I, the Jury Duty, by Elayne Riggs
It’s been a hell of a winter for me. Under the Lennonesque heading of life being what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans, the latest in a series of stumbling blocks that have come between me and my ability to participate more in ComicMix’s news section — including the still-ongoing detox from my former job (which kept calling me back in through the end of last year), the nearly-full-time search for a new means of income, and a nasty lingering flu – was last week’s call to jury duty. It was inevitable, but given my temporary unemployment period I’m glad it happened when it did. It’s been over four years since I last served, and now it’ll be another four years at least until they call me up again, which should gladden any potential employer.
I had no excuse to postpone this, but I still wasn’t looking forward to it. The one time I’ve actually served on a jury was on a criminal case, a murder trial, and we wound up convicting the accused, during a time when the death penalty was still in effect. The knowledge that I and my fellow jurors may have contributed in sending this guy to the electric chair, however guilty we may have thought him for his crime, unnerved me to the point where I don’t think I can ever serve again on that sort of a criminal case.
I was lucky in subsequent call-ups, in that most of the cases where my name came up for the jury pool were civil ones. One was settled before it commenced to trial, and I got out of the pool for the other one, I think, because I knew Cheryl Harris. You see, folks, you never know when your comic book connections will come in handy! Cheryl and I had both held the Membership Secretary position on the Friends of Lulu National Board, and saw each other socially besides, ever since our CompuServe days. But in this case I had to admit, during the initial jury questioning from the attorneys and the judge, that I also knew that she worked in the Bronx County court system, and so I was excused back to the jury assembly room and my name wasn’t picked again during that round.
In those days I think the typical jury service, if you weren’t picked to go on a case, was three days, and you got $15 per day which the state sent to your employer and your employer deducted from your paycheck, or something like that. It works differently with each state, and the rules seem to change all the time. As a matter of fact, this round even the venue changed.
My summons said to be in the assembly room by 9 AM, which I knew from previous experience I could fudge somewhat because… Well, how do I put this? The section of the Bronx wherein I live is fairly atypical. My home county isn’t exactly the way it’s portrayed in all those ’70s movies with the cheapass color. At least, not the northern sections. But the further south you go, the more edgy the neighborhoods tend to get. And the bus that goes down the Grand Concourse (the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx) takes you through most of them on your way to the 161st Street. Because I was going on vague memory rather than actually doing something constructive like looking up bus timetables, I hadn’t realized (or remembered) that there was an express ("limited") Bx1, and so the first day I found myself on the local. It was a good thing I caught it at its empty terminus in my old south Riverdale neighborhood around 7:45 AM, as took almost an hour and a half to arrive at the courthouse. (Even the limited takes 45 minutes to get there.) This commute was by far the worst aspect of jury duty, but it couldn’t be helped — there was so much street and building construction going on in the destination area (which also includes the New Yankee Stadium) that driving through it would have been next to impossible, let alone parking. In certain areas of the Bronx, public transportation really is the only option. And when you don’t live near a particular subway, that narrows it down even further. And of course, I’m sure I had a bit of a relapse after two days among the dregs of Bronx citizenry.
The bus didn’t stop in front of the county courthouse due to the aforementioned construction, so I got out three blocks south and had to sprint back in the biting cold and climb the steps to the magnatometer-laced entrance of 851 Grand Concourse — only to overhear the guard intone, "If your summons said such-and-such East 161st Street, this is not that building. You need to walk about three blocks east to that shiny glass building over on the left…"
Seems that Bronx County is now splitting up court cases between the familiar old court building and the brand-new — wait for it — Hall of Justice!
So sue me, I’m a geek. And whilst it may not have any Superfriends, the new HoJ was still pretty clean and impressive (erm, despite that wood-over-broken-glass door you see in the above photo). At the entrance you face roped-off zigzags leading to shiny magnetometers, half of which even seemed to be operational; it was like weaving through a Disney queue, only instead of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride it’s Lady Law’s Sit and Wait.
A cool sculpture hangs from the jury assembly room ceiling; it’s made up of twelve tiny blue chairs affixed to an arc with the inscription "Over time, the arc of history always leans towards justice." Well appointed restrooms dot the hall, complete with water fountains outside of them. There’s even a vending machine snack facility adjacent to the assembly room! And the cushioned seats were fairly comfy, even if the built-in arm rests proved a bit limiting for a large person like me, so I opted to switch to one of the long wooden benches at the sides and back of the assembly room (alas, right underneath the AC unit going at full blast).
