A Grand Life: Death, Taxes and Jury Duty
On the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, I woke up around the usual time, ate my usual breakfast, and took my usual train line. Except on this day, I took the L train headed in the opposite direction. My route was leading me east when seemingly everyone else was headed west into the city to begrudgingly begin the transformation back into the “work version” of themselves and attempt to chug down as much of their favorite morning stimulant as they can to shake off the ghost of sleep still haunting their minds. Even though my destination is a place where most are loath to go, regardless of your reason for being there, there was a brief moment when I felt a tinge of excitement concerning this hiccup in my status quo. A few weeks earlier, a letter arrived to my apartment charging me with the mission I was now undertaking. With this letter securely gripped in my hands, I boarded the first L train headed east from Bushwick. After years of successfully bobbing and weaving away from the slow moving hand of the NYC courts, my time had finally come. I had been summoned for jury duty.
Compared to the common Manhattan-bound L train at rush hour, where every available cubic foot of space within it is occupied, and each position clawed and scratched for, the train I boarded resembled something of a forgotten city. There were a scant few people. A woman was rubbing her knees and wincing, suggesting that this may be her ride home after work, not before. A man in a worn suit stood facing a door that would not open, muttering to himself indistinctly. A couple of kids were tucked off in the two-seater at the end of the train. If it weren’t for the sounds flickering from their iPhones, you’d likely not notice them at all. And then there was me. And a whole lot of garbage from the night before. We sat in silence as the train barreled through the miles of underground tunnels we share with the rats and rainwater. A flood sunlight suddenly shined into the train as we peeked aboveground just long enough to view a massive graveyard. It was not hard to appreciate the irony in witnessing a graveyard on my way to a government building. Death, taxes, and jury duty – concepts as inevitable as drool on my chin in the presence of a Chinese buffet – with none of the pleasure. Like life, the train click-clacked forward along the tracks, its lights looking for the end of the tunnel.
Having reached my stop, I followed the signs hanging from the ceiling and the cues flashing from the intelligent life form I refer to as “a phone,” and eventually found myself in front of the Supreme Court of Brooklyn. “Is this the Supreme Court or JFK?” I thought to myself as I approached a lengthy line of people waiting to pass through pairs of police officers and metal detectors. I assumed my place in the rear of the line and pouted internally as I inched my way towards the gun-wielding grumps in uniform. A gesture to step forward was eventually motioned in my general direction and I offered a half-hearted “hey, how’ya doin?” to the officers as I approached them. My greeting was answered with “Are you wearing a belt? Take it off.” I complied with the instructions, removed my belt and walked through the metal detector, having no more metal in or on me than this morning’s muffin. However, the beep beeped and the red lights flashed, signifying that I was unfortunately not a sweepstakes winner but a person of interest.
Except for the prolonging of an undesirable series of obligations, the true misfortune in this situation was not mine to claim. You see, it was a hot day and my sweat valves only have one setting: full blast. In a voice and facial expression that clearly did not wish to receive what she was asking for, a brave officer stepped forward and squeaked out a command, “Raise your arms and turn around.” Being the good natured, law-abiding citizen that I am, I lifted my arms and turned a 180 twist with as much grace and control as a ballet dancer holding their arms open to accept the adoring embrace of an audience’s applause. As my arms swept upward from my hips, beads of sweat flicked off my fingertips, covering the surrounding area with my natural juices as well as any lawn sprinkler. The sweat running down my back ensured my shirt looked more like a rorschach test than, well, a shirt. Sweat and stank particles swirled and floated around me like the snow in a snow globes after it’s been given a good shake. The only souvenir to be gained at this gift shop, though, was that the lady officer did not want to participate in this odorous execution of security measures any more than I did. Thankfully, my funk led to a perfunctory waving of the “special wand,” and it was not long before the officer choked out “You’re fine, just go.”
I followed the trail of cheese left in the form of hastily scribbled “signs,” taped to the walls consisting of words sloppily written with a sharpie onto printer paper and ultimately found my way into a grand court room filled with people who appeared to be as thrilled to be there as I was. At this point in time, I was still imbued with a foolhardy sense that I was a person exempt from sentencing in this court of law. I had not given much consideration to anything other than my plan to demonstrate that I was a wily redneck here from the south, a land rife with bigotry and ignorance, to bring my flavor of injustice to any peer of mine who may have committed a crime in the county where I live. In short, I was going to impersonate many of morons I was privileged to attend high school with. My experience has taught me that if, at any point, I have come the conclusion that I am confident in a plan of action I am about to take, chances are that I will be banged over the head with a curve ball I had not anticipated. Sure enough, in my haste to design a plan that would depict me in a way that would not engender confidence that I was a person capable of fairness and objectivity, I failed to read and recognize a single word that would ultimately sway the hand of fate: grand.
