Pop Culture
Jan 22, 2014, 06:59AM

Civic Purgatory

At least there's free wireless Internet during the call of jury duty.

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First you get the notice. Back in October or November, informing you of the call to duty. The call of duty. You don’t play video games, so this is your only call of duty. You postpone. You are allowed one postponement. You do so, as you need the money that the current job is providing. And in January, you will not have this current job. You choose a date at the end of January, because you’ll be going away for a week in the middle of January. A return to the frozen Northeast, in order to remind yourself of one of the reasons you have moved out to California, and San Francisco, with its Hall of Justice.

You may not serve on a jury if you are not: 18 years of age, are not a citizen of the U.S., are not a resident of San Francisco, or have a prior felony conviction. Have I had a felony conviction? No. Am I sure? Yes, as far as I can recall.

It’s Thursday. First, you have to remember when to call. Next, you have to call. Then you have to press buttons, and hope you are not required to report. 

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. Please call back Monday. Make a note to tell the school administrator that there is a chance I will have a conflict, but emphasizing how much I’m looking forward to test proctoring, in order to keep the assignment.

Monday, 4:30 p.m. Anxiety. I have a two-day teaching assignment. Test proctoring, to be specific. Good money. High hourly rate. Not substitute pay. Please call back Tuesday. Relief.

Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. Anxiety. One more day to avoid being called. Please call back Wednesday.

Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. Driving to tutoring job. Not a single jury duty thought. No note to call when I’m done with dinner. Tutor. Dinner. Drive home. Call a friend on the way home. No thoughts about jury duty. No anxiety.

Wednesday: midnight. In bed, about to fall asleep, exhausted from the day. Thoughts of the forum, a school theater full of high school teachers and administrators. Each teacher with one minute to explain themselves and their opinions. One of the teachers, an English teacher, who has been in the process of getting her therapist’s license for a few years. She explains she may have a conflict next Tuesday, she has jury duty. Holy Shit! Get up, find the paper. Call the number, expecting to hear those wonderful words, “Please call back, _______ “

Instead, you hear a new message. “You are required….”

Whew. It wasn’t Tuesday, it wasn’t Wednesday. It was Thursday. 12:45 p.m. I will report. Reporting for duty.

This is San Francisco.

Look around you. All of the laptops. The small screens. You take out your laptop and begin doing this. A few with books.  A few with newspapers, those dirty things. So many with their laptops. Free wireless Internet. Imagine the day before that happened. The years before. People sat in this large room without the Internet. Without their BlackBerries. Without their phones. They just sat in here, staring at each other, staring at books, folding and re-folding newspapers. I wonder if anyone has ever died in this room. A heart attack while waiting to serve.

Some people have food.

I look around and see white people and Asians. I am scanning the room for a person of color. There are a few tan Asians. There are beards. One young man may be Middle Eastern. I love falafel these days. The man near me has a thick beard and a closely cropped haircut. I believe him to be a “bear,” which is a rather manly and bearded older gay man. Another man has an even thicker beard and a completely bald head. Shiny. Older women with streaks of white in their hair. Silver, really. A young woman, a girl, one would say. She has the hippie girl hair, the white-girl dreadlocks, filled with nature and earth. She has a few blue locks, and a few green, but mostly they’re somewhere between a dirty, dirty blondish tan, and a lighter brown. Her hair has accomplished something our hair has not. It has captivated us.

She takes out her Mac. Her ironic knapsack has what appears to be a sunny side up egg on it. Not a vegan. One woman paces endlessly and slowly in the room. One of the middle-aged, silver–haired women. She has a fanny pack, yet she refuses to sit on her fanny. She is mildly creepy. Sort of witch-like. Her arms are crossed over her chest. She wears a faded pastel pink t-shirt. She’s doing careful laps around the room, passing slightly closer to my corner-seat with each lap. At this rate, there is certain to be a collision between her fanny pack and my left shoulder. On her last lap, I’ve noticed she has thick soles on her black sneakers. In my derangement, I somehow imagine that she has telepathically picked up on my observing of her laps. I can’t imagine everyone else hasn’t noticed this orbiting older woman. She is a satellite in the room. A planetary vessel in this very earth-bound room of San Franciscans.

