8:00 a.m. I awake in a panic for my first day of jury duty. It takes me 10 minutes to find the three alarm clocks that began blaring at 7:30. It is light out. Who knew? I haven’t been up this early since I last did jury duty four years ago. I scarf down breakfast: half a cup of plain oatmeal.
I am nervous. Spending half a week passing harsh judgment on your fellow Manhattanites just seems so… well, when put like that, it sounds just like every other day.
8:30 a.m. I arrive at 100 Centre Street. Rising from its family of lesser courts, the hulking building screams ‘Enter and Be Punished.’ I make my way through a long metal detector line, have my manbag thoroughly probed, and ascend 15 floors in the lurching elevator.
9 a.m. The jury pool room is an enormous version of a doctor’s waiting room. 150 people sit solemnly like multicultural robots. They read nothing. There are three hot guys. No wait, four. Eh, three. They are all sullen.
9:15 a.m. We get a friendly opening talk from the jury room dude. The speaker warns us that there are two trials in the building that have been ongoing since January; it is now May. Juries are made up of everyone ‘from heart surgeons to puppeteers.’ If I have to talk to any puppeteers I will freak out.
A new hot guy strolls in. Things are looking up.
9:25 a.m. The funny jury room dude’s name is Walter. He is a rad little old civil servant man. He should have his own TV show. I explore the cluttered hallway to his office: bulletin boards covered with headshots line the walls. Lou Reed is the only ghost of jury pools past that I recognize in the sad lineup of failed actor/waiter/jurors gone by.
9:50 a.m. Somebody smells bad. Am I going to die here? Why do I have no Nicorette? I hadn’t realized there would be so little smoking.
10:05 a.m. Walter chooses potential jurors for voir dire, AKA ‘interrogation by shifty lawyers,’ by use of a magical rotating bingo randomizer. That is so ghetto.
Walter reads off 70 people to go to the first courtroom. The list of names is like a beautiful piece of world music. My name is called from the bingo machine. All at once I’m at an audition, on a first date, meeting a long-lost relative, and flashing myself in public.
10:08 a.m. Three of the five hot guys are coming with me—the sexy Mr. Bean look-alike, who I assume is deeply Armenian from his last name, the Spitter (he spits… indoors), and Music-Spillage Headphone Boy are among our anxious crew.
10:30 a.m. The courtroom is an impressive 70s modernist rectangle. The judge is Irish, fast-talking, and hilarious. ‘Is there anyone among you who likes crime?’ he asks. I consider the question. I do like some crimes: I love jaywalking; I love watching people turnstile-jump; I enjoy committing pre-crime. I say nothing. Neither does anyone else. Thus begins my suspicion of lies beneath the black and white world of the law.
Voir dire begins. We all stare at the defendant’s big bald black head. The first group of 18 filling the jury box is interrogated. The Spitter, a burly Italian guy, turns out to be A) single, B) a West Village resident, and C) a flight attendant. Hello, fag. The confident young blonde executive is asked invasive questions about the murder of her mother five years before. She leaves the courtroom in tears.
I am falling in love with the judge:
Potential juror#1: Then when I was 10, my parents moved to a suburb of Philadelphia.
Judge: Did they take you with them?
Potential juror #2: Once I had my car broken into.
Judge: Was this something you arranged or, like, something that happened to you?
Voir dire is too personal and public: Have I ever been mugged? With what? By whom? When? Was I satisfied with the outcome of the crime? No, not at all—after all, they took my money and left a mark on my abdomen from the sharpened screwdriver. That’s not quite what they questioners meant, I think, but English is important.
Out in the cold municipal hallway afterwards, exhausted from our revelations, I find myself avoiding people. Eww, there’s the guy whose cousin is a murderer!
1:07 p.m. Released for lunch.
3:00 p.m. My confidence evaporates and I am stricken with terror in the jury box. I feel stupid, and stick to yes and no. Terrified that I will be kept on the jury, and as the sole witness to the robbery is the victim, a police officer, I randomly volunteer that my mother is an anti-police-violence activist.
I hate the blonde prosecutor from the D.A.’s office. I bet she didn’t laugh at Legally Blonde.
3:30 p.m. We pace the hallways of the 15th floor. A loud-voiced aerobics instructor jury candidate says to me ‘But, God, didn’t that guy look like a big thug?’ I say, ‘Yeah, well, I look like a big fag, but you don’t see me rearranging the furniture in the courtroom.’ She looks at me. ‘And how about that school teacher on the jury who couldn’t even speak English? What’s up with that?’ she asks. Another woman joins her for a rousing discussion of the sad state of New York’s schools and immigrants; the rest of us slowly back away.
