Simpson trial is a break for shoeshine operator

January 29, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Six months ago, Irene Allen was just a small-time businesswoman trying to make an honest buck off her shoeshine stand in the lobby of the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Now she's stepped in as the O. J. Simpson case's quirkiest news broadcaster, offering inside wisdom to a variety of radio stations -- usually from the courthouse pay phones near her booth.

WROK radio in Rockford, Ill., checks in on Monday and Thursday, shortly after sunrise. Seattle wants its update between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on most days of the week. And London -- who knows when it'll call next for its report on the O. J. Simpson case?

Ms. Allen admits that it's a strange way for radio listeners to get their information on the hottest murder trial of the century. But she's glad to oblige.

On Friday she was in fine form, dishing out the gossip she picks up from her daily chats with reporters, security and maintenance personnel, and lawyers.

Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman, who was rushed to the hospital Wednesday after complaining of chest pains, was her first target.

"Now this is just hearsay," she told radio listeners outside Chicago -- but the inside word was that Mr. Hodgman wasn't really ill. Court watchers "are saying it's like a football game. One of the teams is on the losing end. We are taking a timeout and faking an injury."

But she quickly added: "I think it was all this stress built up. It's going to take a toll."

And that incident in which Detective Mark Fuhrman, a prosecution witness, punched out a newspaper photographer after house hunting in the Idaho panhandle? "He was seen buying a home. It may be just a coincidence, but it's in a white supremacist area. It really was bad timing. He should have waited until all this was over."

The remarks are all in good fun, Ms. Allen said after the phone call. Besides, if the acerbic comedian Jackie Mason can join the Simpson press corps as a commentator on British Broadcasting Corp. radio, why not the courthouse shoeshine lady?

"I hear a lot things," said Ms. Allen, who, along with her husband, owns and operates a four-seat shoeshine stand near the back door of the courthouse lobby. "I know a lot of people on a one-to-one basis."

Indeed she does. One Simpson defense lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, comes by maybe once a week to get his brown kid leather boots shined. "He said he is going to wear a different pair every day and get them polished," she said.

Another defense lawyer, Robert L. Shapiro, stopped by for a polish a while ago (and left a hefty $7.50 tip on a $2.50 shine). "Shapiro wears loafers and thick-and-thin socks," Ms. Allen said. "You know, like the ones from the '70s and '80s. They're like nylons for men. I haven't see them for ages, and all of sudden Shapiro has them."

This is the kind of detail that makes Ms. Allen a favorite in places such as Vancouver, Baltimore, Sacramento and Houston.

Every time someone famous stops by, Ms. Allen whips out her camera and clicks away, making sure both feet and face are photographed. She then puts the snapshots of her famous clients in a picture album she keeps at the booth. "I just wanted to have the memory," she said. "Everyone likes to look at the pictures."

Ms. Allen's move from shining shoes to broadcasting news happened by accident during the Simpson preliminary hearing.

"The radio stations started calling the courthouse pay phones just to see who would answer," she said. "Well, I answer the pay phones because my personal calls come here. I just started talking to them."

It didn't take long for word to get out among the broadcast media, increasingly desperate for any fresh perspective, that Ms. Allen was on the scene and ready to tell all.

By the end of Mr. Simpson's preliminary hearings, five stations from across the country were calling on a regular basis. Nashville, Tenn., even started a fan club, although Ms. Allen has yet to receive one letter. "She's just interesting," said Jan Thorpe, of WROK talk radio in Rockford, the only station that is paying Ms. Allen for her services. "She's just a real person observing the O. J. trial. She gets the little pieces of life around the courthouse that maybe the larger media might miss."

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