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"Daaood's Tears" Candice Kelsey

on April 10, 2024, O.J. Simpson died from prostate cancer

There is a building at La Cienega that has been a variety of things throughout the years. It has changed, gone through two bankruptcies, always adapting. A Los Angeles favorite has no friends.

         Through all these iterations one thing has remained a constant—a bar countertop along the western wall with a thousand marks from the boots of itinerant dancers. The ones with L.A. dreams.

         I know this because I left marks on those countertops. I was Agent 99, the amalgamation of all the Nick at Nite women who inspired me. Only days ago, I stopped by to run my fingers along the countertop where my go-go boots met the Formica. I swallowed the gulf between who I was then and who I am now. Acknowledged how L.A. has a special talent for reducing the ambitious to the bottom of the food pyramid, to the primal thrust of survival.

         One hundred auditions. One hundred rejections. A whole paycheck to finance an acting class that turned out to be a portal into Scientology. The payphone at Fairfax and Melrose; calling home to Cincinnati for support; hearing the paranoia of a mother who didn’t understand wigs, the Hollywood Reporter, or networking.

One of my customers during the dinner rush handed me his business card. It was June 17. I cleared his atomic burger and Oreo milkshake from the retro dinette table and asked what exactly a casting director did. He invited me to meet up in an hour at the Sofitel bar where he would explain. You could be my next client; he winked while reaching for a toothpick at the host stand. I’m well connected.

The Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills—French luxury and local cuisine in the world’s most exciting city. Bubbling Cuvée Rosé decants while the hotel’s art de vivre décor welcomes threads of celebrity, leisure, and industry. Hollywood braids itself through the lobby doors. One mile and several social strata away sat the squat Chicago-style diner, Ed Debevic’s—Eat at Ed’s in flashing neon. Heaping high chili-cheese fries and bubbling cherry cokes decanted the atmosphere and attitude for a decade on La Cienega Boulevard’s restaurant row. That was my domain.

It was the summer of ’94. A recent law school dropout, I came to Los Angeles to break into acting, waited tables at Ed Debevic’s dressed as Agent 99 from Get Smart. My Barbara Feldon wig, shiny white go-go boots, and trademark Top Secret rubber stamp—a final touch on customers’ checks. The disguise loosened my inhibitions about dancing on the countertops. To this day when I hear the opening horns of “Y.M.C.A.,” I have the urge to drop what I am doing and extend my arms wide overhead. Forever a devotee of retro dream kitsch.

         At 6:15, I entered the Sofitel’s Riviera 31 lounge feeling like this could be my big break, that this could change the course of my future. Just what I needed to call home about. The other servers at Ed’s—Mr. Happy, Rémy Martin, and Rat Fink—had been shoveling blue plate specials for over five years each while chasing the Hollywood dream, and other than Mr. Happy’s Frito-Lay commercial, reality’s tsunami was flooding in. What I would not do to transcend their clichéd fate.

         The casting director motioned to me with a pair of glistening cocktails in each hand, like waving a plane in for landing. We made small talk about the weather, the hotel décor, and the delightful mixologist responsible for our tequila and orange blossom drinks. Before I could approach the topic of my career or offer headshots for consideration, he had persuaded me to visit his suite since the bar is too loud to talk about the things he could do.

         I knew better but wanted this opportunity. The idea of dropping out of law school, moving my life to Los Angeles only to serve overpriced fast food in a mod spy dress sunk me. As the casting director settled with the bartender, a commotion grabbed our attention. Everyone’s eyes locked on the TV above the bar. O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings were speeding down the freeway followed by the CHP. The world stopped, shifted focus.

During the 1960s, Agent 99 was an unusual female character, a capable woman in stressful situations. Nick at Nite had also introduced me to Donna Reed and Louise Jefferson, other women who always had the right answer. Jo March too kept company with these fictional female role models, knowing how to balance her ambitious nature with the constraints placed on nineteenth-century women. My heroes.