4:00 p.m. I am dismissed from that jury. The Spitter/Flight Attendant is kept. Crap. Now I’ll never be able to take advantage of his cheap airline tickets.
On the way out of court, I mutter ‘too bad’ to the defense attorney and her awful early-era Marcia Clark hairdo. It’s true: I would have let her client go free in a quick second.
4:15 p.m. I call my mother, and thank her for being a radical anti-cop anarchist.
4:45 p.m. Safe at home. Thinking back on my day, I feel completely rejected. Tomorrow I am going to speak up and be logical in the jury box. Why wouldn’t that little blonde D.A. bitch put me on a jury? Fuck her. Fuck them all. I will serve.
9:00 a.m. Fashion crisis! I want to just throw on shorts or baggy jeans. But I want the lawyers to take me seriously—I can’t take more rejection. I’m one of the few jury candidates without a college degree, so I have to compensate with fashion. Breakfast: half a cup of oatmeal and brown sugar.
9:40 a.m. I find the subway again! It’s exactly where it was yesterday!
10:25 a.m. I am developing a bailiff fetish. They look like small town corrections officers: pasty white, bad facial hair, love handles, bad polyester white shirts and black trousers. Foxy.
11:31 a.m. Why don’t they have WiFi here? What if someone responds to my nerve.com ad while I’m busy in court not being allowed to put a black man in jail?
11:32 a.m. I sign out, take an all-stop elevator ride from the 15th floor to go smoke, even though I have to go through the metal detector on my way back in again. The bleach-blond and very unsunny cop asks me for the third time in two days if I have a lot of change in my backpack. Idiot.
11:44 a.m. I didn’t miss anything. Hottie #1 is on the phone in the hall. Hottie #2 eyes me over his Wall Street Journal. Good evidence.
11:50 a.m. Another jury call! Walter reminds us that ‘you people are the only thing between civilization and anarchy.’ Aerobics girl and I are both called into the pool. In the hallway, she says, ‘Well, I’m a blue-eyed blonde girl, I’ll never get put on a jury.’
I could throttle her and none of these people would convict me.
This case sounds familiar—a dusky-hued man in his 20s is accused of robbery, and only one witness to testify against him.
12:55 p.m. I am summoned into the box. They hand us a laminated card of endless questions to answer. List everywhere you’ve lived, everyone you’ve ever met. What TV shows do you watch? What clubs do you belong to? How often do you take a crap?
I give them my assault history: in the California game of Clue, I have been mugged by Mr. Salvadoran with a wrench in the Castro District and by Mr. Black with a sharpened screwdriver in the Mission.
2:08 p.m. Back at court. The cop at the metal detector asks again if I have a lot of change in my bag. ‘Change comes from within,’ I tell him. He runs the metal-detecting wand all over my body.
2:25 p.m. I am in the jury box. I make snap judgments. I have no opinion about the defendant, but I’m ready to send the Zionist down the row from me to the electric chair; she’s wasting our precious time blathering about her good deeds for Israel while we could be happily smoking.
The Assistant D.A. prosecuting is really hot, in a deformed Bruce Willis kind of way. I totally want to do him. I feel guilty for thinking dirty thoughts while someone in the room is about to get 8 to 10 years upstate.
4:10 p.m. We wait in the hallway while we are judged on our merits. About an hour before, I was forced to admit in front of hundreds of people that I have indeed been arrested in the City of New York. The courtroom went silent. The judge said ‘Would you care to share the juicy details?’ I told them about my oh-so-radical mass arrest at a political demonstration eight or nine years ago. Everyone avoids me.
4:25 p.m. Eerily enough, the radical Zionist, the guy who advises the Mayor on police issues, and I are each dismissed from the jury. Go figure. Back in the jury room, Walter promises us a plethora of jury pools tomorrow. I go home and fall into a deeply tormented coma.
9:30 a.m. I toss back a breakfast of half a cup of oatmeal with brown sugar, heavy cream, and butter. For jury luck, I put on my all-business black Paul Smith shirt. I’m gonna make that jury after all!
10:03 a.m. I am on the subway, tardy. I want that jury power so bad I can taste it. If I don’t get picked today, I may have to reenter therapy. I feel I must get into the box today, but even as my conviction grows, I am torn. Sending someone to prison is like, really bad.
This subway thing is really efficient though.
