Doing Time—My Week of Jury Duty

I spent 8 hours Monday and 6 hours Wednesday immersed in a sociological study known to most simply as jury duty.

Mind you, this is my third go at exercising my civic duty, so I’m somewhat of an expert at this public petrie dish. It’s such a fascinating cross-section of humanity—well, at least the humanity that resides within my county.

I met my first fellow juror in the elevator to the parking ramp. He kindly held the door open for me and then proceeded to tell me how he drove 750 miles from his job site in Michigan to get there and that they’d better dismiss him or pay him $95,000 because that’s how much it was going to cost his company if he wasn’t there that week.

Aaaaand…nice to meet you too.

Once inside the courthouse, which is a very old and very beautiful—but very inconvenient—building, I climbed the 7,000 stairs to the third floor where the “juror lounge” was located.

Now, when you hear the word “lounge,” what comes to mind? Possibly karaoke or a Neil Diamond impersonator? Round tables with candles burning for ambiance? Maybe even a red velvet sofa?

Well, the jury lounge is close to fitting that description—if, by “close,” you mean “the complete opposite of.” Let’s see…the lounge consisted of about 60 chairs lined up in rows, a few of which were actually cushioned, but the majority of which were of the plastic and steel variety; one—count it, one—outlet that I found hiding behind a filing cabinet only after launching my own search party; and a few magazines scattered about. And what kind of a lounge doesn’t even have booze? Instead, there was a machine that took my 75 cents and spit out a thimble-sized cup of coffee with cream and sugar—minus the coffee. And the best part was that I had pushed the button for black coffee.

Before being separated into jury panels for different judges, we were all herded into a courtroom where we were given our “orientation,” which included a video (and yes, I mean a VHS video) from the early 1980s that was so entertaining in a horrifying sort of way that I’m not sure any of us actually retained any of the information it intended to provide. It featured a very overeager young man with hair that looked like this:

The video also featured an old woman who was nearly as stereotypical as you can get. I know this is terrible, but the whole time I couldn’t get my mind past this thought: “I wonder if she’s dead now. I bet she is.”

After sitting through 20 minutes of cinemagic, names were called for the two jury panels that they needed that day. My name, along with about a dozen other names, wasn’t called. We were instructed to head back into the jury lounge, where we’d probably get dismissed shortly. That was 9:15. I left at 4:35. Apparently, six of us “lucky ones” were needed as “extras” for one of the jury panels, which meant that we didn’t get to go listen to the proceedings but instead had to wait the entire day in the jury lounge just in case. Oh joy.

At least I had come prepared. I brought two books (in case I got tired of reading one of them), my computer, my iPhone, a journal so I wouldn’t forget to tell my bloggy friends anything, and a barrette in case my bangs became unruly. I couldn’t believe how many people were there with nothing to do. Literally, one young man stared at the floor the entire 8 hours. Amateurs.

During the breaks I entertained myself by conversing with my new friends-of-happenstance: Pregnant Teacher, Green Suspenders Guy, and The $95,000 Man Who Is Missing a Thumbnail. Bonded by the uncomfortable chairs and a mutual goal to not get picked for a jury, we rated area restaurants on the quality of their pizza, sparking quite a debate from our peers behind us. And some of us shared more about ourselves than others.

To illustrate my point, here’s what I learned from The $95,000 Man Who Is Missing a Thumbnail:

  • He was a passenger on one of the original Love Boats.
  • He doesn’t drink caffeine but thinks the Snapple Kiwi/Strawberry drink is pretty good.
  • The only way to deep-fry a turkey is at 220 degrees.
  • It takes 11 hours for him to drive from Des Moines to El Paso, Texas.
  • Sprint dropped him as a customer because he roamed too much.
  • His crews take 2 weeks off at Christmas and can either draw unemployment or use their vacation time; he doesn’t care which.
  • He hates it when people are late and he lets them know it by tapping his watch.
  • He cut back to 3 candy bars a week; lately it’s been Hershey’s with Almonds.
  • No one in Des Moines, despite claiming they have “Chicago dogs,” makes a true Chicago dog.
  • His nephew played football for the Fighting Illini.
  • He prefers hiring a Realtor to selling houses on his own, and he believes the housing crisis began when the government deregulated banks.
  • He makes a mean roast on the grill.
  • He really, really, REALLY doesn’t want to serve his jury duty.

Despite hearing these things directly from The $95,000 Man, some things I learned quite by accident. Take, for instance, the “breastfeeding incident.”

Now, when I was pregnant or nursing, I could’ve talked to any man on the street about the virtues and woes of lactating, nipple soreness, or engorgement. However, now that my baby is now 5, I have apparently become a bit squeamish about hearing breastfeeding stories. Or maybe I’ve just become a bit squeamish about hearing them from Loud Woman in Her Late Fifties. I mean, as she talked to Pregnant Teacher about when she nursed her son, I could only picture this guy in his 30s, probably balding, suckled up to his mom. Yeah, I know—yuck. I couldn’t help it. The fact that I was flanked by two men while listening to the conversation didn’t help matters either.

