Near Greatness

My Dinner With O.J.

Out of the side of my mouth, I joked, 'Hide the knives'

Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

My wife and I had flown down to South Beach for a long February weekend of lying on the beach, drinking mojitos and ogling the tanned locals as they walked past pastel hotels. It felt amazing to be able to sit outside and eat dinner. Back in New York, any al fresco dining consisted of shoving a slice of Famous Ray's pizza into my mouth before it turned into a pepperoni-sicle.sicle.

Most of Lincoln Road has been turned into a pedestrian mall. What that means is that the restaurants can put tables in the middle of the street. My wife and I sat outside one of the Italian trattorias, watching the moon, drinking too much red wine and digesting scungilli drowned in red sauce. When the owner, a middle-aged shark named Antonio, asked how we were doing, I said, "Maybe they should move Brooklyn down here."

The waiter, whose nametag proclaimed him to be "Luigino" began pouring my wife another glass of wine from our bottle of Montepulciano. Mid-stream, he looked up, and yelled in an Italian accent, "Ohhh-Jay!"

What does that mean? I wondered. Then Antonio, Luigino, and all the other waiters started gabbling, "Ohhh-Jay!" "Welcome, so great to see you," etc.

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I turned slightly and saw a group of men standing next to my table. Then I did a double take.

There stood O.J. Simpson. The star running-back for the Buffalo Bills, the man who almost 10 years earlier had gotten away with a double murder, the criminal defendant who'd divided a nation and became a national Rorschach test of race and celebrity.

I take that all back: There stood a golden god; Apollo down from Olympus for an evening in South Florida. Radiant beams of light seemed to emanate from him, even at night. His tan suit and tieless white dress shirt clung to his body as if an invisible wardrobe man were brushing out the wrinkles every time Ohhh-Jay moved. He leaned on a cane, probably a concession to his arthritic running-back knees. However, in his hands it looked light and fragile, something that he would bounce to the ground, swing around and catch like Fred Astaire in "Swing Time."

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My wife and I both realized who it was at the same time. Her eyes widened and she stared at him. Out of the side of my mouth, I joked, "Hide the knives."

My wife did not laugh.

"Antonio," O.J. said, "Do you have a table?"

"For you Ohhh-Jay, always," said Antonio. "Can you wait inside the bar una momento?"

O.J nodded graciously as he and his cortege began to walk inside.

"Hey O.J.," a guy at a table yelled. "We're from Buffalo."

"Hey Buffalo people," O.J. replied. "How ya doing?"

The Buffalo people cheered.

O.J. went inside and the waiter brought us the check. My wife and I paid the bill, then, as we walked down Collins Avenue past string bikinis on Rollerblades, we dissected what we had just seen.

"Now I know why he got off," my wife said. "He is the most beautiful man I've ever seen. No one could've convicted him. I wanted to get up and give him our table."

"That's OK," I said. "I just feel nervous for the staff."

"Why?" she asked.

"He's really hard on waiters."