Jury Duty

By Tyler C. Gore

I knew it was a mistake to vote. There’s something un-American about voting, after all. I mean, sure, it’s great that we can vote, but to actually go through it — to get hold of one of those hard-to-find registration forms, fill it out, wait for your voting card in the mail and then show up on a workday at some high school you never heard of and stand on line to pull a lever on those ancient machines — well, if you ask me, it all smacks of some kind of nutty European socialism. But I’d done it — even though I knew my vote was more or less meaningless, that at any rate the Electoral College (whatever that is) would cast the actual votes for one of two schmucks — and that’s how they must’ve gotten my new address.

Jury duty. Dreaded words, like April 15th or Department of Motor Vehicles. You could defer it for six months, but why put off the inevitable? Besides, I had nothing better to do. So, at 7:30 a.m. I flopped out of bed and dragged myself down to the courthouse, navigating my way through maze-like corridors of the mayor’s concrete barricades until I found a bland, squat building, as brown as a turd.

Ed Bradley from Sixty Minutes came on the screen, looking very grave.

So I had somehow managed to arrive, bleary-eyed, at the appointed hour. Well, not exactly. I was about fifteen minutes late, and when I got inside — to a dark cavernous room that looked vaguely like a movie theatre, with rows and rows of seats — a video was just beginning on the TV monitors that hung over the room. I couldn’t find a seat, so I stood by a wall to watch.

The video vaguely resembled an infomercial. Several Ordinary People — a black construction worker, an Asian lawyer, an Hispanic woman pushing a stroller — testified about their real feelings towards jury duty. “I mean, how could I judge someone else?” the woman was saying. “I didn’t think I could do it.” An elderly black man, leaning on his cane, chuckled ruefully and confided, “Jury duty is a real pain in the neck.” We all laughed. Tell it like is, brother. At least they had a sense of humor about it. But then, to my surprise, Ed Bradley from Sixty Minutes came on the screen, looking very grave. He told us that jury duty was indeed a so-called pain in the neck, but it was also the very foundation of our judicial system, and an essential component to our democracy. And then a shot of the Acropolis appeared on screen, and Bradley’s disembodied voiced continued, “You see, it all started back in Ancient Greece…”

Everyone groaned.

After the video an officer of the court came to the front of the room and announced that certain people were automatically excused from jury duty, and that if they fit into the following categories they should line up in the left aisle to have their notices stamped. “Non-US-citizens,” he called out, and several people got up. “Parents who are the sole-caretakers of their children during the day. People who have doctor’s notes. People who have airline tickets for any time during the next three days.” Various people stood up, beaming with delight. We looked at them enviously. I wondered if there were categories like People who have houseplants or People who just feel kind of tuckered out.

The officer continued. “Anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony.” There was a short pause, and then several people shuffled to their feet, looking sheepish, and took their place in line. I noticed a grizzled looking old man with long hair, wearing a shirt emblazoned with a big marijuana leaf, advertising a newspaper called The Daily Buzz. On the back of the T-shirt was the legend MEAN PEOPLE SUCK under a caricature of Rudy Guiliani. In my mind, I nicknamed this man Snuffy McGoo, and wondered if he was one of the convicted felons. I could imagine Snuffy McGoo talking to his friends through a haze of pot smoke: “Yeah, I once got called for jury duty, but The Man wouldn’t let me serve.”

After the unwed mothers and felons left, the officer explained that People who didn’t have employers — that is, people like me — would be paid $40 a day by the state. I was very happy to hear this. $40 a day was $40 more than I would have made if I stayed home. I now began to feel different about jury duty. I began to think of it as a job.

We were told that we would eventually be summoned to serve on a particular case and to just wait patiently until that time. We were supposed to sign out if we left the room. We were allowed to use laptop computers if we had them (I didn’t), but had to go into the hall if we wanted to use cellular phones. The officer left, and everyone settled into a comfortable funk.

I now discovered that there were two other small rooms adjacent to the main room: a reading room, with a big desk in the middle and a lot of little desks to the side, very much like a college library, and a TV room, which was exactly the same, but with a TV. I found a desk in the reading room, feeling a certain smug superiority to the TV people. I imagined that we, in the reading room, would make far better jurors than those slack-jawed yokels watching Jenny Jones in the next room. A woman’s cell-phone rang, and the rest of us rattled our newspapers and glared over our spectacles until she left the room.

About an hour passed before the officer returned, announcing that he was going to call out the names of several people, who were report to a courtroom where some lawyers would select or reject them for the actual jury. He stressed that even if you weren’t actually picked for the jury, it had nothing whatsoever to with you personally. I felt a flush of anticipation. I wasn’t like that Spanish woman in the video: I knew I could judge someone. In fact, I can be very judgmental, and I wanted to put my talent to professional use. But as the officer began to read the list of names, I suddenly knew that I wasn’t going to be picked. I wasn’t. I was rejected before I even had a chance to be rejected. It was just like grammar school.

I trudged back to the reading room, but just as I took my seat, the officer suddenly announced that we should all take a half an hour break.

Outside, the day was sweltering and humid, and the guards to the building were wearily smoking cigarettes, trying to keep themselves awake. I went to a deli across the street to get something to eat. There was a family — a mother, father, and two small children — wandering around the salad bar, taking turns sampling from the bin. “Mommy, this is good,” the little girl said, stuffing something that looked like sliced beets into her mouth. “Well, if it’s good, then shut your mouth and eat it,” the mother retorted.

While I was paying for my food, the Korean woman behind the counter suddenly leaned forward and shouted past me, “Sir! Sir! You haven’t paid for anything yet!”

