Jury duty: a time-honored tradition. Or is the tradition actually avoidance of it? “Tell them you believe in jury nullification,” someone told me, “you’ll get dismissed right away if you say that.” But I was excited to see what it’s all about, so I left for the courthouse with my laptop, a copy of The Economist and The New Yorker, my Kindle, and a notebook, eager to fulfill my civic duty.
As I walked out of the parking ramp that first morning, I fell into step with someone who turned out to be an attorney. “I always cross at the light,” she said a little obsessively as we waited for the walk signal, “it makes a big difference in cases of liability.” How apropos, I thought, as I entered the land of parsing and interpretation.
Some 150 unhappy people waited in silence in the jury room, many slouching with listless looks on their faces. My phone didn’t work in the basement, and they hadn’t yet provided the password to get online. I began to mentally twiddle my thumbs even before I sat down. I’d forgotten to pack a snack, so I’d have to chart my course to the snack machine STAT.
I found an empty seat next to a guy who looked like he worked with his hands. He must be going nuts just sitting here. He confirmed as much, and I handed him my magazines. The short film about jury duty service was played, a saving grace for those who looked ready to lose their minds at any moment. Unexpectedly, the video tapped into my inner patriotism something fierce. This is an imperfect country, I know, but its traditions of participatory democracy are spectacular. There’s no other way to put it: my heart swelled.
Now united in public service, half-reading and half-talking, my neighbor and I traded stories for an hour. I laughed uncontrollably when he recounted a time he’d seen a hung-over veterinarian give a post-mortem on a cow that had died of bloat. The veterinarian had cut into the animal, he said, and due to the overwhelming stench from its bowels, the guy vomited for 10 minutes straight. On the cow! I couldn’t get over the indignity that this cow had endured. Or that I heard this story within my first hour of jury duty. I knew then that it would be an awesome week.
When I moved to the back room where I could plug in my laptop, I saw a small, round table where four people sat talking and laughing, nothing like the rest of the dismal crowd. I sat on the perimeter of the room for a while, moving to the table once they’d invited me. It had the feeling of Happy Hour, but we didn’t know each other and no one had a drink.
Tony, an artist and a smart-ass, had come to jury duty thinking that he’d put his nose in a book for the week. No such luck. Both he and I became the eager audience of our jury duty mates – Jim, John, and Jody. Tony with his stylish glasses and I with my bag of mixed nuts.
Jim was the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. He’s a 30-something guy of Hmong background who offers kindnesses like no other. He would arrive early each day to reserve the table, and eat there over the lunch break to keep it. “I miss you guys,” he wrote via Facebook the other day.
John was the middle child of 16 children (!). His family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was five years old; half of the kids in his family were born in Mexico, and the other half in the U.S. His sincerity was unparalleled. When the topic of embarrassing moments came up, John immediately said he’d never done anything that he was embarrassed about. Wow, the perplexed looks on my and Tony’s faces clearly expressed, where had we gone wrong?
Jody was the main show. Her life was like a reality television show that had gone off the rails, if that's possible. After 28 years of managing a public housing complex, 12 of which she lived there while raising children, I can’t imagine how she gets up in the morning. As she tossed back candy bars and bags of Funyuns, she told stories of SWAT teams and dead bodies and restraining orders and drugs and mentally ill tenants and subpoenas and lawsuits. As she talked, Tony and I leaned further and further over the table, incredulous that someone with her buoyant personality could be navigating such murky, dangerous waters. Life seems a precarious venture indeed.
I was never called for a trial in the end, not even to be interviewed. We spent four days together, telling stories, going out for lunch, trading contact information. People who would never have known each other were it not for a summons that I’d once considered untimely and inconvenient. The county’s pay of $10 a day didn’t even cover my parking expenses, let alone my lunches, but the best compensation packages have nothing to do with money. The best compensation has everything to do with human connection.