Should I keep watching these people? We are in waiting mode. It’s only been about 20 minutes.

The hippie girl has decided to get up and go somewhere. It turns out she was hiding other colors in the back of her head. Not only blue and green, she has bright yellow and purple. I wonder what makes the colors. Are they dyed? Are they bits of colored string?

I can’t keep watching this scene. That woman is rounding the bend; she is in my peripheral vision. She has invaded my mind!

Other people get up. One here, one there. Throwing trash away. This is like the airport, without planes. A calmer version of a bus station. A library with food and all the wireless Internet you can handle!

The girl with the many colors in her hair decides to change her seat upon returning. She’s fidgety. Maybe she’s going through withdrawal of some kind. Can’t imagine her doing hard drugs. Maybe she’s run out of pot and is on edge.

The guy on my right reads The New Yorker. He breathes heavily. Either a smoker, or just absent-minded. Older people seem to be taking a siesta. At what age does it become routine or easy to fall asleep at the drop of a hat? I’m afraid of having that ability.

I’ve run out of observations. Now I notice the time. It’s been about 35 minutes. The bear. The bearded man with the closely cropped head has moved behind me. I notice him when I hear what appears to be a bag of chips being opened. It’s merely a bag of pretzels. He’s doing some work on the table back there and the pretzels are open. He occasionally munches.

Sounds of wrappers and my own typing. Is this purgatory? I have the time to estimate just how many of us are here. Scan the different sections of seats. About 150. How many are parked nearby? How many are parked legally? I’m parked almost legally. Two-hour time limit until three p.m. I parked at 12:45 p.m. Am I going to find a ticket on my windshield?  If so, I’m a three-minute walk away from paying it!

The orbiting woman has sat down. I didn’t even notice. She’s a mere seven feet away. She takes out a tiny notebook, and begins folding back a few pages, licking her fingertip for a better grip on the pages. I decide she is not well. She’s compulsively licking her fingertip. Of course, I’m paying too much attention, though trying to be subtle, and doing it while staring exactly at the center of the laptop screen, only letting my eyes wander about every minute or so. She has her fanny pack unzipped. She’s taking it all out. More papers. Notes. List. She puts that fanny pack to use, oh boy!

I notice her watch. It’s a Swatch. I like the colors. A rainbow sherbet Swatch. I notice her socks. Argyle. Black, red and gray triangles. She’s now trying to fall asleep. Her head is in her lap, she is trying to get comfy. She’s not one of the many senior citizens who have the sleeping superpower. She’s stopped orbiting, and has put her spaceship in idle mode. The fanny pack has been re-zipped. She waits. I’m not sure if she wants to be called, or not. How many people want to be called? I do. Why do I want to be called? Because I’ve never been on a jury before. That video they showed us sure was inspiring. Real jurors, candidly speaking about their jury experience, and how it “Wasn’t so bad.” At least they were realistic. They felt connected to their communities afterward. They felt like the common sense that they shared with the other jurors made the deliberation process rewarding. They felt important!

Do you have to feel unimportant on most days to then feel important when you’re in a room with the neighbors whom you’ve never met, and you’re telling them why they are wrong, or you’re clearly showing them how observational and logical and brilliant you are?

The Internet beckons. Only a click away. But then I’d have to get up and find the free wireless log-on code. Will we be called today? Any of us? People are taking out newspapers that they’ve been hiding in bags. The older people. The younger people are all on their laptops like me, or they’re texting, or they’re doing schoolwork at the tables behind me. Phones in hand. Phones in ears. Right at home wherever they are. The old folks are dropping like flies. 2:02. Prime naptime.

We’ve heard from the courtroom. They are not in need of jurors today. In keeping with the one-day rule, you have served your one day; you are free to go home. You will not be asked to serve for one year. If you need proof of service, please come to the office up here to get verification.

Cheers from the people. Sighs of relief. Hooray. We don’t have to do any civic duty! We don’t have to listen to these mundane cases! We get to go back to our extremely important lives. The orbiting woman has blasted back off.  I never got the chance to say a word.

A silver-haired old man is on his phone. The room has cleared within two minutes. The gentleman on my right has left his New Yorker here for me. The silver-haired man says into the phone, “All clear. We’ve been dismissed. I can take my nap now.”


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