The father looked up and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “We ain’t finished getting our food, yet, lady,” he protested around mouthfuls of bread.

The Korean woman scowled. “They eat like that for half an hour already,” she told me in despair.

“These things happen,” I observed, uselessly.

There was a park next to the court building, and I sat down near the entrance to eat. The park was full of a strange variety of people. Two men sat across from me chatting amiably, but whenever a woman passed — any woman — one of them would rise to his feet, shout, “God bless you! God bless you!” and then resume his conversation (which seemed to be about good places to go fishing). Nearby, a well-dressed man sat on a bench, conversing intensely with a shabby old woman surrounded with bags, while his baby daughter toddled after a pigeon, arms outstretched. The pigeon always managed to keep one step ahead of her, but suddenly  —  as if weary of the whole futile exercise  —  halted abruptly. Confused, the little girl skidded to a stop. Here was the object of her desire, presenting itself at last, and she didn’t know what to do. She shook her head, dashed towards her father and threw herself in his lap. There’s a lesson in that, I thought, but it was too hot to figure out what it was.

Two people I’d seen in the courtroom — a pretty young woman, and a clumsy-looking man in his early twenties — emerged from the park. The man was speaking animatedly, but as they passed, the girl looked at me desperately and rolled her eyes. I suddenly realized that they had probably met in the courtroom, and the young woman had made the mistake of speaking with this guy and now couldn’t shake him off. It had been a mistake the way speaking to a stranger on an airplane is a mistake.

I followed them into the building, where we stood in line to go through the metal detector. For some reason, the clumsy young man kept setting it off. He divested himself of keys, wallet, coins, watch, but it kept going off. They pulled him to one side, waved one of those wands over him, and let him through.

At the elevator bank, he kept talking about it. “That was really weird,” he said over and over again, flushed with excitement, as the girl nodded wearily. Perhaps it’s the plate in your head, I thought. I secretly gave him the name Boris Bonehead.

When I returned to the courtroom, I found that the reading room and the TV room were packed with carpetbaggers, who taken advantage of the short break. I looked in despair around the main room for a seat, finally settling down next to an extremely old man, who, implausibly, had rollerblades tucked under his seat. I had already consumed all the good parts of my newspaper, and now, out of boredom, prepared to read the business section.

After about forty-five minutes, the officer of the court emerged and told us we could break for lunch but to be back by two. By two! It was only noon! I wandered back out into the heat, and meandered aimlessly around lower Manhattan for two hours.

Soon after I returned, the officer came out and read another list of names. Mine wasn’t listed. I saw Boris get up with his companion. He’ll make a terrible juror, I thought. He has a plate in his head. As they were leaving the room, another young woman dashed up to join them. I now realized that the three were obviously friends, so I had been wrong about the accidental nature of their relationship. For some reason, this plunged me into despair. If I was wrong about Boris Bonehead, I could be wrong about anything. I would be a terrible juror. It was just as well they didn’t call me, I thought miserably. I didn’t know how to judge anyone.

The room had emptied out quite a bit now. An hour or so passed very slowly. Some more people were called to serve on various juries. I didn’t get called. Time took on an almost palpable quality, like a thick, gooey sauce. Row after row of people sat in various states of decomposition, snoozing behind their newspapers, draped over their chairs like rag dolls. No one spoke. I was so bored I got up to go to the men’s room, although my need was less than urgent. While I was in there, I noticed a sandwich lying on the floor of the stall. I bent down to look at it: it looked like ham and cheese, with one bite out of it. Back in the reading room, I tried to imagine various scenarios in which a half-eaten sandwich might wind up on the floor of a bathroom stall. It seemed like the work of Snuffy McGoo.

I yawned. I decided to go have a cigarette, even though I didn’t particularly want one.

Bizarrely, everything outside was exactly as it had been several hours ago. The guards were smoking, the little girl was with her father and the bag lady, the two men were still blessing women and talking, only now they were talking about Star Trek. I began to wonder if someone paid all these people to sit in the park. If they were, I don’t know, municipal extras. I mean, who sits in a park for five hours on a sweltering hot weekday?

On the far side of the park I saw a homeless man throwing bread at pigeons. He wasn’t throwing bread to the pigeons — he was taking great hunks of what seemed to be stale Italian bread and hurling them at the pigeons with all his might. The pigeons exploded into flight, circled once and floated back to the ground, where the man was waiting for them with a fresh hunk of bread. Another homeless man, apparently an acquaintance, dashed up and angrily grabbed the bread out of the first man’s hand. Shaking his head in disgust, he tossed the bread into a trash barrel. The first man glared at him, fished out the bread, and furiously hurled a piece at a nearby pigeon. The second man wrestled the remaining pieces back out of his hand, and they stood there arguing. Finally, they sat down on the bench together, as if they had reached some sort of truce.

I’d finished my cigarette. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. Back in the courtroom, the officer was speaking to everyone, and I sat down to hear what he was saying. We were done, he told us. We could go home now, and, he assured us, we wouldn’t be called again for four years. He thanked us for helping sustain the American system of justice, and with a sigh of relief, we all rushed out of the building, eager to return to the rich, vibrant tapestry of our lives.

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About Tyler C. Gore

Tyler C. Gore, a native New Yorker, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and has taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and for Gotham Writers Workshop. His essays, short fiction and columns have appeared in many publications, including Literal Latte, MeThree, Lungfull, Opium Magazine, The American, The Fire Island Express, and Rosebud. He has been cited four times as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays annual anthology, as well as a citation from The Best American Non-Required Reading anthology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for Creative Writing. He is also a graphic and web designer.

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