Jury Rigged

By Jon Hillenbrand In Stories

A while ago, I was requested to serve my country in one of those most boringly intimidating ways possible…jury duty.  This was my first time being called up and I have to say that I was nervous about it in the way that one is nervous about failing the written test at the DMV.  At best I’d be certainly bored and annoyed by the lines; at worst I’d be stuck there for weeks, my life and possibly job torn asunder.  As it turned out, as soon as I got there, I was asked to step into a court room where they were just starting a malpractice case against a doctor.  As it is, I am the son of a physician who was unsuccessfully sued by lawyers trying to make a quick settlement.  So my opinions on lawyers, the legal system, health care and the like were very polarized and emotional.  I let this be known and the judge dismissed me within 15 minutes of my entering the courtroom.  For the rest of the seven hours I was required to be present in that building, I wrote a journal on the one piece of paper I had and tried not to die of boredom.

JURY DUTY, Daley Center, Chicago IL.

I should have know there was going to be an orientation video featuring Chicago semi-celebrities.  Behind me someone is snoring.  Lester Holt is the narrator but he has a mustache which I’ve not seen on him in a few years.  The video ended with literally one second of footage from Oprah.  Just as she started to speak, the tape was shut off as if what she had to say was now out of date.  Or maybe the person was just sick of hearing her voice the way I have been for years.  Thank you who ever you are!

I’m sitting in the Juror Waiting Area.  I’ve filled out a form which feels like a loan application combined with a psychological profile where every answer I give to innocuous questions like, “what is my job,” will have lasting consequences about my fate today.  The room is enormous with 40 foot ceilings and floor to ceiling windows.  Divided into two sections, there’s a “TV side” here where you can numb yourself with daytime TV for a whole day and a non-TV side where you can read or look out the window for a whole day.  It’s divided in half by a short-walled wooden office which looks like an afterthough in the design of this stone and glass room.  I imagine the people working there are as cheerful as the people working at the DMV, but the woman behind the counter was genuinely sweet, bordering on saccharine when I handed her my paper.  Maybe it’s my NPR-listening elitist side talking, but if I were a lawyer, I’d only choose jurors from the non-TV side.  Over here, we look like the same kind of group that sits in Starbucks or Border’s Bookstore.  The TV side looks like the bus station or a Colombian airport with chickens and goats and soldiers wearing fatigues accessorized by bored expressions and automatic weapons.  I sit on the non-TV side.  The thought of being stuck here having to watch Oprah is sickening to me.  I’m so happy that person shut her ass up.

The view of the city through these windows on this bright sunny day is expansive and gorgeous.  It’s vertigo-enducing from the 17th floor and I get a thrill just by standing near them as if I am going to fall.  A very cold day is competing with the clear cobalt blue sky and bright sunlight.  The cold is winning.  I can feel it in the marble floors and walls.

The Bailiff has a band-aid on his head.  I wonder how he got it.  Prisoner transport?  He calls out names from a list including me and leads 40 of us toward the confusing skyscraper elevators and sub-divides us into two groups to ascend to the upper floors separately.  He makes a joke when we’re packed in to one of the polished aluminum boxes about, “too much weight,”  inspiring confidence in the gigantic and well-worn elevator.  No one laughs.  Jokes about elevators plunging thirty floors to the basement aren’t popular to the people riding in them.  Everyone seems nervous.  People take too long getting on and the elevator emits a harsh buzz like an annoyed farmer’s wife complaining about leaving the screen door open.

We wait in the hallway outside a courtroom for what feels like an hour.  Our big group seems to have been blocked by the argument of three people in suits who acknowledge us in the way one would pay notice to a swarm of mosquitoes.  The lawyers are making sick consequential jokes, the kind of humor that emerges from being in the trenches.  I immediately don’t like the woman who says something exquisitely harsh and cruel.  There are so many of us in this small area now.  It soon becomes clear to me that we could potentially be waiting here for a real hour, and not a perceived hour.  I feel as helpless as a frequent flier.  I see someone grabbing an open spot on a large flower pot to sit and I do the same across the hallway.  Many people still stay lined up but as soon as I sit, there’s a shift in the crowd and like dominoes everyone alights on every available horizontal surface.  Some sit on the polished marble floor with others standing around them.  This seems strange in such a formal setting like the kind of disjointed out-of-place behavior I imagine you see during a bank robbery.

Every type of person is here but there’s something about them, like at an airport.  Some people are in business attire but most are dressed casually.  In such an eclectic group, everyone fits in.  But I wonder if other people look at me and think I don’t belong.  I feel like I don’t belong.  Do I look like these people?  There’s a man who looks like Jesus in glasses with a leather jacket.  An obese woman attacks two vending machine rations at once loudly complaining that she can’t hear the bailiff at the front of the nervous crowd.  There aren’t too many clean-cut people.  Everyone seems to be “in the middle”, middle-class from lower to upper.  No one too dumpy, no one overly dressed.  Do I look like these people?

