FREE MONEY

 DEAR CORRESPONDENT:

               I have asserted that the circumstances that led to the murders/frame in the Simpson case began innocently enough, and that the players soon found themselves on a “slippery slope” where one thing led to another – things that they had not expected, and that became progressively more awful.  You say that you are different than OJ and Robert, and you “would not have fallen for any of it, ‘NO MATTER WHAT’.”  I think you do not understand the “slippery slope” concept, my correspondent.  Consider a hypothetical…

FREE MONEY

(the following is speculative fiction; Johnny G is a fictitious character; the restaurant is real)

               A MID-DAY IN JUNE, 1993:  The restaurant had a tasteful sign on Wilshire Boulevard proclaiming its deliberately unimposing name, “The Joint.”  There was an entrance on Wilshire, near the sign, but few people used it.  Like so many trendy Westside places, this catered to “insiders,” so almost all of the customers (even first-timers who had heard about the place through word of mouth) knew that the “real” entrance was off an alley behind.  Sure enough, it was a genuine working alley with one delivery truck unloading boxes of lettuce and a smaller one schlepping plastic tubs of fresh fish in chopped ice; no Disneyland alley, this.  But, because of the crazy angles that Beverly Hills is built on, the alley was at a slant, and the actual entrance was only about thirty feet down from the street.  The alley idea added color (and a briefly pungent air), but no real inconvenience for the patrons.

               The door – even that back door – was massive mahogany, polished brass, and cut Belgian glass; of course, it opened effortlessly by unseen hydraulics when a hand touched the handle.  It was a jarring contrast with the otherwise drab alley, but it was recessed, and so one did not realize it was there from the street – not until he was upon it.  Inside, the place continued the mahogany and brass motif; a room of booths and an extravagantly high ceiling, partitions between the dining spaces that reached a foot above the head of a seated diner, and on the tables linen, highly buffed tableware, and stemware that looked like crystal but probably wasn’t.  Upstairs in back, the restroom had a 1920’s floor of small black and white hexagonal tiles in a pattern, blocks of ice in the urinals, and pebble glass windows open slightly so you could see the roof tops next door and get a vague (but very bogus) feeling of being in an industrial neighborhood.

               Every table had its own waiter, but he did not hover.  He stood nearby – out of earshot – and watched attentively for any hint that he might be wanted, then moved swiftly when he was.

               It was the lunchtime crowd, and at a booth against the wall, a distinguished looking man, about 50 and in an expensive suit, as was proper for the place, sat facing the back from which most people came.  He looked around the place with interest, sizing up the physical layout and the people, as though it was a habit for him to do.  He looked vaguely Mediterranean, but that could be anything from Israeli to Spanish.

               Because of his attentiveness, the man saw something that pleased his eye, his lips curled slightly in a smile, and he seemed to wait, as a symphonic conductor counting measures in his mind until the beginning of the next movement.  Then, he slipped from the booth and greeted the newcomers effusively, “Robert!  OJ!  How terrific of you guys to join me for lunch!”  In turn he clasped their hands and also touched their arms in the way of a demonstrative man.  The newcomers happily returned his enthusiasm, and all sat.  (The phrase, “join me for lunch” was code for “I’m buying,” but that was usual when a stranger had lunch with the famous OJ Simpson.)

               The man resumed his former place and the newcomers sat across from him.  The man introduced himself to the handsome black athlete, “I’m Johnny G.  I’ve talked to Robert on the phone.  We have a mutual friend back east.”

               “Yeah, yeah, “ OJ quickly agreed, to show that he and his white friend had no secrets from each other.  “Somebody from the music business.”

               “Oh, my son is not going to believe this,” Johnny laughed.   “Me havin’ lunch with the famous OJ Simpson in Beverly Hills.”  He considered it for a moment, then shrugged.  “It seems funny to call him my ‘son.’  For so long he was my ‘kid,’ or my ‘boy.’  But, Jesus, he’s thirty years old, and I can’t really call him a ‘boy,’ can I?  Oh, I remember when I was a kid, thirty years ago…”  He was momentarily overcome by the thought. 

              “A long time ago.  So much has changed, especially the way of doin’ business.  In my day you just went out and made it happen, but nowadays everything is finessed.  Well, mostly; I guess there’s overlap; there’s still some guys around that know the old ways.  Do you know my son has an MBA?  That means Masters degree in Business Administration.  And he has computer programmers and accountants and lawyers working for him.  Well, he could have if he could just get his business off the ground.”

