Spectacle and sadness in La-La Land

June 21, 1994|By Bill Geist

LANDING at Los Angeles Airport, Friday evening, on assignment to observe a taping of the bizarre TV spectacle "American Gladiators," I was immediately informed by an airline representative that O.J. Simpson was at that moment cruising the L.A. freeway system in the back seat of his car, pointing a gun to his head.

The last time a stranger rushed up to me and blurted out news of current events was when President Kennedy was shot.

How did the airline person know about O.J.? "The whole thing's on TV," she said. "Everybody's back there watching it."

At 7 p.m. on a Friday evening, LAX was almost completely empty -- no ticket lines, nobody being dropped off.

They are so good at this in America's entertainment capital.

During another visit, I'd turned on the TV and there was complete coverage of a car chase in progress. They used to need scripts and months of planning to produce such excitement for audiences.

"This city is crazy," I told the airline representative. She wanted to know where I was from. I told her New York, and she said, "Then you know what you're talking about."

Every time I come here, Los Angeles is beset by Old Testament stuff -- earthquakes, mud slides, fires.

During my last visit, smoke from 20 fires blotted out the sun. People carried umbrellas to protect themselves from torrential ash fall.

My taxi pulled onto 405, heading north. A psychiatrist was talking on the radio, speculating about O.J.'s current state of mind and mentioning that she had a new book out.

I noticed some kids on an overpass and wondered if they were there to throw objects at passing cars.

A caller on the radio said this whole episode was terribly sad, because blacks were running out of role models, what with Magic Johnson's and Michael Jackson's troubles.

Another caller said the whole thing was an epic tragedy -- a perfect man with one fatal flaw.

There was another crowd on the next overpass. The announcer on the radio throttled the psychiatrist long enough to confirm why the people were up there.

The motorcade for O.J. Simpson, national sports hero and fugitive from justice, had turned onto 405 and was passing the airport. He was 10 minutes behind us.

"These people," said the taxi driver, motioning to the motorists by the side of the road, "they are ridiculous."

"Yes, they are. Pull over." He did, and left the meter running.

Pedestrians, a rarity in Los Angeles, came down the embankment of the expressway. Some brought cameras.

A car pulled over and four revelers debarked -- young beer-bearing men. They wandered recklessly out into the roadway from time to time to see if O.J. was coming, and when they finally spotted the first set of flashing lights on the distant horizon, they raised their arms over their heads and yelled as if a goal had been scored.

"They're disgusting," said a bystander, as if she herself had simply been out for a stroll on the freeway when all of this just happened.

For many, it seemed a festive occasion. No coolers, but then this was short notice.

Could it be that people are starved for an excuse to leave their cars and their TV rooms and come together as a community -- no matter what the occasion?

Northbound traffic was next to nil, because many entrance ramps had been shut down, adding to the surreal quality of it all.

On the southbound side, however, it was bumper to bumper, and with drivers looking expectant, not annoyed. O.J. was coming.

A man came down the embankment with a sign that read simply "O.J." He said that he remembered O.J. as a star here at USC and simply wanted to show him some support so he wouldn't take his own life. "It's a tragedy for him, too," he said.

Then came the white Bronco, a comet with a fiery tail of California Highway Patrol cars. As it passed, a camera flashed.

Horns honked. A few people yelled out his name, "O.J.!," as if he were headed for the end zone.

"Did you see him?" people asked one another. "Did you see him?" They had not.

Hard on the heels of the police cars was a horde of automobiles and motorcycles like hounds on a chase.

We pulled onto the roadway and joined the back of the pack. We saw drivers watching portable TV's. We saw a van with the letters O.J. painted on the side, three feet high.

On the radio, callers were charging favoritism, some saying the police should have arrested O.J. before the chase, others saying the judge should have jailed him for beating his wife five years ago.

"It can't be favoritism," said another caller, "because they don't send any of them to jail."

The orange sky at sunset was suddenly filled with a swarm of helicopters -- 12 in all -- apparently above O.J.'s Brentwood home. The freeway exit there was jammed.

"It's crazy," I said again, and the driver replied: "I don't know. I live here."

Even gladiators get the blues.

Later, at the taping of that show, a gladiator named Sabre, a black man raised in South-Central LA, made a comment.

"If it hadn't been for O.J., I'd probably be dead or in prison now. I wanted to be just like him and I dedicated myself to that and got a scholarship to the University of Kansas. He was my hero. My pops wasn't home to guide me. O.J. did."

A contestant said her mother, who had been battered by her father, had left home the day before because of the killing of Nicole Simpson.

A man out on 405, had said he had come to give support to O.J. because innocent or guilty, "you hate to see the suffering." He picked up his camcorder and went home.

Bill Geist is a CBS News correspondent.

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