A Day in the Life
Jury duty 2005: Impressions and vignettes
I was served a summons to jury duty for March 22, 2005. I love doing this, as for no apparent reason I don’t seem to be called for trials, just a whole day of rest that is paid for by the government, a great excuse for a holiday from work. This time I got to go to Chicago’s Loop. My usual travels don’t take me downtown, so this, too was a bit of a lark. As a newbie blogger and a wannabe writer, I thought I’d pack a fountain pen and an old legal pad (how barbaric) and record my impressions of the day, which are transcribed and polished a bit below. I’m going for atmospherics, here, sort of a sketchbook of words. I hope you enjoy.
The administrator takes my court summons in exchange for a label and a piece of paper with a panel number on it. The label, just saying “Juror,” I stick on my shirt. My panel number is 9, my lucky number. The Cook county circuit court has this cheesy video they show at the beginning of the day. I am struck by its assumptions about the intended audience; the video was almost condescending in its coddling. The overall feel was one of alleviating fears. Are people that nervous about being involved in our court system?
The view is nice, from the 17th floor of the Richard J. Daley center in downtown Chicago. This is the same building in front of which the world famous Picasso statue stands. A pale, monochrome white sky provides the backdrop for the skyscrapers, a patch of Lake Michigan shows just behind the Wrigley building. I’m struck the contrasting styles of two spires and a concrete rectangular prism, all about the same height. The far one, a gothic construct of charcoal granite and gold-like accents at corner and crown, I would guess at being erected in the 1920’s. The central of the three buildings, a neo-classic, turn-of-the-century extravagance, is constructed of beige stone and brick with all the trimmings of filigreed cornices, crowned corners and three tapering sections terminated by a cupola. The last building is the most utilitarian in its use of space, a cubist’s dream of concrete and glass sections of equal dimensions, late 20th century and boring compared to the others.
150 people sit in half the space allotted for awaiting jurors. More will come at Ten o’clock. The silence is as thick as the impending boredom. Chain reactions of nervous coughing add staccato beats to the hissing heating units lining the glass wall, the white noise so pervasive it sounds almost like a small waterfall. The TV dangling from the ceiling, now silent after the video, shows only electronic snow. I look around the room. Most of us are dressed in somber colors, casual business attire. The guy next to me is dozing already in his sharply creased slacks as others float in triangulation between their chosen seats, the vending machines, and the plumbing. I see a room full of stifled yawns, averted eyes, books and newspapers; these people – a cross-section of the voting citizenry – are not used to spending a day waiting.
A lady’s voice on the overhead calls for panel #2. A woman two rows in front of me gets up, puts Harry Potter away, and walks toward the front, taking with her the perfume reek that had been bothering me. Two minutes later, the announcer calls for panel #4, then panel #1; things are moving right along. Now, panel #10 is called. I guess these numbers are picked at random. As I watch the jurors rise and move to the desk, I wonder what, if anything, we all have in common. We all vote, or we wouldn’t be here. The room is filled with mostly white folks, skewing the demographics of the Chicagoland area. All present are middle-class, none overtly wealthy or poor. I notice that guys like me who like to wear caps scan the room upon entry and remove them.
Panel #6 is called, then panel #7 in rapid succession. My personal space is opening up a bit, AHH! At this point I notice that the left half of the room, where I’m sitting nearest the windows, has mostly cleared. What are the odds of that?
They’ve finished the orientation of the last of the jurors by now, announcing to all that they will allow the TV on in half the space. As luck would have it, they chose my half. I move to the other side. The view outside isn’t as good, this area is a bit more crowded and the demographics are more representative of Cook County. A hefty man walks by; white, in his mid 20’s, his head shaved except for the part that would hit his pillow at night where he is growing 18-inch dreadlocks. His head needs to be re-shaved. A seven-inch goatee completes his grooming. Non-conformity is fine, but I can’t help wondering how such visually diversified people can be hampered during interactions with the established norm, like when interviewing for a job or during jury selection. The woman in front of me, 30ish, wads her gun into a tissue and continues with her book. Her purse is open: a rolled-up COSMOPOLITAN, a bottle of water, and a pot of Burt’s Bees Hand Crème, Kleenex. She spreads some Burt’s on her hands – the stuff stinks. Two people behind me talk to relieve their boredom. He laughs too loudly; heads a few rows up tilt their ears in his direction. It occurs to me that the average American would do anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts. Laughter sounds again from behind – I’m thinking I picked the wrong seat.
