latelythe on-line diary of
ralph robert moore
the official website for the writings of ralph robert moore
Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore. All rights reserved.
Return to lately 2001
i get called for jury duty
may 12, 2001
This past Wednesday, I had to go into Dallas for jury duty.
I've never been called for jury duty before, in my life.
The reason why I've escaped jury duty up to this point is because municipalities used to cull potential jurors from voting registration records, and I've never voted in my life. Not once. I've never voted in a local election, a state election, or a presidential election. I have no idea what it's like to step into a booth, draw a dark curtain, and make my secret selection from a grid of candidates (although I must say that even with my absolute lack of experience, I'm certain that if I voted in the recent presidential election, in Florida, I'd be smart enough to figure out whose hole I was punching. How stupid would you have to be to be thrown into confusion over something as simple as a piece of paper? And if in fact you are that stupid, isn't it really for the best your vote didn't count anyway? I mean, come on.)
Surprisingly, people who do vote, if they find out I've never voted in my life, tend to become incensed. I hear the phrase 'civic duty' a lot. Another popular response to the fact I don't vote is to say that if I don't vote, I don't have the right to criticize whomever is elected, which is a rather odd logic suggesting that only those people/voters who supported a particular candidate are allowed to be disappointed in that candidate's performance in office. Not voting is not the same thing as giving up one's rights as a citizen, but that sometimes tends to get lost in the huffs of indignation. The fact is, the reason why I don't vote has nothing to do with 'making a statement'. I don't vote simply because I have no interest in voting. If all of us ceased doing those things we have no interest in doing, this would be a much happier land.
Anyway, I got called for jury duty because most municipalities, including Dallas, now select potential jurors from the Motor Vehicle Department records, and I do have a driver's license.
The "Jury Summons" I received, and that phrase was the only part of the notice which was lettered in Gothic, the rest of it, wide columns of bossy declarative sentences, in Arial font, instructed me to appear at the Central Jury Room at the George L. Allen Sr. Courts Bldg on May 9, 2001.
Part of the summons, in the lower left hand corner, included two detachable stubs, which could be used for a free (inbound) and (outbound) bus/train ride that same day, which I did think was nice.
Mary dropped me off at the courthouse this past Wednesday morning on her way to work.
I had mixed feelings about going. It would likely take an entire day away from me, and if I were chosen, maybe a week or more, but at the same time I was curious as to what the process was, and also curious how I would feel being out in public like this again.
The past few months, I've been working from home.
Outside of Mary, and the occasional distant, waving neighbor, half a grip lifted off the handle of a lawnmower, I haven't had any human contact in a while, and here I was about to be thrust again into the mass of us.
I was curious to see how the world was getting along without me.
Inside the courthouse, I had to pass through a tall, rectangular metal detector, much like the ones at airports, only a little less sturdy. To the left of the passage was a continuously-running wide, rubber belt for placing purses, laptops, etc. so they could passively ride towards hanging plastic strips, disappearing under this curtain into a mysterious square tunnel which let out on the other side.
The station also included a little table with little bowls into which you were to place the contents of your pockets, in my case a blue cigarette lighter. I kept my wallet in the inside pocket of my jacket as I walked through the metal detector, just to see if the machine would beep. It didn't, despite the fact I had two dollars worth of quarters zipped inside.
The jury selection room itself was a chamber as large as a modern church, with three double-doored entrances. I chose the last set of doors.
Walking inside, I came upon my fellow citizens.
Picture a giant airplane interior, with eight rows of seats on either side, and sixteen rows in the middle section.
Everybody was sitting in an aisle seat. Nobody was sitting in the center of a row.
Although it was only a quarter after eight, and our summons said we weren't required to appear here until eight-thirty, an enormous number of people with poor time-management skills had already shown up, and were occupying nearly every aisle seat in the room.
They all looked like dopes. Every size, shape, color, height imaginable. Everyone was badly dressed, with bad haircuts, faces full of little shadows, and bodies that could use some exercise. I'm sure I looked exactly the same. When we gather together for civic purposes, we all tend to look like we have cancer.
I found an aisle seat near the back, and bent open my book.
