We're sometimes told that one key to an ethical lifestyle is to not take anything personally. That sounds like a good idea but practically speaking, your honor, I object.
Area of Residence
Occupations of Adult Children
Previous Experience as a Juror
I studied the instructions posted on the courtroom wall. The judge said, "Pass the microphone to Juror Number 11."
I told him where I lived, and then I said, "I'm a Buddhist priest."
I like to think of myself as a good citizen, but let me come clean: I haven't been upholding my civic duty for the last few years. When you are a full-time caregiver of children under school age, you are exempted from jury service. After that, you have to dodge and deceive to exempt yourself, and that's what I've done for the last five years, vexed by the question of after-school childcare.
Then, as we expect of our civil society, the court came breathing down my neck with a high-dollar penalty. So I showed up at the criminal justice center downtown for a day of jury service. I hadn't found a way to manage an unforeseen absence at home, but I did have an epiphany. I realized I could tell the truth about myself, and that alone might disqualify me from participation in our system of justice. Truth, you see, is the ultimate defense. It's the defense of having no defense.
Maybe doing good would do me some good, I bargained.
It was 11:30 a.m. before I landed in a big courtroom with 40 other potential jurors, a charming judge, and two sides in a criminal case expected to last up to eight days. The judge warned us that with the late start, we might be required to come back an extra day before jury selection could be completed, and I began calculating the collateral impact at home.
Before anything could begin, we had to break for a 90-minute lunch.
You might think that a 90-minute lunch break is absurd given the overcrowded state of our judicial system. I would have agreed until I saw that it took nearly 30 minutes just to get an elevator down to the first floor. Loaded up, our elevator cab had descended only two of 15 floors before it was stopped and commandeered by peace officers.
There was a scene on the landing before us: a cursing woman with her elderly mother, making a screaming ruckus, encircled by a half-dozen bailiffs trying to corral them into the elevator. One of the officers said, "Wait! Here's her son" and a boy who looked to be no more than 12 walked through the stiffened crowd, his arm around an even younger girl who was shaking with sobs.
The floor emptied and I took refuge on a cold bench where I sat down and cried my eyes out.
When the juror interviews began after lunch I was surprised at how diverse we were: a couple of computer guys, a CFO, a real estate agent, an insurance adjuster, a retired teacher, a secretary, a daycare worker, assorted entrepreneurs, sales and marketing types, a therapist, and a guy who said – as though it was the most obvious thing under the sun – "I'm a steel splitter." The judge parried with each, teasing out the hidden biases.
And then he got to me. He was quiet after I told him my occupation and I thought, "He knows I'm a goner. He won't waste a question."
"There will be people in this courtroom who don't share your lifestyle," the judge said.
"I mean, they don't live the way you do," he continued.
I said, "I doubt that."
He searched for a way to poke my sensibilities.
"There might be a witness, for example, who has blue hair. Can you be open-minded about that?"
I sat there, the only person among the 40 in the room without a hairdo, coiffed or colored, without a shred of style, without cosmetics, without an iPhone, the only one who looked different than anyone else, the only one who'd spent the lunch break crying for a nameless shamble of a no-count family shoved onto an elevator going down.
"Absolutely," I said.
"Juror Number 11 thank you for your service, you're dismissed."
My truth telling was vindicated. I was relieved, not surprised or offended, but I still took it personally. I've never found a way to take things other than personally. When you realize that everything everywhere is personal, it changes you. Under the blue hair, we're all one big red broken heart: riven by crimes for which there is no defense and never enough tears.
This is the first in an installment of weekly Wednesday Stories, personal accounts of the shared truth in our complicated lives.
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