Grand is a fairly benign word, right? Throw it in front of the word ballroom and you’ve got yourself a wedding reception. Throw it in front of the word concourse and you may find yourself at a ballpark, hoping to grab a beer and a dog in between innings. But throw the word grand in front of the word jury, and you, my good friend, are now at the mercy of statistical probability. No matter the amount of times you say “fuck the police,” or “the south will rise again,” the indiscriminate grabber hand of the Brooklyn Supreme Court will pluck you out of the pile of stuffed animals and place you squarely into a four-week grand jury. There are no questions asked. They don’t care if you have personally mowed the grass around a junk car in your front yard. Your sleeveless shirt and Fu Manchu mustache are of little interest and consequence to the executors of chance. You are left with only one course of action: pray to whatever god you believe in that you do not hear your name called when the juries are announced.
My god and I were clearly having a distinct miscommunication that morning as my name was called third for the jury with the longest term: four weeks. That’s right, in the time long enough for my name to be spoken aloud, the illusion fueled by my bravado that I would leave this room unscathed by civilian obligation transformed into the tidy pile of shit that was to be the next four weeks of my life. A bit taken aback by this plot twist, I rose to my feet and approached the trio of wardens charged with ruining 69 different people’s days – a number uniquely fitting for the amount of fucking going on inside the court room. As I approached the stand, the wardens all wore the same expression, one that indicated to me that I wasn’t going to tell them anything they hadn’t heard before. Nevertheless, I pleaded for a postponement, perhaps to a happier time where “present me” didn’t yet exist and “future me” would deal with the consequences.
It wasn’t long before I had received my due sarcasm and broken-record repetition of “no one wants to be here, what makes you special?” and made my way back to the crowded and uncomfortable wooden benches where they were keeping us waiting while the selections were being made. In an attempt to begin wrapping my head around the new month-long development I was facing, I contacted my boss to share the news. He promptly reminded me that there was no way in hell that I could afford to be out of the office for that long and asked that I try again to get my term postponed. I then found myself in a bizarre situation that I hadn’t quite encountered before: begging someone to let me go to work. “Please sir! Puh-lease let me go back to the soul-sucking world of cubicles and Keurig machines!” The words didn’t quite feel right in my mouth, but it did not keep me from patiently waiting my turn to go back for seconds.
I approached the stand once more and pleaded with the wardens for a postponement. Thankfully for me, I had been fairly polite my first time around and the folks following me in line weren’t so gracious. One man was even forcibly removed from the court for telling a warden to do something anatomically impossible and so in retrospect, I must thank this man for his honesty – I owe him a slow clap. By now, though, every well-placed smile and “yes, sir” meant the difference between speaking to a reasonable adult and a stern enforcer. I explained my work obligations to the warden and he told me the best he could do was try to get me onto a two-week jury, but it would require someone trading places with me. “Riiiiight,” I thought to myself as I walked back to the benches.
As I reached my seat, I reluctantly pulled out my phone to begin emailing my employers that there was nothing I could do about the situation. I was a few sentences in when it was truly beginning to hit me that I could not only not “afford,” to miss the time at work in terms of workload, but I literally could not afford to be out of work that long and receiving only the pitiful juror pay. The daily wage for a juror couldn’t pay the rent in my college apartment in North Carolina, much less my current apartment in Brooklyn. By now I was pretty cozied up in a personal pity party and starting to mentally unravel a little bit at the bleak prognosis with which I was trying to come to terms. Then, in my darkest moment, I heard an angelic voice call out my name. Finally! My god has returned to me! Okay, so it wasn’t an angel, per se. In fact, it was actually one of the same wardens from before, but he sure had some good news to tell me. In my excitement, I half-jogged my way up to the podium. “Mr. Mason, I think you’ll be happy with what I’m about to tell you,” he paused. “You’re a lucky guy. A woman from one of the two-week juries has agreed to trade places with you.”
I did my best to swallow the giant grin that was growing across on my face, thanked the warden, danced a restrained jig and scanned the room to find a lady who looked even less enthused than she was before so that I might be able to thank her. As everyone looked pretty miserable, it was nearly impossible to figure out who my secret benefactor was. I mouthed a general “thank you,” to the room and wrote to my boss to tell him the good(ish) news. I could return to work the following day, but then it would be two straight weeks of felonies, evidence, indictments and dismissals. While I will probably never know your name, I am very grateful for your sacrifice, dear stranger. I can say without a doubt that I would not have done the same and so my appreciation is felt twice as intensely. It would have been nice to tell you in person, but a THANK YOU shouted into the dark corners of the interwebs is the path I am left with. May you be duly rewarded for the kindness you showed to a stranger in need.
As of this writing, I have completed the first five days of my term. Despite it being shortened to only two weeks, the timing is still a bit rough because the term is coinciding with the final two weeks of the 24-day detox/cleanse my wife and I are currently doing. Having being stripped of such niceties as a refrigerator and a microwave, the court has left me no choice but to eat soup from a thermos in the jury stand everyday since my term began. For this week’s recipe, I was dying for something hearty and fortifying, but also healthy. While it may not make attending jury duty, or whatever is currently ailing you, any less painful, it’ll be hard to be anything other than blissfully happy when eating this Braised Bison with Roasted Garlic and Cauliflower Mash. In honor of my unknown benefactor, I dedicate this week’s recipe to you, my new friend.