I brought A Man in Full with me, the latest novel by Tom Wolfe. I make it a point not to read fiction while I'm writing a novel. It's too distracting for me. It's been said that if a writer reads a story with rain in it, the next day, it'll start raining in his own story. But I knew I was going to finish my latest novel after another couple of writing sessions, so I felt okay about reading this book.
I bought it about two years ago. I liked Wolfe's previous novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, and so shelved this latest away in my library as a future treat. I pulled it out when I had to fly to Columbus, Ohio earlier this year on business, and in fact I now discovered, sitting in the jury selection room, that my bookmark was the green and white boarding pass for that trip from American Airlines.
At eight-thirty, a middle-aged woman walked briskly across the front, stepping up onto the judge's platform at the front of the room.
"You're going to be shown a short video, and at the end of that we'll begin calling juror numbers."
For the first time I realized there was a large, square, sugary white screen hanging on the wall behind the judge's platform.
The lights dimmed.
A pale American flag rippled on the screen, looking, in the barely gray dimness of the chamber, pink and bleach. We had a minute or two of male narration about how America is a democracy, which I did sincerely find moving, there was stirring background music, and I do love my country, after which the film got down to a series of bulleted lists against a banana yellow background of jury duty do's and don'ts, with occasional cut-aways to white, black, brown and yellow faces of citizens.
After the film faded, the middle-aged woman told us, lifting her chin to be heard, we could take a break until nine twenty-five, at which point the first group of jurors would be selected (throughout this process, we were always given odd times to reassemble. It was never on the hour or half-hour, but instead always at twenty-five past the hour, or five minutes before the next hour).
I went outside to smoke.
The courthouse, immense as it was, took up an entire city block.
A straggle of smokers were already outside, arrayed east and west across the glass facade of the courthouse, leaning over to light up, or standing erect, by themselves, by one of the many columns, smoking cigarette held down in their right hands.
The air, by now, at mid-morning, this time of year in Dallas, had that slight, warm humidity to it so common to city air. The humidity made me aware of my skin, my clothes resting on my skin. I ventured out across the plaza, passing out of the shadow of the building itself to that front section of plaza under direct sunlight, to the sidewalk.
Dallas is a wonderful city, each block chock-full of every contrasting architectural style imaginable. From where I stood, at the plaza's edge, I could see, across the street from me, two tall, facing waves of upright rippled concrete, probably a memorial, flanked by flat green lawn, beyond that, a block away, a lowly brown cabin, sunk and small-shouldered amid the rising blue skyscrapers, a transplanted example of the homes migrating Tennesseans built on the shores of nearby Trinity River, and across to the left, the orange-stoned hewns of the original courthouse, two winged statues so high atop only their tips could be seen from street level, so that I could not discern what was about to fly, but only that the long-ago builders of that orange courthouse believed that something, here, could take wing.
Although corners and trees obscured it, I knew I was only short sidewalks away from Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy's brain puffed out of his head, on that most terrible of all days for Dallasites.
Someone had placed a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk by the curb.
For those of you who don't know what a sandwich board is, it's two large squares joined at the top by straps. The sandwich board, which goes back to the Great Depression of America's thirties, is usually worn straps resting on the shoulders, one square lying on the wearer's back, the other square on the wearer's chest.
In this case, the sandwich board was empty of a human, and therefore much lower, propped up by itself on the sidewalk.
I walked closer, taking a drag, to see what it said.
Hand-written Magic Marker lettering, on both sides. JUDGE ANNE ASHBY OF THE 134TH COURT GIVES BLACK MEN A ROYAL FUCKING IN HER COURT.
I haven't changed the name of the judge, nor her court. She's a real person, and her court is a real court.
This message, of course, could be interpreted in a couple of ways, one of which would suggest public gratitude on the part of all black men so fortuitously fated as to appear in Judge Ashby's court, and their surprise at her unexpected accommodations towards them, such are the unfortunate multiple meanings we assign to that most boisterous of all words, 'fuck', but I took the hand-lettered message instead to mean this was a protest against Ms. Ashby's judicial decisions, which the sign-writer obviously believed focused on black men in a less flattering way.
Looking down the street-side, and again, this one building fronted on an entire city block of street frontage, I saw that a dozen or so such signs had been placed curbside. At the left end of them, a tall, decent-looking bald black man stood wearing the final sandwich board over his shoulders in Great Depression fashion.
