Archive for April, 2012

Adventures in Jury Duty

Friday, April 20th, 2012

No one seems to like jury duty. It interrupts peoples’ work schedules, certainly, but there seems to be more to it than that – the drudgery of dealing with randomly assembled people, the formal and vaguely threatening institutional setting, the paperwork, the bureaucracy. I don’t know if these things don’t bother me much because I’m generally fascinated by novel societal experiences or because my dad was a judge.

I was summoned to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building last Thursday at 8:30 a.m. As I exited the subway station, I was asked for directions by a guy looking for 320 Jay Street, my very same destination, so we walked together toward the courthouse. He was another prospective juror, a sharp-dressed black dude in a thick cream-colored sweater and Timberlands, named David. We exchanged ideas for getting exempted from jury service and generally commiserated as we entered the building and went through security.

We entered a large room on the second floor filled with rows of seats like pews but made of vinyl. We watched a spectacularly low-budget orientation video featuring historical re-enactments of medieval justice: a group of people in robes and rags tie up an accused person and toss him into a river to see if he floats. Then Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes circa 1992 came on and welcomed us to the world of the US justice system. Perry Mason clips were shown, after which Diane Sawyer appeared, explaining that courtrooms are seldom the high-drama arenas that we see in movies and on television.

The combination of the institutional setting and the irresistibly mockable video meant that I naturally reverted by small degrees to my smartass high school self. After the video, David and I joked around with a guy next to us (I didn’t get his name so I’ll just call him DJ Premier because he looked a lot like DJ Premier) about what might disqualify us: language difficulties, backward caps (Premier had his cocked to the side), hoodies, the sincere principles of our Amish-Rastafarian religious beliefs (Premier later remarked that it might be troublesome that his laptop smelled like weed).

The jury room was a terrific cross-section of New York City. Every archetype was present: Old Hasidic Jewish guy? Check. Three-piece suit dude? Check. Confused Asian and Caribbean ladies who didn’t understand much of what was being said? Check. Starbucks laptop guy doing graphic design work? Check. Rotund ladies with impeccable nails and hair of questionable authenticity? Check.

After a Cheese Danish and terrible coffee, I heard my name called, along with David’s, so we both went to the next room for a roll-call before heading up to the 19th floor along with our group of about 30 or so people.

The 19th floor had a nice view, so David and I stood by the window and talked. He’s 39, with a wife and four boys in Brownsville, and he works as a property manager in Queens. Originally from the island of Dominica in the Virgin Islands, he moved to New York when he was 10. We talked about moving from a rural area to the big city, the state of NY public schools, the real estate market, and raising kids in the city. Brownsville, for those who don’t know, is one of the rougher parts of Brooklyn, and David mentioned a local kid was recently shot in a domestic dispute. So he’s looking into moving the family elsewhere.

We were all called into the courtroom for an initial introduction to the attorneys and the case. The defendant was accused of assault and robbery of a livery cab driver at knifepoint. The briefing was short, as it was already 12:45, so we were dismissed for lunch. David and I went to a pizza place, where we talked about music, in particular the decline of popular hip-hop. He spoke a little bit about New York City in 1982 though the crack era of the late 80s/early 90s, and how his father disapproved of rap music, and how much fun hip-hop used to be then compared to today. He’s the disapproving father these days, as the genre has descended into empty materialism. David didn’t get to see many shows in the 80s, but when I mentioned that I had been to Brownsville last summer to see Special Ed play Summerstage, he said that he once went to a car auction with Special Ed back in the day!

Back at the courthouse, we sat around listening to the dude with the loud earbuds (check!) leaking out tunes by Sade and Journey before we were all called back into the courtroom. Twenty folks were chosen for the initial round of inquiry; David was chosen but I was not. Each one was asked their name, job, living arrangement, neighborhood, criminal history (“have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a crime?”), and whether or not they could be impartial to the case, irrespective of any personal connections to crimes, livery cab drivers, or the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant where the alleged crime took place. It felt something like an AA meeting – getting to know strangers and their personal lives.

The rest of us were dismissed and later told that we would not be needed. We returned to the main jury room on the second floor. The time was around 4 p.m., so everyone in the room was told they could leave. Our obligation was over, and we would not be eligible for summons for another 6 years.

While most folks were all but celebrating their dismissal, I have to say I was kind of looking forward to the job. I was also bummed out by the fact that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to David (and he doesn’t seem to be on Facebook). Looks like I’ll never know how it turned out for the knife-wielding suspect from Bed-Stuy. It’s probably just as well. Dude looked so guilty.

Trumbo

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of such varied films as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Johnny Got His Gun, was one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to testify at the McCarthy hearings. I recently watched a documentary about him, Trumbo, which is available on Netflix streaming. When I heard the following passage on why he refused to name names in McCarthy’s witch hunt, I knew I had to track down a transcript:

I’ve delivered newspapers, reported for newspapers, peddled vegetables, clerked in stores, waited on tables, washed automobiles, picked fruit, hosed down infected cadavers, shoveled sugar beets, iced refrigerator cars, laid rails with a section gang, and served an eight-year hitch on the night shift of a large industrial plant.

I’ve looked at many American faces. I’ve seen them as flak burst around them nine thousand feet over Japan; in a slit trench on Okinawa watching the night sky to see where the next bomb would fall; in an assault boat as they moved toward a beach that tossed more violently than the surf through which they rode.

I’ve counseled with a paroled prostitute on how she might escape the clutches of a policeman who had caught her and was stealing half her earnings and sending his friends to her with courtesy cards that entitled them to take her without pay. I’ve also counseled with Secretary of the Air Force Tom Finletter on how the secretary of state might better explain his policies to a perplexed people. I’ve been asked by Louis B. Mayer why I had no religion, and by a ranking member of the State Department how I could bring myself to work with “all those Hollywood Jews.”

I’ve seen American faces in a miners’ union hall in Duluth on a night when the wind off the lake blew the snow so killingly and so deep that cars couldn’t be used and everybody walked to the meeting. I’ve seen their faces in the banquet room of a New York hotel when the American Booksellers’ Association gave me a National Book Award; and I’ve seen them again in a jury box as each of them twice said, “Guilty as charged,” and one of them wept as she said it.

I’ve been stripped by Americans and paraded naked with them and before them and obediently bent over on command to present my anus for contraband clearance. I’ve lived with and trusted and been trusted by car thieves and abortionists and moonshiners and embezzlers and burglars and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers.

I’ve stood on a gray day in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima and looked off at the graves of 2,198 Americans. In the center of all those graves on a slim white pole on a concrete pedestal flew the American flag. And I swear it was not the flag of informers. And if I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”

But, show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself.