A Good Time Was Had by All, Almost

No television cameras jostled for position at the Ascension Cemetery on Monday. No morning disc jockeys came with jugglers to broadcast live from the site. No performance artist painted himself blood red. Nobody hawked O.J. buttons. There was no press pool. There was no press.

The scene could not be described as a circus or a zoo. The mood was not festive. This was not the center of the media universe, a phrase repeated again and again in the reports from a courthouse 45 miles north in Downtown Los Angeles.

Forty-five miles north, people stopped on the sidewalk and stared in wonder at the giant scaffold the city erected to serve the network anchors. One was adorned with a clever sign: "Brokaw's Butte." Forty-five miles north, they stood in the courthouse hallways and told and retold the O.J. knock-knock joke.

"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"O.J."

"O.J. who?"

"You just qualified for the jury."

It was surprising that this joke still got laughs, but it did Monday, in the courthouse where the "celebrated"--to borrow an adjective from the news accounts--trial of O.J. Simpson began. Nobody was laughing here. Nobody was celebrating. "This," the cemetery caretaker said simply, "is reality." This is where Nicole Brown Simpson is buried.

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The cemetery is a small one. It backs up against a tract of look-alike stucco houses. The neighborhood crawls with kids. It seems neat and safe and quintessentially Orange County. Nicole Brown Simpson grew up not far from here, in a neighborhood not unlike this one. She left as a teen-ager to take a job in Beverly Hills, where she met a football legend and fell in love.

On Monday, the football legend sat in a courtroom and studied the faces of potential jurors. Twelve of them eventually will decide if he murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. It is a question that drives conversation everywhere. If not O.J., then who? If not out of jealous rage, then why? Everyone has a theory, some piece of wit and wisdom to pass along. Everyone plays the game, trading their pearls like the mountain men once bartered pelts.

Nicole Brown Simpson, of course, is not allowed to partake in this new pastime. There is some obvious irony in this, for she most likely could answer with certainty the riddles that have brought everyone under the circus tent. So could Ronald Goldman. For an awful minute or two, he must have known "whodunit." Unfortunately, he can't get into the game either.

So the questions must be taken into a courtroom. The nation of television has converged again on Los Angeles, ready to watch the trial with unblinking fascination. Soon will come the revelations. Soon will come the chance to play along with the jury, to solve the riddle. What fun. What entertainment. What a circus.

"I asked God about O.J.," said the performance artist who came to the courthouse Monday and painted himself red. "God said he's innocent, that two other people did it."

"Why don't you go back," said a reporter in response, "and ask God tonight what their names are and come back tomorrow and tell us?"

And everyone laughed.

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The pool reporters said Simpson sipped a Coke during the proceedings. They said he appeared "upbeat." He even sang a little song, something about "a new day." Here at the Ascension Cemetery, of course, there was no singing. There is nothing so quiet as a cemetery, and to come here directly from Downtown Los Angeles made it seem by contrast quieter still.

The Simpson case turned the corner from tragedy to burlesque a long time ago, probably with the Friday night Bronco tour. It since has gotten only weirder and noisier and less and less real. There are reasons for this, and they probably could not be avoided. Here, though, is one place where the fever can be broken. Here, as the caretaker said, is "reality."

He would give only general directions. The family, he said, doesn't want strangers at her grave--about the only intimacy anyone's been able to salvage for this woman. There were, however, only a couple of unmarked grave sites. One was adorned with white gladioluses, the other with fresh pink roses. On both, the grass was fairly new and crawling with red ants. In the end, which one was hers didn't matter. Graves are all pretty much the same, which is the ultimate moral of cemeteries.

No, it was simply enough to come here and experience the quiet, to stare down at the still settling earth and remember that--however this Simpson story ends--the beginning involved the violent taking of two young lives. Nothing funny about that, nothing clever, and before Monday it seemed a point too obvious to even mention.

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