FIVE CORNERS OF LOVE
The First Corner
The United States, 1994: Trippin’ the Love Fantastic.
O.J. & D.C.
O.J. tailed by a slow cavalcade of black & white flashing red. The few hogging the bar whose eyes were not glued to the TV screen overhead, they were craning necks and waving greenbacks on tiptoes to get served. The nation’s most notoriously sluggish motorized pursuit of a wanted man airing nationwide in this surreal drama starring a beloved former athlete-cum-film actor who happened to have African blood in his veins, who happened to have Caucasian blood on his hands, though this is something he shall subsequently deny. The year is 1994 and the United States still grapples with the question of race. Since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by law enforcement for the crime of being black, a cauldron of ethnic tension has simmered away. The overwhelmingly white crowd in this bar-grill root for America’s Most Wanted, not because he is a likely a murderer, but because he is O.J. Simpson, beloved former athlete-cum-film actor.
The whole scene unfolds in slow motion on TV while this bar opposite the old Ford Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot down by anarchist and actor John Wilkes Booth some 131 years earlier (an avoidable death in a later age when paramedics would know how to keep gunshot victims alive), thrums with Washington’s beltway civil servants still wearing their work apparel.
I think it was a midweek evening when I made this one solitary trip there. So many years ago now that the view has lived healthily inside my eidetic memory. We had flown in on this the inaugural day of our round-the-world trip, my oldest friend and I. It was my first time on a continent other than the old one (not that all seven are not siblings born within a geological year of one another), and for all I cared, the America I was laying wide eyes on was a pristine one. The bar ‘n’ grill might have been rocking and Pilgrim Fathers dead for over three hundred years, but there was I nevertheless discovering the new world.
The low-speed hustle by half of the LAPD (a kind of entourage of reluctant jailers) in pursuit of O.J. Simpson was making headlines round the globe that day. Down the road from Congress and Capitol Hill, the boys from the State Department and the girls from Defense couldn’t get enough of it.
‘Go, O.J.! Go!’ they chanted. Beer swilling in one hand, clenched fist punching the smoky air with the other. This was pure America, boorish and good-natured as you like.
‘We’ll have what they’re having, please.’
‘Can you provide your I.D. first?
‘But…’ we protested to the server, ‘…we’re not even twenty-one. We are twenty-two.’
This little flourish was bound to catch him unawares.
‘I don’t much care if you’re forty-seven and looking great for your age. I’m still gonna need to see that I.D. before we serve you a drop. Sorry, sir!’
So we marched back, my friend and I, to that hostel down the way, picked up our passports and marched back there triumphant. This moment, we imagined quite openly, would be our rites of passage.
Age verified, we could now join the throng around the TV, all wiling O.J. to outrun the police going 8 mph.
’Two JDs n coke, if you please.’
Humphrey Bogart eat your heart out. Where better than the swankiest saloon in DC to affect that Hollywood swagger, other than Hollywood itself, one supposes?
Neatly, consummately, he pours.
‘There you go, boys.’
We asked how much and he replied such and such, and such and such is precisely what we handed him. And that was the first, but by no means the last, cultural faux pas I owned up to in my long and chequered career in travelling the world.
The error of our ways soon became apparent at the next round.
‘Why won’t you serve us? We brought our passports after all.’
Snubbed by the only man in the packed bar in demand other than O.J. (but for entirely different reasons), my good friend and I got somewhat chippy with him.
‘Why won’t you serve us?’
‘Because I make minimum wage and you didn’t so much as tip me a red cent last time round.’
‘I didn’t think we had to.’
‘You didn’t think at all,’ he said. ‘You’re in the United States. In this land a bartender lives on tips, not on his wits.’
‘But we’re British,’ we answered, somewhat meaninglessly.
‘All the more reason then,’ he quipped.
Intrigued to find out what that reason was, I forced the issue and he said something about redcoats and razing Washington to the ground in 1812. Payback time.
‘Will $5 do?’
Plucking it from my hand, this bartender had our back for the rest of the evening, starting with the whisky we watched him pour halfway up a Tom Collins glass.
O.J. had had the police aplenty on his back that evening, tailing this Ford Bronco down an LA freeway to the astonishment of a watching world, though that didn’t stop the good time boys in the bar-n-grill by the Old Ford Theatre in DC from whooping him on to freedom. Never saw a black man in America so feted, though the rowdy crowd might have been cheering on the ensuing police for all I knew nor cared.