Back inside, the middle-aged woman announced she was about to call the numbers of the first potential jurors. Each summons we received in the mail included, in its upper right hand corner, a "JUROR NO." Mine was 667, one away from Satan himself (or herself. I don't wish to insult anyone).
The woman then went into a spiel about possible misinterpretations of the numbers she was about to call which I, as a writer, found absolutely admirable in its thorough anticipation of confusion: "I'm going to call a range of numbers, and if your juror number appears in that range, please stand up and step forward to the front of the room, where I am. We haven't used every number, so, for example, the first group of numbers I call may begin with "five", and end with "one hundred and eighty". This doesn't necessarily mean that there will be one hundred and seventy-five people in that group, because some of the numbers in that group may not have been used this time. Also, since we're starting with the low numbers, some of you may have a four digit number, the last three digits of which would match a number in the range of numbers I'm now calling. Please use all four digits when determining what your juror number is. For example, if I call one hundred and eighteen, someone with a juror number of one thousand, one hundred and eighteen should not step forward. Okay? So, everyone with juror numbers between five and one hundred and eighteen, please step forward at this point."
Since I had number 667, I went back to my big novel, reading of Charlie Croker's latest humiliation.
After the first group of jurors filed out, we were told the next group would not be chosen until "at least" ten twenty-five. I called Mary on one of the free wall phones at the back of the chamber, pushed through to the men's room to take a quick piss (a lot of our instructions dealt with where the various restrooms were), standing at the urinal next to an old, bald-headed man with macho attitude, athletic shoulders and everything else shot to hell, who was shaking his urine out of him like beads out of a Bugs Bunny-shaped straw, then sallied out onto the plaza again, the shadow of the courthouse now cast across the entire square, so that I could walk all the way to the sidewalk and still be in the moderate cool of the building's shade.
The sandwich board signs of protest were still there. At the far end of the block, the tall black man and a small ring of white tourists were talking amiably to each other.
Back inside, after I finished quietly reading another chapter, we were told they were still waiting for the various courts to respond with their juror needs for that day. We would not be needed until "at least" eleven twenty-five.
I pushed past the chrome turnstile, going back outside.
The black man was gone, and his sandwich boards. A few sailors strolled by, in bright, crisp whites, carrying styrofoam-lidded, segmented lunch trays pizza-style, and, separately, some short-haired men in black and gold officer uniforms.
The middle-aged woman took position behind the judge's dark-wooded platform again, announcing the courts did not need any more potential jurors that day, and that everyone still in the room was "completely discharged". In order to verify we were still all present, she did a roll call, asking each of us to shout "Here" when our name was called. It took about a hundred names before she got to me. A few people twisted around in their aisle seats, as they had with everyone else, to see who "Ralph Moore" was. One joker, I guess this was inevitable, shouted out "Yo", instead of "Here". All remaining seated pairs of eyes swiveled towards him with the same look: What an asshole.
After my name was called out, I went to the free phones at the back to call Mary.
I waited out front, smoking, holding my big book, for her to arrive.
There were two concrete benches against the glass facade of the huge building.
At one, a black family of eight sat or stood.
At the other, a single white male, sixty-five or so, spread out his attaché case and laptop so no one else could sit down.
A bus braked way up by the sidewalk, and the black family picked up their bags and loaded.
I took their bench. Something extremely rare happened then, as I sat down and opened my book. A mockingbird sailed down so close to the plaza surface its talons actually scraped at high speed across the concrete.
There were still, at this mid-day hour, people wandering across the plaza, but really, there in the plaza, there was only me.
Our Honda silver CRV arrived twenty minutes later.
A grin, a kiss.
We were about to leave the outside world, with its occasional interests, to return to our world, of our own making.
The usual confusion getting out of downtown one-way streets to the familiar highways.
Once we pulled up into our driveway, parking brake yanked to a slant, we went across the walk at the top of our lawn, against our home, to the front door.
We have overgrown ligustrum bushes in our front beds. They've greenly spread up past the first floor roofline.
All were in fragrant bloom, exuding that sweet scent of Texas summer.
Dozens of small butterflies, agitatedly sampling the blossoms, buffeted against our bodies on our way to the tall, wooden front door.
Fluttering around our elbows, black-winged, orange and ivory paint daubs on their spreads, like postage stamps from an extravagant nation.