I had seen him working the grounds of the Orlando resort property where I was staying with my mom and my then-4-year-old son. He never acknowledged us. He didn't even look our way although I was sure he saw us on numerous occasions.
I thought this was odd because there were very few African-Americans at the resort and there is an unspoken rule in the black community that in these situations we acknowledge each other... even a nod would do.
I recently thought of that long-ago time at the resort in Orlando because it was there that I heard the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. We are at the 20-year anniversary of what has been called the "crime of the century" and there is much in the media these days on the murders, the trial, and that infamous car chase. For those too young to remember, they are getting an introduction to the circumstances surrounding the case, albeit with hindsight.
For me, another memory from that resort is of a newspaper headline. One morning, as we waited at the shuttle stop for a ride to the theme park, I glanced at the nearby newsstand. When you spend a few days in the parks with a 4-year-old you can lose track of the outside world, so I was glad to see a newspaper. That is until I took a good look at the cover.
On the cover of the newspaper, there was a large photo of one of the cutest black kids ever, maybe around 5 or 6 and sporting a wide grin. The headline in large letters said something to the effect that this was a portrait of a KILLER! Apparently, he was an adult charged with murder and the paper had used his childhood photo.
The message wasn't even subliminal -- it was like being hit with a freight train. It brought me back to reality quickly, even on the pristine grounds of the resort. I wondered what the black groundskeeper, the man who ignored us, thought about the paper. I'm sure it was not an opinion he could openly express, especially there.
I also understood the reason the groundskeeper didn't feel the need to acknowledge us. He just kept his head down and did his work. He couldn't relate to me, or any of the guests at the resort. It was not a racial slight, it was economic.
Today, 20 years later, most of the articles and stories on the O.J. case still focus on reactions according to race. A few dig deeper to describe the role money, fame, and privilege played in the case and the outcome. However, the common refrain remains: "Your reaction to the verdict depends on your race." Not entirely true, but not entirely false either. As so many recent analyses have told us (as if we don't know this) there has historically been a lack of trust in the black community concerning law enforcement and this affected viewpoints on the case.
We waited in our hotel room at the resort to hear the verdict. Yes, I will admit I was shocked. As we walked through the lobby and toward the shuttle stop there seemed to be a lot of shocked people. I may be wrong, but their glances toward us seemed to be a little unfriendlier.
Once we were outdoors, walking through the lavish greenery, I saw the black groundskeeper. He was not looking down or ignoring us this time. As a matter of fact, he was looking right at us. Still, he did not speak as I approached him and we were face-to-face. Instead, he winked.