Jury duty is one of those responsibilities of citizenship that reminds us that the American justice system is the best in the world. It also reminds us that, if at all possible, we never want to have anything to do with the American justice system. Not ever.
If youre not a law-abiding citizen when you first report for jury duty, by the end of the day you definitely are. You never want to go back there again, in any capacity. Its like prison, only without the exercise yard. By the end of my two days I was scratching a crude calendar into the back of the seat in front of me. I wanted to speak to an attorney. I wanted my rights read to me. I wanted to yell "GUARD!!" but that would have interrupted the catatonia of the other 200 people trapped in a room with no windows and 12 ceiling-mounted TVs.
As we waited to be called to trial, we were apparently being tested by having to watch something called Regis and Kathie Lee. I have heard of this program. I have also heard that there are people who watch this of their own free will. But here in this large room there was no choice, no escaping this Regis and Kathie Lee person (or perhaps it was two separate people).
"Come on Steve. Take your shirt off. Lets see the kind of hunk that stars onGeneral Hospital!" [frenzied screams from audience]
I glance up. Maybe the people in the TV audience are themselves waiting for a jury assignment, except theyre in a more creative city that teaches pity and compassion to its jurors by making them watch celebrities.
But my mind was becoming numb from the noise. Those around me had already lost their will to resist. They slouched, unmoving, staring up at the televisions with heavy lids and blank expressions, newspapers slowly sliding out of reach of their lifeless fingers and gathered in loose piles on the floor.
They were the undead.
I had to get out of there. I moved quickly toward a distant door labeled "Smokers Room" figuring a cancer risk is better than insanity.
"Today were going to be talking about What Turns You On!"the television calls after me as I desperately pulled open the door. A quantity of smoke that could only come from an oil tanker explosion began stinging my face and lungs as I stepped into the room. Two dozen people sat in silence as smoke poured from their faces, their hands, their clothing (and not one of them was lunging for a fire extinguisher).
Startled from their peaceful delirium, they stared angrily at the intruder who stood at the door, allowing the unwelcome breath of life to swirl into the room. I shuddered at the sight and quickly made my way back to the ever-smiling receptionist. May I go downstairs for some air, perhaps some coffee? "Im sorry, sir. No one is allowed to leave once youve checked in."
Defeated, I walked slowly back to The Place of Great Noise. "The Women of the KKK...today on Oprah!"
If Dr. Kevorkian had walked into that room and asked for volunteers, he could have filled a good-sized bus.
Attempting some reassurance, the receptionist called after me, "The judge said hed call for his first panel around 9." (It was 10:30.) "Just have a seat, and make yourself at home." Yes, I thought to myself, I could make myself a home, if I had brought the proper tools. I certainly had enough time.
Finally, my number is called and things happened quickly. In the time it takes to shout "Guilty!" we are seated in Courtroom Number 5.
It is cold here. Very cold. Is this to keep us awake, or to keep those dying of boredom from smelling?
Interestingly, Im seated next to Sander Vanocer, the former TV news correspondent whom I remember watching in my pajamas when I was a kid. I dont mention this to him (the part about the pajamas), but I attempt to start a conversation by offering him a Lifesaver. He declines. (But, who could blame him? It was a yellow one. Which meant I would have got the red one just below that. This guys no dummy.)
"All rise." (With the pent-up tension I carried from the other room I would have preferred "All bend down and touch your toes.") The judge walks in, and a uniformed man reads the oath of service, to which we reply in unison ("I Will." "I Do." "Yes." "Could you repeat the question? You see, Ive been trapped in a large room with more TVs than Circuit City and....")
"If any of you have ever been a victim of a crime, or convicted of a crime, please approach the bench."
Yes! Finally. El Rejecto! Thats what always gets me excused: Because Im both. Ive been robbed at gunpoint and Ive been convicted of crimes of conscience. (Ironically, I was not sent to a special jail for people of conscience. Rather, I was sent to the jail for people who rob at gunpoint, which was very uncomfortable for a little guy who might as well be wearing a sign that says "Hi. Im new here!") Though, in truth, I nearly killed a guy in prison. When he asked how long I was in for I told him "10 weekends in jail for a protest."
"Weekends! WEEKENDS?!" he yelled, falling to the floor clutching his chest in laughter, struggling to catch his breath. Apparently he had not been offered this particular option. Like I said, I almost killed the guy.
So anyway, nobody wants me on a jury: too prejudiced in both directions, they figure. Plus, I dont know what "approach the bench" means. Do you go right up to it, or just sort of lean toward it? Are you allowed to reach up and feel the smooth wood grain or will the judge hit you with that little hammer thingy?
Anyway, for the third time in as many years Im sent back to Planet Television to finish my sentence, against which there can be no protest, no defense, no appeal.