And that’s right about when time stopped. I felt like I was indeed in that long, slow arc of history, leaning inexorably towards the justice of having received my now $40 per diem in exchange for being a warm body, having to put up with the eternal, incessant music of the spheres — no, I’m sorry, that would be the music of The Whistler. There’s at least one in every crowd, and really, your only option when The Whistler keeps at his tuneless monotony, despite repeated eye contact wherein you make it quite clear via body language that he’s creating an annoyance burgeoning into a disturbance and he Just Doesn’t Care because his whistling is just the most important thing in the whole wide world, is to switch to another seat. But you know once you hear The Whistler it’s nearly impossible to tune him out even if you rearrange yourself at least ten rows behind him.
The time might have passed more quickly had there been monitors set up to run the usual "So You’ve Been Summoned to Pass Judgment on a Complete Stranger Based on Evidence and Testimony from Other Complete Strangers — Now What?" orientation film, but see, the building was so new it surprised the workers that the microphones were even operational. Still, by 12:30 or so my name had been called into a pool, and the 50 or so of us traipsed to the elevator leading to the 5th floor jury lobby room, where we… sat some more. Then we stood to go into the courtroom, where the judge outlined the bare bones of the case for which 16 of us would be chosen, and immediately dismissed us to lunch. They take their lunch hours-and-a-half seriously in the Bronx County court system!
Alas, the choices for a healthy repast were almost nonexistent, so most of us hit the food court in the mini-mall across the street, which had a faux Japanese place, so at least I got an eel roll and some soba noodles. Yeah, I know, a food court eel roll etc., but like I said, it was that or KFC or Sbarro or Mickey Dee’s or equally questionable Chinese food. (KFC was my poison of choice on Tuesday). As the mall builders didn’t exactly trust area residents, all the tables and chairs were fastened to the floor, there were four chairs to every table, and everything was crowded, so you pretty much had to share your table with complete strangers if you wanted to sit at all. More enforced closeness and silence, oh joy! I figured the local pharmacy would offer a bit of relief and a cheap drink to dilute all that sodium, but found myself literally spinning in the queue like some sort of revolving door, as customer after customer chose the spot two inches in front of me to criss-cross the queue on their way to another part of the store. I’m not kidding, it was about a dozen people in the space of a minute, I was like a friggin’ whirling dervish.
We had been asked to return at 2:15 (to allow another 15 minutes or so to get through the magnetometers), but we sat and sat in the 5th floor lobby room until at least 3. The judge then asked anyone who felt they couldn’t serve in the case to raise their hands for private meetings in his "robe room" (yes, I giggled, but I should have expected a "robe room" in the mighty Hall of Justice!) with him and the attorneys for both sides. After that was done the first pool of 16 (which didn’t include me) was chosen and questioned. That took up the rest of the afternoon, in part because a few of these chosen ones were, frankly, as dumb as a bunch of rocks. The guy next to me kept fidgeting and whispering conspiratorially to me that they should "speak up, answer the question," and I’m there responding sotto voce, "Maybe they all think they’re on TV so they’re nervous." Compounding this was the sad fact was that, for at least a few, their grasp of English was basic at best. The orientation worker in the assembly room that morning had warned us that claiming not to speak English would not excuse anyone from jury duty, so in retrospect this probably should have been foreseen.
By the time the weeding process for the first group had gotten underway it was time for dismissal, and we were told to return to the lobby room the next day by 9:15. We needn’t have hurried. At about 11:30, after repeated apologies that the room didn’t yet have a television (it was just as well, the silence meant I could doze in peace without fear of my brain leaking out from FOX News poisoning or somesuch), the court official who looked way too much like Mark Evanier (I kept doing double-takes) finally told us the courtroom was ready for us, and mysteriously added that the 2+ hour delay was in no way due to anything having to do with the case, but was some sort of logistics problem. Maybe they didn’t have a TV in there either.
Long story short (er, less long), I was in the second group to get questioned, and was happy to tell all assembled about my husband’s cool job drawing comics, but I probably opened my mouth too much (there’s a shocker!) in telling the judge about my previous time having served on a criminal case, as I’d blurted out the verdict before he could tell me not to. I believe this went a long way towards disqualifying me from that pool, but everyone had to have their go, so we were dismissed for lunch then told to return so they could go through the rest of the crew. And by 3 PM or so, those of us not chosen were sent back to the assembly room where they printed out our receipts and bid us adieu.
The modern jury process in an ultra-modern building — gotta love it! No really, I think they’ve made it mandatory, every quadrennium or so, just like the Olympics. And when even Madonna gets called, you know it must be fashionable.
Elayne Riggs is a floating contributor to ComicMix‘s news section and can be found blogging about whatever strikes her fancy here.