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Codger’s column: What’s the deal?

Everywhere Codger goes these days, from a power lunch at The Islander to a Friends of Music concert to another summit confab of the Senior Citizens Foundation, he hears the same question — “What’s the deal with the Town Board?”

Sometimes he offers the standard explanation: Shelter Island has finally caught up with the rest of America and is splitting into irreconcilable factions, in this case almost the bare minimum model, two Republicans and two Democrats who are rarely able to find common ground. Sometimes he just blows off the question with the bare minimum truth, “Beats me.”

After all, unless you factor in, say, greed, corruption and class resentment, the current national political stand-offs make no sense either. That hardly seems the motivations here.

So, what do wetlands, water quality, community housing and really, really big homes have to do with the local Town Hall logjam? The four Board members mostly agree on most of that.

Then last week, O.J. Simpson died and Codger’s first memory was sitting in an Atlanta sports bar in 1995 when the former football superstar’s murder trial ended with a not guilty decision. The customers, overwhelmingly White, froze in shock. The kitchen and wait staff, overwhelmingly Black, filled the perimeter of the dining room, clapping and shouting.

Here were irreconcilable factions, the first Codger had ever seen so up close. There certainly have been other examples of the cleaving of America, the Revolution and the Civil War might come to mind, the Boston school busing controversy of 50 years ago and the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, but the division over O.J. was so simple, focused and emotional that it remains for Codger a dangerous symbol of intransigence.

Codger wonders how much of a stretch it is to compare a racialized celebrity murder case with the growing us vs. them disunion of Shelter Island. He can’t shake that feeling he had in Atlanta of two separate worlds forming.

Here, too. On the Island, both sides (can there be only two?) decry the split while they don’t seem to be willing or able to do anything about it.

The O.J. case was easy to grasp. A charming, charismatic, talented athlete, actor and social manipulator peddled his image as a good guy and a counterweight to the growing African-American activism of Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali, among other sports figures. He was particularly popular among white male TV and ad executives who loved to hang out with him and bathe in his testosterone shower.

Codger thought O.J. was delusional.

One night in 1969, as Codger tells it in the Oscar-winning ESPN documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” directed by Ezra Edelman, O.J. began recounting an almost dream-like story to Codger. They were drinking in the midtown bar Bachelors Three, waiting for Joe Namath. O.J. recalled that at the wedding of a teammate, he overheard a white woman at an adjoining table, say, “Look, there’s O. J. Simpson and some (N-words.)”

Codger was appalled. O.J. was amused by Codger’s reaction. He said, “No, it was great. Don’t you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.’”

Codger still thinks that was quintessential O. J., an ever-changing mixture of fairytale and scam. Much of America bought it. Corporations made millions off it.

Bad enough that he was a deluded scammer, how much worse that so many people along the way were carried along on his narrative. Did he murder his wife, Nicole, and her friend? When was that ever the prime question? A better one: Why did so many people think his not guilty verdict was payback — appropriate or reprehensible — for all the racist police decisions that killed so many Black men?

Jump ahead. Why do so many people think the election of Donald Trump was an appropriate or reprehensible response to the social and economic decisions imposed by “the elites”?

“Beats me,” says Codger, as he wades into the present impasse on Shelter Island. It’s easy to blame past administrations, the manipulations of the two political clubs and the influence of developers. But this seemingly senseless and intractable situation is much simpler. Here are four people of good faith who can’t pick a fifth to temporarily join them kicking off a new administration.

The requirement suggested early on by Supervisor Amber Bach-Williams was straight forward enough — a non-political person. That shouldn’t have been impossible to find among 11 applicants. What is the Board holding out for? Who on the Board is gumming up the works?

Or are they, like the irreconcilable factions from Bunker Hill to that Atlanta sports bar, locked in a fever dream of rightness, unable to listen to another side, to get past long festering resentments?

Don’t ask Codger. He can only say, “Beats me.”