Thursday, March 08, 2007

Civic duty

So shit is finally slowing down, thank goodness. The book has finally been sent to the printer to be made into bound galleys. After much back and forth (and stressing out on my part), it is officially titled HACK. There is also a subtitle, which is: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with my Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab. I think it's coming out on August 28th but I'm not totally sure about that.

The past few months were pretty hectic. In the midst of finishing up the last edits of the book and dealing with the whole confusing "publishing process," I got called to jury duty. The last time I had been called was about six years ago when I lived in Manhattan. I was dismissed after two days and all I really remember of my time there is that the chairs were comfortable, the lunches were long, and there was a guy sitting near me whose name was Jack Russel. Also, no one had cell phones really, and only a handful had toted along their clunky laptops.

This time, I arrived at the Kings County Supreme Court Building at 8:30 in the morning and waited in a great long line to get through the security metal detectors with a few hundred of my fellow unlucky Brooklynites. Then I proceeded to the Central Jury Assembly Room which, according to the sign on the wall, has a maximum capacity of about 600 people. I'd say, by the time everyone had filed in, there were about 400 of us. We watched a low-budget instructional movie starring Diane Sawyer and a perfectly diverse cast of characters. I think it was supposed to get us all excited about performing our civic duty, but I got distracted because Diane was so obviously reading her cue cards, it was disconcerting. But I guess it was a good thing because, with the lights all dim, it was the only aspect of the movie that kept me from falling straight to sleep.

When the movie was over, a large man with a white goatee sat down behind a grand table at the front of the room and slowly read through the categories that would qualify one for exemption from jury duty. He would call out each category over the microphone and then would wait for the people from that category to get up and file out through some doors to his side. He started by saying, "Are there any jurors in this assembly room who no longer live in Brooklyn? Please come forward."

At this, one lone guy got up in the middle of the giant room and made his way to the front. As he was walking, the guy with the microphone joked, "When you go through the doors, you're gonna have to write an essay on why you left Brooklyn." Everyone in the room gave a tired little chuckle as we watched the poor guy leave. Then he moved on to the other categories, which included non-citizens, caregivers, felons (about 40 people got up), people who've performed jury duty less than four years ago, and people who had a medical reason to not perform their duty.

The last category was apparently his favorite because he kept referring to it the entire time and telling us it would have the largest response: "If anyone in this assembly room has difficulty understanding English -- or understanding me -- please go through the double doors." A hundred people got up and went through the double doors. How they knew to go through the double doors was a mystery to me, but it didn't phase the guy in charge. When they were all gone, he smiled and said, "I told you that category would clear the room. But don't move over to their seats just yet -- the majority of them will be back." And then with a little wink, "They're just giving it a shot."

An hour later, I got called with 70 other people to go up to a courtroom. When we were out of the big room, our attendance was retaken and I thought it was funny how almost all 70 of us responded to our names by simply saying, "Here," except for the two people who felt it was important to distinguish themselves by saying "Present," and the one jolly old man who said "Good morning."

Up in court, we were told we were gonna be interviewed to see if we could sit on a murder trial. Of all the questions they asked, and all the answers given, I was surprised by how many people answered yes to the one about "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?" More than half of us had been, with the crimes mainly being burglaries and muggings, though one person had been held up at gunpoint, and another woman had the misfortune to witness her godson get murdered right in front of her. It was all pretty depressing. They also asked if the police got involved and how we felt about how they handled it, and it was even more depressing that almost all of us were less than thrilled with the NYPD's actions regarding each of our cases.

At one point in the selection process, the judge instructed us on what "prejudice" means. Naturally, he used cabbies in his example, saying, "Suppose you hold the belief that all cab drivers are terrible drivers." At this, there were a few nods of the head and even one "amen" muttered in the galleys. Ignoring this, the judge continued, "If there is an accident between a cab and another car, you might automatically blame the cab driver, right?" More nods. He went on, "We don't want you to do that here. You need to see the man in front of you as an individual human being and look at the facts of the case. Do not judge him based on what you think him to be beforehand -- that is what prejudice is -- when you pre judge someone based on your beliefs."

The day ended up running long and the lawyers hadn't been able to agree on twelve people so they made those of us who hadn't been interviewed yet (which included me) come back for a second day. The next morning, when the lawyers finally got to me and asked what my occupation was, I said "writer and cab driver." The judge did a double-take, then smiled and said, "Sorry about my cab driver example yesterday." I just said, "It happens all the time."

Around 2:00, the lawyers decided that most of us were not what they wanted on this particular jury and I was, much to my relief, dismissed.