10:25 a.m. I meet two similarly-tardy Loisaida women in the elevator on the way up to the 15th floor. ‘Girl, it’s my third damn day,’ one says to the other. ‘I gotta get out of here. I can’t see one more cop fixing a case to make another collar.’ ‘Ooh, I know,’ says the other, ‘Fuckin’ cops always lie on the stand. I always tell the lawyers I can’t be on the jury because there ain’t no such thing as ‘impartial.’’
I butt in and say ‘Well, I always tell them ‘Oh yeah, I understand, of course I can be fair,’ cuz that way when they pick an all-white jury at least I’ll be on it.’
They high-five me. Now I have to get on a jury and do some rogue racial justice for my homegirls.
11:00 a.m. I am greeted by perky Aerobics Girl. Somehow I like her, even though she is a nitwit. The jury room is overflowing today with newbies, including two new really hot guys. One is reading an actual book! With no pictures! In the jury pool room I notice quotations written on the judge’s schedule board:
‘They also serve who only sit and wait,’ and below it:
‘Teach us to care, and not to care, teach us to sit still.’
I didn’t go to no stinking college, but I know when they’re rocking out some Eliot.
There are two back-to-back jury pool calls. This place is all action! I am in the second group. We traipse down to the 13th floor. Interestingly enough, there is no 12th floor, but there is a 13th. Spooky.
On the trip downstairs my gaydar kicks in, and I immediately become gal pals with the funny gay fellow behind me. I don’t ask his name or anything else—I’ll learn it all in voir dire, the speed-dating of jury duty! We discuss the two hot boys in our pool. One is a total fox, but wears a wedding band, even though he looks 12.
On the way into the courtroom, the bailiff advises us that women may wear hats but men may not. Is there a lawsuit there?
12:05 p.m. My third case in three days is yet another black man accused of robbery. There is one witness to the alleged crime. Oy.
God strike me down if I am lying: the defendant’s first name is Justice. At first I thought that a judge was on trial. But no: in some really fucked-up disaster of irony, this man named Justice may go to jail. I could wax poetic for days.
26 people are called into the box. The Assistant D.A. is this really kicky fun girl; I would totally hang out with her. The defense attorney seems cool, but he has a trick up his sleeve. For each panelist his final question is ‘What person from history do you most admire?’
His selection ploy seems deceitful. For this first round, we get a fair share of Roosevelts, some Ghandis, some Martin Luther Kings. A few are more interesting: Jacques Chirac, Jesus Christ (they’ll be excused from the jury), and a Malcolm X—an unnerved quiet descends. One woman gives Margaret Sanger (that would have been my first choice, and I’m pissed that the old woman from the Upper East Side stole my answer), Thelonius Monk, and finally, Nancy Reagan.
The courtroom bursts into laughter. The defense attorney says ‘Do you mind if I ask you why?’ Everyone cackles, even the Christians.
1:00 p.m. My gay buddy and I go to lunch. He confesses that he’s seen a member of our jury pool naked, but won’t tell me who. For that I love him. We spend lunch scheming good historical figure answers for the stupid defense attorney. We debate Elke Summers and Joan Collins. I settle on Emma Goldman. If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your voir dire!
2:15 p.m. My buddy’s name is Lenny, as I learn when we are both ordered into the box in the next fresh pool of potential jurors. I approach the bench for a lawyer’s conference to tell them of my fearsome arrest history. I feel really cool.
Slowly, the interrogation progresses. Lenny and I mock stupid answers openly—the court can fine me for contempt, I don’t care, it’s my third day here, I am dog-tired, and frankly I no longer want any part in serving the stiff rod of justice to Justice.
I am still conflicted: someone has to serve on these juries, and it should be someone with the rights of a defendant in mind. And yet, what of the mitigating factors—what about the incredible monstrosity of the prison system? How can they ask us to set aside our feelings about sentencing when in fact we are deciding whether someone will go to jail? Is it a copout if I don’t feel right about that? It is also true that I don’t approve of robbery. It totally sucks, dude.
The defense attorney is playing his name-association game. Lenny gives Harriet Tubman, and I know that he’s screwed. The lawyer gets to me, and in a flash of inspiration, I say ‘I’m gonna go with Angela Davis.’
The kicky A.D.A. cracks up, to her credit. I am so out of there.
For his Harriet Tubman choice, Lenny is made an alternate juror: the worst of all possible worlds. I give him the international sign for ‘call me’ and I hightail it down the 13 flights of stairs and out into the daylight of my own shallow freedom.