So I tried to drown out the talk of breast pumps and nipple bites by striking up a conversation with Green Suspenders Guy. Actually, to be accurate, he initiated the conversation by asking me about my day-glo orange MacBook case. Upon first glance, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. I mean, he had a long hippie-ish beard and was wearing green suspenders. He also had this ageless look about him; he could’ve been 20 or he could’ve been 50. I couldn’t tell. But after making small talk about computers, I decided I really liked this guy. He was cool in a “not-trying-to-be-cool-in-any-way” kind of way. Turns out he’s a computer repair tech who works 3rd shift, is currently reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about anthropology, admits to enjoying Pride and Prejudice, and prefers comics as his genre of choice. Little did I know, since we were both sitting as we got acquainted, that he is a big, BIG guy. In fact, I didn’t come to that conclusion until I stood in line next to him and found myself face to face belly with him. No joke, he’s at least 7 feet tall, like a friendly, quiet, and well-read Yeti.

As I sat, a prisoner 0f the jury lounge for the afternoon, I made the call that one of the worst jobs in the world has to be jury clerk. I mean, no one is ever excited to show up to jury duty. Well, I should say that no one who is sane is. All you’d hear about is how people “can’t serve” because their life is more important/busy/horrific than everyone else’s. (Not that I don’t think there are legitimate reasons people should be excused from serving, but I don’t think that the fact that their cat is going into labor any day now warrants a dismissal.) Apparently, the requirements for a jury clerk include thick skin, a delicate balance of empathy and bad-assness, and grown-out roots, just to make you look tough. In fact, none of the courthouse workers I saw had a healthy glow to them. They all looked like they hadn’t seen sunlight, a non-vended lunch, or a good hairstylist for several years.

Once a jury panel returned to the lounge on a break. A certain Woman in Brown, who was an “extra” with me, asked if we needed to return to the courtroom with them, to which she was told, “No, not yet.” Instead of sitting back down and finding some way to occupy her obviously anxious mind, she sidled up to the jury clerk’s desk, flashed her puppy dog eyes, and whined , “I wish we could’ve gone with the other jurors into the courtroom…” This is where I would’ve lost my cool if I were the jury clerk. Did the Woman in Brown think that the jury clerk had anything to do with which jurors got called into the courtroom? Did she think that the jury clerk was going to say, “Oh, well, since you feel that way, let me go interrupt the lawyers and judge in the courtroom and tell them to let you in. I’ve got pull.” Did she think that the jury clerk really cared what she wished for?

It was at this point, as I was engrossed in other people’s behaviors, that I lost control of my own. I was sprawled out on a chair, feet propped onto another chair that I had nicknamed “Footstool.” I was writing in my journal and popping peanut butter M&Ms like they were candy—when I dropped one of the pieces down my cleavage. This put me in a bit of a predicament. My first thought was to go after it, but then I figured the 20-something guy sitting beside me probably wouldn’t appreciate me feeling around my bosom, retrieving the candy, and popping it back in my mouth. I could just leave it there, but would it melt and leave an unseemly and sticky green stain in between the girls? Quickly, I recalled the claim, “Melts in your mouth but not in your hands.” What about cleavage?! I screamed in my head. Why didn’t it address cleavage? It was at this time I decided to carefully stand up, arm blocking the bottom of my shirt so the M&M didn’t escape, and slither to the bathroom, where I could dig down my shirt in peace. (And yes, I threw the M&M away, thank you.)

Finally at 4:30 we were given the green light to go as we were not needed for that trial. Our grins quickly faded, however, as we were reminded that we’d need to call back Tuesday after 5:00 to learn if we needed to come in Wednesday morning.

Returning home that afternoon, I learned that Boy #1 had H1N1. Gotta love Mondays.

Tuesday at exactly 5:03 I dialed the number for the jury lounge repeating “Start with number 88, start with number 88” (I was number 87 and the last number called for Monday). But, as my luck would have it, numbers 1 through 200-something were called for Wednesday morning, 8 a.m. Husband had to go write lesson plans so he could stay home with Boy #1, and I gave myself a big pep talk before reentering the jury lounge bright and early the next morning.

Those of us from Monday kind of hung out together, like the “cool kids” in school. Been there, done that. Me and Pregnant Teacher, along with Woman I Thought Was a Man for Several Hours and Man Who Was Way More Feminine Than Woman I Thought I Was a Man for Several Hours. And just like in school, the “cool kids” bonded while making fun of The $95,000 Man Who Is Missing a Thumbnail behind his back. Don’t know what happened to Green Suspenders Guy. Apparently he skipped the country or caught a computer virus because I specifically looked for him and couldn’t find him. And believe me, I wouldn’t have missed him.

We waited for approximately 3 1/2 hours before getting called into a courtroom as a jury panel. (Yes, this time I got to actually leave the lounge!) And there I sat for several hours listening to other people get questioned about their drug experience, attitude toward law enforcement, and definition of “reasonable doubt.” I said “other people” because neither lawyer asked me one question. Finally feeling a bit left out I raised my hand and offered my opinion anyway. Either I said the right wrong thing or I was deemed too boring or too crazy from the get-go. Whatever the reason, my name was not called as one of the “12.” I really didn’t want to be on a jury again, so I was generally relieved. But I have to admit, the anxious and needy part of me was a little teensy-weensy bit hurt. “What’s wrong with ME?! What have THEY got that I don’t?”

But then I remembered that a) I don’t get paid when I don’t work, which includes when I have jury duty; b) I still have to pay for daycare all week, even when I’m not actually making money; and c) if I have to spend one more day in that courthouse I’m going to become as pallid and cynical as everyone else who spends their days inside those hallowed halls.

I walked past the man being dressed in handcuffs and shackles, ignored the twitching man who asked me if I had any money, and smiled as I looked forward to going home—my beautiful virus-infected home.

“We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.” – Mark Twain

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