               The waiter came and the newcomers ordered drinks.  Johnny already had a shot of whiskey at his place and a glass of ginger ale.  Robert just ordered a lemonade as was sometimes his fussy way.

               The phrase, “thirty years ago,” reminded Simpson of an anecdote about growing up in the San Francisco projects – OJ had an anecdote for every occasion, and almost any phrase another person said could be a segue into one of them.  Well, Johnny was delighted to hear that OJ had grown up in such humble circumstances, as he had, too.   He frequently interjected comparisons of how it had been to be a wild teenager growing up in New Jersey, just a few years earlier.  The two volleyed quick reminiscences of the pranks, the petty crimes, the close calls of trying to make the authorities look like monkeys, the sport of tricking girls into giving you pleasure and then blaming them for doing it…  He and OJ were on their way to serious bonding in just a few minutes.

               For lunch, Johnny ordered the brochette of beef; he explained that it was not really his favorite, but he wanted to see if anybody on the West Coast knew how to make noodles properly.  Even in the big-city East, one often got something that sort of looked the part, but was completely lacking in real texture and taste.

               HERE’S THE DEAL:  Over drinks and salads, OJ regaled his new friend with stories of when he and Robert were in college together.  But shortly after the entree arrived Johnny was able to get hold of the conversation and steer it back to his purpose.  “The business…  Uh, my son’s business…  It’s some fancy computer betting.  Sports.  In my day you had a sports wire, you know, and a room at the back of a barber shop.  But, like I say, everything is different now: computers, no more personal touch.  I feel like a dinosaur.  I’d like to help him, but what do I know about computers, huh?  Or off-shore banking?  It’s all way beyond me.  But, when I was talkin’ to the guy that knows Robert, and I heard about you, OJ, I said, ‘Whoa.  I think I got an idea.’

               “See, there’s two ways to approach this business.  You can try to do a little business with a lot of people, or you can try to do big business with a few high rollers.  Well, if you go public, so to speak, you don’t know who you’re doing business with, and sooner or later you will get a rat, and then that’s trouble.   So, it’s better to run what they call an exclusive wire with just a special group of high rollers, and you cater to them, and you run it just the way they want.  That way, you can keep your customers happy, and you can stay out of trouble.”

               “Uh huh,” Simpson said, as though it was obvious.

               “Yeah,” Johnny said glumly.  “The problem is comin’ up with the high rollers.  We got a few, and there’s ten thousand of them out there that would love to play this set-up, but how to connect with them?”  He brightened, “And then I thought about how you play golf for that car company…”

               “Hertz,” OJ said.

               “Yeah, and you do golf with company presidents, and bankers, and what the hell do I know?  I even heard you played with the President of the United States once.  Hey, is it true some flunky Secret Service guy had to carry his clubs?”

               They all laughed at the idea, and Simpson waved it away as though he couldn’t betray a state confidence.

               “Anyway,” Johnny continued.  “I figured that when you were out playin’ golf with these rich guys you could just pass along one of those 800 numbers – you know, toll-free business?  And, if they were interested, they could call up and get connected, if they said they got it from you.”

               “I don’t know,” Robert said doubtfully.  “Aren’t there some legal problems here?”

               “What legal?” Johnny cried, pained.  “You go out for a round of golf, and back at the clubhouse a little money changes hands, a few checks.  Am I right, OJ?  Tell me if I’m not right.”

               “Yeah,” Simpson admitted, as though it were as obvious a truth as the fact that the sun rises in the east.

               “And, you sit around the sports bar and bet with your friends on the game up on the screen, or even bet with a stranger at the next table.  You bet with your buddies on the phone about the comin’ basketball playoffs.  Am I right?”

               Simpson nodded sheepishly, but Robert still objected.  “That’s informal.  What you’re talking about is… different.”

               “Maybe so,” Johnny said, “But YOU don’t have any connection with it, you’re just tellin’ a friend that it’s there.  If the friend wants to do it, then that’s up to him, huh?   You’re not puttin’ a gun to his head or nothin’; you’re just tellin’ him it’s there.  It’s like you’re an insider and you know what’s what.   Haven’t you ever heard some very fancy people tell that they knew where to get dope, or girls, or whatever?  That doesn’t mean they use it themselves, that just means they know what’s goin’ on.  Huh?   And how about risk-free 25% investments, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ you’ve heard about that too, I know.”

