approaching car. it was a lone white bronco doing no more than 20 mph followed by a line of flashing black and whites that seemed to trail into the horizon behind the suv. i had never heard of a dignitary or head of state being shuttled around in a bronco, let alone a white one. then i started to piece together the commentary coming from the clashing broadcasts — oj simpson was in the backseat of a white bronco with a gun to his head and his best friend driving. his ex wife and her lover lay dead at her home in brentwood, a mile south. oj was the main suspect.
everyone seemed to be cheering this man, like he was robin hood or butch cassidy. all the signs and screams were not cries for justice but chants of solidarity with one of america’s greatest football players and, of course, one of the stars of the naked gun movies. as the bronco passed i found myself swept up in the pep rally, raising a symbolic fist into the air for a man who might have murdered the mother of his two children.
when my brother and i went to iowa two weeks later we brought along this kernel of pop history like a souvenir and shared it with our friends who all applauded our luck in hitting the zeitgeist so square on the nose. eight months later in february or march of ‘95 my brother and i made a gallant return to la as if we had been to the north pole and told stories of our exploration to our curious friends. it took some time to transition from our father/son role back to the son/son dynamic, but we managed the persona adjustment well. he glided back into his 8th grade class at st. mel’s with aplomb. turns out that while culturally stagnant, the iowa public school system was far superior to most other states in the union. so jon was ahead of the game despite the readjustment to the socal atmosphere. i, too, was returning to an orbit around my hometown, assessing my place in in it all.
i was grating cheese in my mom’s kitchen for a taco dinner she was preparing, it was two weeks after our return and i was crashing at her place while apartment hunting. she was living in the house of the man who wrote the exorcist; she always seemed to land housing with pop culture significance. the phone rang and she said “hey mommy.” she was quiet for a few seconds and i continued to grate, stealing glances peripherally. i noticed her tear up and i put the grater down.
several years ago when my mom announced she was gay and left my dad, her sister and her mother basically disowned her. while the taint of being gay was still scandal worthy back in the 80s, this wasn’t the reason for the shunning. what it really came down to was the fact that she hadn’t gone to either of them to share her experience or seek guidance. a close second was the idea of tearing apart our nuclear family by “abandoning” her husband and children; something that my grandmother had managed to avoid despite certain dalliances by her own husband. i empathize. i don’t condone nor appreciate the treatment she received. but as i am, at the time of this writing, watching my own family suffer through separation i understand the complexities and hard choices, the fine line between sacrifice and self-realization. it is a subtle knife that cuts many ways. i won’t break it out here because it deserves volumes.
needless to say, a call from my grandmother to her daughter named kay was a unique event. so the tears did not alert me to anything significant, but bone cancer is significant and the tears that come from hearing that your mother has contracted it fall harder than most. this is what alerted me to something in denmark rotting away to the core.
the santa ana winds of la were blowing me east toward the desert, to where my grandmother lay dying. when i finally arrived i found she was not laying at all, she was sitting in front of an 8 ft. tv screen; eyes glued to the daily, unabridged coverage of the trial of the century. america’s hero, oj simpson. she seems to have shrunk at least three sizes and looked a hundred years older from a year earlier. i told her she looked like a million bucks “i probably wouldn’t have known you were sick.” she complimented me on my bullshit attributing the gift to her side of the family, but said she could see through it like clean glass. we were always the closest. i was the first kid of the clan and got the lion’s share of the attention, undiluted love, especially from her. she could sing a song from any word you gave her, on cue. i’ve developed similar quirks, because of her like a knack for insignificant pop culture references. i think of her when they surface. there were trips to sea world, vegas, japan and so much more. so it made sense that i was here. it felt as natural as waking up after a good sleep. i quickly settled in for what i figured would be a few months of care giving. a jazz cafe downtown was hiring and i became their newest waiter, just in time for spring break anarchy and the dead quiet summer of 120 degree heat. it was a night gig, which would leave the days free for quality time with the woman who helped raise me.
all this against the backdrop of the trial of the century. my grandmother skillfully augmented the color commentary of court tv with her own observations; most of it centered around how presentable the players were. f. lee bailey, oj’s lawyer, got high marks. marcia clark, the prosecuting attorney, rated pretty low. especially after she got a ridiculous perm midway through the trial. grandma said that was a bad omen for the prosecution.
i wanted to turn it off, take her to the mountains, a sweat lodge, whatever. just far away from all this bullshit. oj simpson and the advent of reality television is not the last thing that you want in you spirit before it departs. but she couldn’t sit still without overwhelming pain, let alone climb a mountain. so while inside i was summoning the hands and heart of mother divine to swallow her pain and free her soul outside i played cards, sang songs and watched the trial of the century; even adding my own color commentary. and a commentary on color it did turn out to be.
a few months into my hospice care i secured a job in la on a television show as an assistant to the creator and writers of a new sitcom starring cybil shepherd. it would begin in august and would mark the end or at least a pause in my service to the matriarch of our family. i relocated to studio city and stayed at my paternal grandfathers house, a mile from cbs studios where i was now employed. 9 weeks into the new gig i came back from picking up lunch to find everyone in the writer’s wing huddled around a tv. diana, my closest friend on the show let me know they were about to announce the verdict for the trial of the century. i felt something in my stomach and fell back from the huddled mass. the santa ana winds picked up and my mind was blown all the way to the desert again. i could see my grandmother eating ice chips in the turban she wore to cover her radiated hairdo. she had been waiting for this and i wish i was there to watch it with her; even though it made me ill. when the verdict was read you could hear the cheers emanating from the stagehands in the next building over the stunned silence in the writer’s wing. cheers and jeers drifted away and i was back with my grandmother. she delivered a cutting and succinct analysis in eight words that captured within it a glimpse of the reality tv era that we were being borne into:
“marcia clark should never have gotten that perm.”