It was not the imaginary counsel of 99, Reed, Weezy, and March who tempered my wild ambition and tossed me a life buoy, however. Nor was it the sirens behind Bill Beutel’s authoritative ABC-7 voice that sobered me to the precarious scenario at the Sofitel. The nefarious intentions of this so-called casting director. It was the white Ford Bronco—helicopter footage of the 90 Freeway splitting like a concrete Red Sea, as if by order of some divine misogynistic hand. It was the picture of O.J., titled Heisman Winner and Hall of Famer, floating in the upper right corner of the screen. He played at the Coliseum, was a gladiator. It was the men in the bar cheering for him to outrun the cops, stunned at his alleged downfall, just a crime of passion. Men really were dangerous.

I fled this scene. Like Kamau Daaood claims, “the angels here / have pigeon’s wings.” The casting director had no idea I had unbraided myself from him straight out the lobby doors. I rushed down the boulevard past the Beverly Center to the safety of my tiny apartment on 3rd Street where I watched the spectacle end at O.J.’s Brentwood mansion. I entered that “common salt” of Daaood’s tears. Tried everything not to look back.

My garden kitchen upgrade 2bd/1ba apartment home featured natural sunlight, refrigerator/gas range, central heating, vertical blinds, and much more. Touted as a significant piece of LA's legacy in West Hollywood, my stunning residential community offered a pool and shared laundry. One of the biggest draws was its centralized Los Angeles location, with a proximity score of 90. Adjacent to La Cienega’s Beverly Center, this building was nestled in a friendly, urban center, giving me easy access to highly rated restaurants, thriving cultural attractions, and an energetic nightlife scene. My dream Los Angeles, CA lifestyle could be mine. For $2300 per month.

In August of that year, I landed the role of Jo March in a community theater production of Little Women. My two wigs—the long, wild hair Jo considered her “one beauty” and the freshly chopped bob of Agent 99—quelled my stage fright. Playing with my identity on and off stage, the liberating soundtrack of wigs, all attempts helping me abscond from the crime of reality.

According to the news, a hair from the carpeting in O.J. Simpson's Ford Bronco closely resembled hairs found on a knit cap near Ronald Goldman's body. Funny, how something so small could change the course of a life.

Women learn to dance the choreography of a city, an industry. The steps leave marks visible and invisible. YMCAs have long been places where things happened, especially for those who were living a long way from family and friends. Founded by London’s George Williams, a draper of the fashion trade, the organization provided a home for many of the day’s outcasts.

An L.A. Times critic destroyed the Little Women cast, titling his review “’Little Women’ Seem Uneasy in Spotlight.” Apparently, I was “too cool to let us feel the heat of Jo’s passions.” In 2002, a Los Angeles Business Journal article titled, “L.A. Restaurants Going Hungry in Post 9/11 Environment,” lamented the surge of California restaurants shutting down, citing the rise in minimum wage and workers’ comp costs. Add to that stress the reality that “[r]estaurant revenues in California [were] projected to increase by only 2 percent to 3 percent.” I walk across the street now, taking my infant daughter to her Cedars-Sinai pediatrician, aware of my history, the past she’ll never need to know.

134 N. La Cienega Blvd. has a protean quality, shape shifting from Ed Debevic’s to Korean BBQ and a Japanese noodle house. Like most West Coast real estate, the building adapts to its new role, reworks facades, and becomes vulnerable to the city’s appetites. It stands today as a testament to the human condition.

Candice Kelsey (she/her) is a poet, educator, and activist. She is currently a poetry reader for The Los Angeles Review and has previously served as a fiction reader for The New England Review as well as a poetry judge for Ageless Authors. She has received six Pushcart and two Best of the Net nominations while also being named a finalist for Best Microfiction. She is the author of a trade paperback parenting guide, three full-length poetry collections, one poetry chapbook, and one prose chapbook. She mentors emerging writers and particularly loves working with the incarcerated population.

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