Two people with laptops are in view. Their ability to respond quickly to the jury summons will be impaired by their hardware. I’m the only one in sight with a personal stereo, a common appliance on mass transit this morning: odd. Oh, wait. Mr. Laptop glances at me as he inserts his earbuds. He has a neat haircut marred by a glaring baldspot the precise shape and dimensions of a yarmulke. I notice skinny people walking to their seats with water, a muscular man drinking apple juice, and Mr. Goatee comes back from the vending machines with munchies.
I put away my headphones and started reading. The two talkers behind me are challenging my concentration. Looking about me, no better seats are available; I hope they call more jurors soon.
Panel #5 is called, then panel #18 and panel #20 – more randomness. One half of the two talkers leave in this group. An opportunity presents itself for me to change seating, this time to sit near the front facing the others. Bored people avoid my glances.
Glazed eyes, slouching postures, still the room is quiet. Lunch is announced, lasting until 1:30 (nice!).
[Later] I’m now ensconced at the first restaurant I saw: McDonalds. No guts, no glory, they say; and McDonalds will surely give you a gut! I’m indulging my inner teenager, here; I’ve not eaten at McD’s for many months. I’m sure this afternoon, my stomach will remind me why. I feel a bit guilty for taking a booth spot in this busy downtown restaurant, but only a little. Someone else would’ve snatched it up if I didn’t: it is, however, the only open seat available. I’ll eat quickly to gat a better spot when I return to the juror’s area.
For the second time today, I pass through the metal detector screening; for the second time, I beep when I go through. Proud geekoids like myself carry a lot of metal around. Once upstairs, I staked out a nice window seat, and I’m not giving it up! I can see the Chicago River from here, still green from last week’s St. Patrick’s Day dye. I’ve never actually seen the river any other color; even in December, it’s a greenish sludge – the city’s been dyeing it for so long.
Everyone’s drifted in on time for more waiting.
The men today are, like myself, mostly solitary beasts, content to wait this out while keeping to themselves. Some are napping, most are reading. A few baritone mumblings can be heard, but most of the voices echoing off the ceiling panels are female. The atmosphere this afternoon is more relaxed, the stiffness and the morning’s propriety giving way to camaraderie by those prone to create associations on the fly. Glancing around, such people are in the minority. If this were staged in a small community instead of the nations’ 3rd largest city, more groups would form: a testament to the guarded isolation bred on our cities. I am reminded of the emotionless faces on the ride downtown this morning, each encapsulated in cultivated guardedness masquerading as careless passivity; each subconsciously reacting to their personal space being highly pressurized on the crowded train.
A couple of gentlemen have taken to standing at the windows looking down. For them, it seems the idleness of the day is becoming intolerable. Panel #3 is called for at 2:40. There was an expectant pause in the din as the announcer started speaking overhead. We all hoped she would dismiss us.
Panel #17 was called for, which elicited outright groaning and grumbling. The natives were getting restless.
Our intrepid announcer calls an end for the day, dismissing us by panel number to the front desk for our $17.50 checks. All involved cheered like school children on a snow day. My number was called in the first round, but by the time I got my stuff ready, I was the last in the room to exit. The advantage here is to ride the elevator alone.
The reverse commute home, via the Red Line and Yellow Line (Skokie Swift to us fogies) was sparsely populated and uneventful. My new MP3 player cranking out Aerosmith helped enliven my steps as I walked the mile into the bitter wind from the train to my house. It was warmer this morning at 7am than it is at 4pm; that alone speaks volumes about living in Chicagoland.