I woke up at 6:20 this morning, ten minutes ahead of the alarm. I started to roll over and go back to sleep, the way I usually do. Then I remembered why I’d set the alarm: I had to report downtown for jury duty in two hours.
Writers who work at home gradually become sealed off from some of the common experiences that unite people with nine-to-five jobs. One of them is getting up in the morning. I’m out most nights attending performances, after which I generally stay up reading or writing until two a.m., my normal lights-out hour. The only time I get up as early as 6:30 is when I have a plane to catch–more often than not, I arise between nine and ten–and I can’t remember the last time I rode a subway at rush hour. I did both those things today, and didn’t much care for either, though the C train wasn’t especially crowded at 7:45, and I was able to sit down all the way to Canal Street.
It was cold in Manhattan today–15 degrees–and the wind pelted me in the face as I made the longish crosstown walk from my subway stop to Centre Street, trudging past dingy storefronts to the edge of Chinatown, where the faces and signs suddenly changed as if somebody had thumbed a button. My destination, 111 Centre Street, was a nondescript medium-rise distinguished only by the homemade 9/11 memorials inside and out. It looks gray and tired. The elevators are slow.
I reached the jury room precisely at 8:30, the time printed on my summons. It’s dingy, too, a windowless rectangular box lit with fluorescent fixtures and full of not-quite-comfortable chairs upholstered in institutional blue. In addition to the main waiting room, there are two smaller rooms off to the side, a TV room and a room full of carrels where people with laptops can work while waiting to be called. As I entered, an orientation video was playing on three TV monitors, the same one I saw the last time I served on a jury, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer mouthing banalities about the justice system with uplifting faux-Copland music blasting away in the background. I got there just in time to see the funny parts, a reenactment of a medieval trial by ordeal in which the officers of the court throw the defendant into a river to see if he floats, followed by a couple of clips from old episodes of Perry Mason intended to illustrate what most trials aren’t like. About half the seats in the waiting room were already full, and most of the occupants appeared to be watching the video, or at least facing the monitors. Their faces were closed, non-committal, and sallow. (Nobody looks good under fluorescent light.) I wondered how many of them knew who Perry Mason was. Up until I boarded the subway this morning, my attitude toward the prospect of serving on a jury had been sour and resigned, pretty much what you’d expect of a busy New Yorker with deadlines to hit. During the ride to Canal Street, my civic-duty juices started to flow. By the time the video was over, they’d dried up again, and stayed that way.
A door opened and out stepped a jury clerk, a middle-aged, red-faced gent with a dis-is-a-bad-ideer accent who told us that we were there to hear criminal cases and walked us through the day’s routine. His manner was friendly, no-nonsense, cynical but not disagreeable. He explained that we’d be released if we hadn’t been empaneled on a jury after three days, adding that things had been so slow during the first part of the week that the jurors were sent home at the end of the second day. He dealt briskly but mercifully with a half-dozen questions, one belligerent and most of the rest inattentive, after which he was joined by a chipper, cheerful woman who helped him collect our summonses.
I took a closer look at my fellow citizens as they lined up at the desk. One woman caught my eye–she had the long neck and slender frame of a dancer–but the rest were mostly nondescript, except for the usual sprinkling of freaks, morons, malcontents, and grotesques likely to be found in any random sample of New Yorkers. One of the latter stumbled back to his chair, opened the bottom button of his shirt, exposing his pale belly, and started snoring at once. I’ve never doubted that democracy was a good thing, but like so many good things, it often looks better from a distance.
A few self-important folk pulled out cell phones and started placing calls, ignoring the clerk’s explicit instruction not to use them in the waiting room. Everybody else produced newspapers or books and began to read. I checked out the magazine rack, passed over a copy of Newsweek with Lance Ito on the cover, then settled down with Patrick O’Brian’s The Wine-Dark Sea. For the next two hours, nothing happened. Nobody in the room struck up a conversation with anybody else. A dozen or so people signed out to go get coffee, returning in due course. The rest of us sat in silence, waiting vainly to be called. At 12:15 we were released for lunch, 45 minutes ahead of schedule, but it was too cold to search the neighborhood for interesting places to eat, and most of us had drifted back into the waiting room well before two o’clock.
The afternoon was as uneventful as the morning. At one point I stood to stretch my legs and look at my fellow jurors, and noticed that I was the only person in the room who was standing up. Everyone else was reading or napping. No one was smiling. I’ve never seen so many people look so bored. This must be what it feels like to be a stand-up comedian in hell, I thought.
The red-faced clerk reappeared at 3:15. “O.K., the fun’s over,” he said over the microphone. “Everybody go home. Be back here at ten a.m. sharp.” The waiting room emptied out within seconds, and 45 minutes later I was home, wondering whether tomorrow would be as stupefyingly dull as today. Would it be worth carrying my laptop all the way to Centre Street? I checked the weather forecast for Thursday morning–four to six inches of snow–and sighed.