The lawyers continue their banter oblivious to the sight of fifty people looking at them expectantly.  The woman breaks into a yell and is hushed by someone.  I’m flanked on both sides by people dabbing noses and stifling coughs.  Maybe I should offer my seat to someone left standing after the pigions landed everywhere.  I stand up, looking at the arguing lawyers and walk to the wall and sit on the floor.  I’m more comfortable like this.  I feel that if there are types of people defined by where they sit, I’m a floor-sitter.  Even in a suit, I can sit on the floor comfortably.  I’m proud that I don’t have to use my hands to get up or sit down either.  Despite the fact that someone else sat down before I did, I feel like the crowd shifted when I moved.  I lead the crowd already?  Who will take responsibility for the fate of these people on trial?

9:30 am — FIRST CASE: Medical Malpractice

I am dismissed after a few questions.  I tell the judge, “My dad is a doctor, I work in a hospital, I’ve been personally involved in a medical lawsuit, I spend every day with doctors.  How am I not biased?”  I’m just not sure which way I am biased toward doctors.  But I know I dislike lawyers, except for the ones who helped my dad.  They said the case was expected to last between two and three weeks, but I can’t imagine a malpractice case being that short.  And even if it is, how can I possibly miss that much work and still retain my job, despite whatever the law says?  My area would either implode or my coworkers would hire someone to replace me and then welcome me back with some excuse about restructuring and a box full of my personal belongings.  I’m happy to be dismissed but it’s only about 10 am and my chances of catching another case are very good.  I’m worried that the next case might be longer and I might not get out of this.

2:16 pm — bored

I still haven’t been called for another case.  After trying to read and trying to kill time, I’m bored to death and am now going to write some more.  Three windows stand open near the top of the United Airlines skyscraper in a disappointing display of broken air conditioning or something.  Tiny human figures walk purposefully across partially constructed towers hundreds of feet above seemingly non-stop sirens.  The hiss of the heaters in this room remind me of an airplane flight as does the bright sunlight that almost calls for sunglasses as I again try to find a comfortable position in my portion of the divided bench.

I notice the man next to me has started letting loose a single loud cough about once a minute.  Now that I’ve noticed, I can’t seem to pay attention to anything other than the span of time between coughs.  I’m thinking of instructing him to get some water and stop annoying me.  He’s on his laptop engrossed in something causing him to hunch over like a cat protecting a kill.  A woman sleeps in the middle of the room having mastered her chair or just given up.  An Arab man behind me continuously talks on his cell phone despite the fact that we have all been told to turn our phones off.  He speaks and appears so much like a non-Westerner that I wonder how it feels to participate in the 200 year old American tradition and high honor of serving on a jury.  I wonder if he knows of, or rather, doesn’t know of the legal problems of other Arabs currently in American custody.  There’s an irony there that I would have a problem with if I were in his shoes.

3:11 pm — bored

I’ve left the company of the nice view and the man next to me slowly dying from a wasting lung infection.  Now, I’m at the surprisingly solid green marble tables surrounded by amazingly flimsy hard plastic chairs.  The TV is louder here so I might have to move again.  I’m now sitting closer to the dismissed Jesus who Himself has found solitude between His Bose headphones.  I wonder if the real Jesus would be dismissed from jury duty and for what reasons, probably the ability to read the minds of the lawyers.

The temperature is dropping but I feel OK.  We had a generous 1.5 hour break for lunch.  I ate a chicken sandwich from a street vendor which was dry and an affront to good cuisine everywhere.  But I was allowed outside to soak in the cold with the pigeons and to have a long chat with a toothless man accused of a DUI.  He admitted to me that he was guilty but that he had been in court a long time trying to prove some innocense.  I suppose his honesty with me was based on us being strangers and perhaps the desire to make one purely honest admission among those weeks of lying to stay free and out of the hands of the state or federal corrections system.  I walked to the Bean after visiting a few stores looking for a watch cap to warm my frozen ears.  Old Navy should give up and close its doors.  I see nothing of value in that store or its horrible advertising.  But the place was swarmed.  There were just as many people in there as there were people chewing on electronic cud in the “TV room” across from me now.

3:22 pm — bored

OK, I have to revise my earlier statement about no one dressing nicely.  There’s a man near me with a silk suit, gold watch, alligator shoes and BOLO HAT.  Hell yeah.  He has a sharp leather organizer stuffed with today’s paper.  I imagine they wouldn’t let him keep his white lacquered cane with the crystal ball handle.  His eyes shift around as if he will be called up at any moment.  I originally thought he was a defendant, but he has a juror card.  OK, the TV is inane.  I’m moving.  Maybe.  This chair is more comfortable than the bench.  And I have a table.  Hmm.  This is just like the chair I can’t get comfortable in; this situation is like the chair I can’t get comfortable in.  This room, these people, the warm sunlight vs. the ambient cold, the too tall ceiling, the pimp juror, the daytime television and the amazingly flimsy weightless chair next to the immense immobility of the marble table is an uncomfortable chair that I keep trying to shift out of.  Shift into improvement?  I can’t decide.  Life is a series of moments.  Robert Zemeckis realized this when he directed Forrest Gump.  I should remember this too.  Why?  I don’t know.  I’m really bored.

4:00 pm – bored

I’m running out of paper.  Oops!  I can go home!  Bye paper!


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