               “Mmm,” Robert considered.  “Maybe.”

               “Of course,” Johnny conceded, “this is very important to us…  To my son…   Critical, even.  If you help, it’s bound to be a hit – among those who know.  If you don’t help…  I’m not sure he’ll make it.

              “And bein’ from the old school, I expect to pay for somethin’ so important.  So, the way it’s set up, when somebody calls the 800 number and says I got the number from OJ there’s a $100 finders fee, right off the top – he doesn’t have to know, of course -- and then there’s 2% on the gross of whatever business he does; win, lose, or draw.   For his first six months of play.  Absolutely safe and guaranteed.  And, with our thanks.

              “You got an office?  You give me the address, and the checks will start rolling in: ‘free money’ off the books, ‘free money’ just because you’re OJ Simpson.  Now, is that a deal, or what, OJ?”  Johnny sat back with satisfaction, as though he had just delivered a coup.

               “Checks?” Robert asked.

               “My personal check from a box number I keep up in Jersey City.   Just a personal check between friends, the same as you guys get for bets on the golf course, huh?” Johnny waved.  “Nothin’ any different than you’re already doin’.”   He daubed his mouth with his napkin and reached into his jacket pocket to pull out a couple of cards and a freshly sharpened pencil.   “I got a no-pressure deal for you.   Here’s a card with the 800 number and the computer place…  You do computers?”

               “Robert does,” OJ said.

               “And you tell me your business address and I write it down here.   Come on, OJ; I could probably get it out of the phone book, huh?”

               Simpson gave him the address of his office in a bank building on San Vicente.

               “Okay, now IF YOU WANT, you got the number, and if you happen to be out playin’ golf and the subject of high-class no-limit sports comes up, you might mention you got a number, of course.  Doesn’t the famous OJ have everything?  And if they say your name, they can get connected.  If you want, OJ.  No pressure, huh?   But, as I say, it would sure mean a lot to me – and to my son.  Huh?”  Then more quietly he ended.  “Just helpin’ a father to help his son.  Thanks OJ.  And thanks to you Robert for makin’ it possible.”

               Simpson took the card, shrugged, and put it in his pocket.

               Johnny nodded, considered it for a minute, then said.  “You know?  The noodles here aren’t half bad.”  OJ took the digression to “noodles” to be a signal that he should recount the time when he would have “the boys” over every week for one of his wife’s famous German dinners, to watch the boxing matches on his big screen TV (speaking of sports betting), and they would have a pool…  The possibility of a little “free money” was never mentioned again.

               HARDLY A “SLOPE” AT ALL:  Well, it wasn’t till the first week of July, on a golf course in Atlanta, that anything came of this.   At that time Simpson was in a foursome with three other equally distinguished, but less celebrated men.  One of them was a loud obnoxious young guy that Simpson did not much like -- rare for the easy-going jock.  The guy talked a lot about all the money he had won at Vegas and Atlantic City; he ran down Indian casinos as a joke, and said that going to the track was for chumps…   It took too much time for too little action.   Almost as a dare to himself, Simpson took the guy aside in the clubhouse, and told him about the 800 phone number.

               A week later, his office manager Cathy asked him about a check that had come in the mail: $250 from a post office box in New Jersey, without any letter of explanation.  But, there was a notation on the check: “Kowalski, 7/05/93.”  Simpson nodded and gave the check back to her.  “Winnings from a game on the Atlanta trip,” he said.  Thereby, he knew, it would get deposited in his personal account, and would bypass the scrutiny of the business’s bookkeeper (and the tax collector).

               Encouraged by that almost stray event, Simpson began to look for opportunities to pass along the 800 number – now to his friends and warm acquaintances, not just obnoxious strangers.  It was so easy to do, and it did not really involve him in a doubtful business.  As had been said, he was just passing along information that the recipient wanted, and which he had by way of his being the famous OJ Simpson.  It was really more of a favor to the one he told than a service to the betting establishment.  The checks began to roll in – so much that Cathy became uneasy.  So Simpson had her divert the New Jersey envelopes – by then quite recognizable -- and he deposited the checks himself.  After all, it was just “free money,” between friends.

               (Innocently taking the first step on that slippery slope.)

               Dick Wagner Van Nuys, CA   (6/28/02)       (freemony.doc)

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