Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thank you, mmmkay?

It was a parenthetical phrase in time--a day unlike almost any other, set apart from the rest of my life, with almost no known markers of familiarity.

I was in a strange place, doing strange things, moving at a snail's pace, which of course you know is nothing like the rest of my life. I learned nothing, I taught nothing. I accomplished nothing for the community (in spite of the resounding thank-yous for my "service"), I spoke to almost no one, I got NOTHING done.

Jury duty.

The day started out normal enough--jeans, a tank top, a sweatshirt. Packed my bag with crossword puzzles, a good book (the kind that makes you a better person for reading it), a fun book (the kind that rots your brain with every word), a book of puzzles, a Twix bar, a bag of pretzels, an orange, and a salad for lunch. Bean Traders made the morning wonderful and then it was off to downtown Durham.

I found the parking lot easily enough, marveling yet again at how much Durham has changed in the last ten years. They've done an amazing job of rejuvenating the downtown. When I served on a jury about 12 years ago, there was nowhere to eat anywhere downtown and we ended up at the government offices' cafeteria every day. But this morning, on my walk from the garage to the courthouse, I passed wide sunny streets with interesting shops and restaurants at every store front. Just the other night I had seen friends play music at Pinhook, and I've had several occasions to hang out in the Durham nightlife. I love my town, and I'm proud of the changes, and these were the thoughts that passed through my brain as I turned left onto Main Street passing the impressive headquarters of the Free Masons with their vaguely Wiccan symbology emblazoned dramatically across their facade and painted onto their windows and decalled onto their door.

The two--count 'em two, exactly two, no matter what, only two--security guards were in no hurry to usher us through the system, and the line of people trying to get into the courthouse at 8:30 stretched around in a tight spiral through the foyer and out into the bright light of our newfound spring weather made brighter by bouncing off the white, marble-esque exterior. I notice that nearly everyone--well, except for the cute little Latino couple who are probably here for some sort of COURT--but nearly everyone is holding out their happy little jury summons papers, looking all official--you know, to get through SECURITY, who of course, couldn't possibly care less why we're there as long as our bags fit through the xray machine that they don't even look at as the bag passes through 'cuz they're too busy flirting with the little Latina girl who... never mind.

Anyway, we eventually made it through security to join the crowd awaiting the elevator, and if you know me, you know I'm not going to be sitting in that, so I walked around to the back of the courthouse, stretching my memory muscles from when I was court volunteer for abused kids way back in the day, and I started up the five flights of stairs to the jury pool room.

I'm sorry--did you say five flights of stairs??? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??? I haven't climbed more than a single flight in, what? DECADES, and here I am hefting what now feel like 40-pound shoes stair after stair after stair. I reach the top, tumble out of the stairwell and into the line of what I find out later were 150 jurors waiting to be checked in.

Good thing we all got there on time, 'cuz by 9:30, the last one of us was checked in and seated in the room that holds about 100 people comfortably. While I was in the line, I met the dude who used to be the director of DSS until about a month ago when he retired. He was wearing a suit, I noticed. How quaint. And the stay-at-home-mom who had served on a jury ten years ago when they had to serve for a month. She was hoping not to get called this time. We chatted happily about the changes in Durham, the civic duty we were fulfilling, the vibe that comes from being in a courthouse.

So finally I get in to the room, and the very nice and very cheerful clerk of court checks me in, and I find a corner on the floor in the back by the empty coat rack, and I spread out and open my first crossword puzzle of the day.

The very nice and very cheerful clerk of court begins her orientation, which is peppered with a thousand thank yous and a whole lot of "mmmkay?" that sounds just like the gay teacher on South Park. She is very nice and very cheerful, but not the most organized public speaker, and I wonder to myself how many times she's done this, and why is it so hard to finish a sentence, mmmkay? But she's so nice and so cheerful, that I decide she's a huge improvement over the last one who couldn't be bothered to look up from her desk when we had questions. She has us stand, and we are prepared to make an oath. I hadn't noticed them before, but she mentions it, and I realize there are Bibles strewn about the room, tilting precariously on chairs, slid carelessly onto tables, leaning against arm rests...

Now think about it. People are about to swear on the Bible, because it's a sacred book, the embodiment of the Word of God, and if you swear on the Bible and then break your oath, you are giving the ultimate diss to God.

So what does it mean to throw Bibles around a room and leave them on chairs, where people put their asses and all the things that asses do while they're in chairs? Really? The obvious-to-me contradiction is emblematic for me of how this system falls just short of greatness.

But we all stand and most people hover around a nearby Bible, with someone holding the book up, and the rest of them leaning in to touch it with their fingertips. The verysweetChristian lady (I know this because she had been reading some church newsletter that had big clear letters about various things peppered with bolded passages about JESUS as your SAVIOR and the LAMB OF GOD) was standing in front of me and the person in front of her had the Bible, but she was shy so she stretched out her arm, but it didn't reach the Bible, so she stood with her arm outstretched, her right hand lifted, her left hovering over nothing, but somehow this made all the difference, and she made her most solemn oath that she would uphold the duties of this court in a fair and proper manner. The solemnity of the whole thing was lost on the Witch in the coatrack.

And then we sat.

Several crosswords came and went. A sudoku or two. During the orientation, the very nice and very cheerful clerk of court had assured us that we would all get called into a courtroom that day. She didn't have near the number of jurors she had hoped for, and we may even have to do double duty if we get asked to leave one trial, we may have to go to another, mmmkay? She worried that we might not have time to watch the entire orientation video because the court schedule was so tight.

However, once the video was over, she reported that she'd heard from the court rooms, and sure enough--we could take a break. We took a 15-minute break, during which time I simply hunkered down deeper in the corner, and ate my orange.

I struggled to read while CNN blared over my head. The story of the Prius gas pedal incident in California replayed every few minutes throughout the day. The worst was the story of the Chinese removing cat and dog from their menus, planning to reduce the consumption of animals we consider housepets. The story was accompanied by the sound of meowing cats, and detailed, disgusting commentary that in any other circumstance would not be allowed into my world. Eventually, though, the sound in the room of the conversations, the cell phone chatter, and simply the movement of all those bodies drowned out the sounds of Constant News Nothing channel.

Hours passed, letters filled little squares, pages turned in both books, and soon it was noon, and the very nice and very cheerful clerk of court was telling us to go ahead and break for lunch, mmmkay? and be sure to be back at 2:30. The longest lunch break in the building...

The sunshine was beautiful and I regretted not bringing my camera. I ate my salad in front of the library, where a group of boisterous, cheerful and hilarious black teenagers kept up a banter of fabulous chatter until they were interrupted by the fat white stereotype of a security guard who would have none of that. An adorable little Latino boy hopped up on the stone wall but was "no-no"ed by his mom right away, with a tilt of her head, and "Policia, huh?" He gripped his Transformers book tighter and hopped down, all cheeks and mohawked hair and big brown eyes as he passed me before breaking into a run to catch up with mom and the roundroundround baby in her arms.

I walked to Brightleaf for an iced mocha where I bumped into the Mr. Bacon's Big Adventure board game at Parker and Otis. I strolled through Morgan Imports, and 2:30 found me back under my coatrack, now with coats, which made it even more bizarre, and by 3:30 we were being told we would soon be set free. Our job had been done--when the threat of a jury trial became real, the defendants had all reached plea bargains, something the judge said happens in 98 percent of cases.

Many thank-yous later, we were sent home, letter in hand, freeing us from this obligation for two more years. Our $12-dollar check would arrive in the mail, mmmkay?, and off we went.

Close parentheses.

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