Thursday, April 18, 2013

Not I, the Jury

They say revenge is the best medicine, love only hurts when you're having fun and never give a sucker an even break. What that has to do with this story I don't know, but maybe it'll all make sense in the end, like a cheap dime novel with a ludicrous final-page plot twist that makes you throw the book out the nearest window. Or maybe it'll just be another half-baked blog post with a laborious setup and little payoff. What do I know? I'm just the writer, I'm not qualified to judge - not I, the jury.

With my summons folded neatly into a paperback copy of Tim Dorsey's The Big Bamboo, I reversed my salt-stained Kia out of the garage at 7 a.m. into a refreshingly bright and warm spring morning, the accumulated snow finally, begrudgingly, melting, like a cheap ice cube at one of those all-night blues joints that never closes because the inspectors don't visit that end of town anymore.

The drive to the law courts was simple enough - I'd plied these roads before too many times, often under less than ideal circumstances, like when your gas tank is running dry and your bank balance hasn't seen the plus side of zero for nine weeks. Today my tank was full but my pocket change was running empty as I pulled into the underground parking lot beneath our spiffy new city hall. I was sweating bullets as I fished through my pockets and plunked coins into the soulless face of the 8-hour meter - Loonies, Doubloons and quarters only, no nickel-and-dime jazz for the downtowners. When I plugged the last quarter into the slot the meter read just a hair over four hours. Having never served on a jury before - at least not an official jury, if you catch my drift - I sweated a little, wondering if jury selection would conclude in time for me to avoid an expensive fine. Well, it was all in Lady Luck's hands now, I thought.

I rode the elevator up to street level, crossed the street and found the law courts entrance, only to discover that I'd arrived a half hour before the doors even opened. Sixteen bits in parking money down the drain for nothing, and now I couldn't do anything but loiter in the stiff breeze with the half-dozen other mooks who'd been a little too eager to perform their civic duty.

I flipped open my beeper to check for jobs, but as usual of late I was out of luck unless I wanted to edit a hog farm journal or go back to throwing press releases into the media meat grinder (both of which, incidentally, start to look good after a few months of living off your good-hearted trophy wife's paycheque). That took all of 45 seconds, so I decided to take a walk around the building, as always amused by the multi-million dollar edifices on the west side of the street and the ramshackle pawn shops on the east side. That seemed like some kind of metaphor about the justice system, but I'll be a Tanzanian moose before I could tell you what it all meant.

After my stroll I read a few pages of Dorsey, but I couldn't get my mind off the case - the case that had brought me to these granite steps. Of course I had no idea regarding the details of the case, because that was secret. So as usual, my mind was spinning its wheels and burning itself out uselessly on metaphysical conundrums I sure as hell wasn't going to solve while waiting for some bureaucrat to open up the building.

And then suddenly it was 8 a.m. and I was shuffled into a security checkpoint line with the other prospective jurors. I cracked a thin, world-weary smile as I spotted a poster: "THE FOLLOWING ITEMS HAVE BEEN CONFISCATED FROM PERSONS ATTEMPTING TO ENTER THE LAW COURTS." Underneath that caption, grainy photos of brass knuckles, a switchblade, pistols and a hand grenade. I congratulated myself for not being dumb enough to get caught with that kind of contraband, just as the metal detector went off and I was pulled aside for further inspection.

"Just stand over here, sir, with your arms out." I played it smart, wondering what I'd forgotten to put in the little grey basket. The guard waved his wand up and down my body until passing over my midsection. Beep. Like a dope, I'd forgotten about my belt buckle.

"Just remove the belt, sir, and try again."

If my face was flushed just a little with embarrassment, well, I wouldn't be the first guy singled out for special inspection because one of the rules slipped his mind in the heat of the moment. On my next pass through the checkpoint I was clear, and the guards waved me through. I collected my meager belongings and headed upstairs to Courtroom 317, where hundreds of people in various states of boredom, fear or annoyance waited. What a hodgepodge of humanity, a small selection of Homo Sapiens Albertans: black, white, brown, yellow, pink, purple, red and that was just the hair. I cooled my heels while the big clock's cool digital numbers winked by, until at last a silver-haired, smooth talking gent had us line up again with our summons papers. One by one we showed him and his partner our papers, and they gave each of us our jury number. We kept that new number in our heads and passed it on to the clerks, high-class dames who were not only efficient, but friendlier than you'd expect in a place of such dead-serious business.

"Please have a seat in the gallery, sir," one of them said after handing me a small two by two-inch card with my name, address and previous occupation on it in plain Courier type.

"You mean up there?" I gestured over her shoulder, until realizing even as I said it that I'd probably just pointed at the spot where justices normally sit. But she only laughed and said "Anywhere in those brown seats on the floor, sir." I found a spot on one of the many long wooden benches and gave my heels a second cooling. Once everyone had their little cards, the clerk stood up to give us the lowdown on what was going to happen. Frankly the process seemed so simple as to defy explanation, but just in case some of us needed things spelled out, she started a video that played on two 46-inch flatscreens mounted on the courtroom walls - a modern innovation that seemed out of place in the mid-70s, wood-panelled gestalt of the place.

On screen an inoffensively good-looking guy with hair like a Ken doll explained how important it was that we were here, and how our participation made democracy and the justice system possible. I absorbed the soft sell with only mild cynicism - I still wasn't very good at crushing that idealistic inner child under the weight of the school of hard knocks. After the video was over, the bailiff escorted us from the courtroom so the lawyers could set themselves up. A few minutes later, we all filed back into the room like good little herded citizens. One of the clerks called the roll, the judge entered, we stood, we sat, and the judge repeated the same shpiel we'd just heard in the video, only with more class and panache. He seemed like a sincere and reasonable guy, just the sort of judge you'd want if you were ever threatened with the big house.

And then the lottery began. The clerk filled a metal cylinder with copies of our little cards and pulled twenty names. Folks approached the front of the courtroom, some slouching forward reluctantly, others springing up with delight, some a little nervous. When twenty names were called, the judge asked if anyone had any reasons why they couldn't serve on a jury, and about half those twenty hands shot up like they'd been flung from a catapult. One by one they told the judge their stories - I have a paid vacation coming up, I have a heart condition, I'm the only person working the night shift next week and so on. The judge excused each and every one of them, and I found myself admiring his compassionate wisdom. Maybe the system works, thought that idealistic little boy, and I stomped him back down with a well-practiced silent "shaddup!"

The remaining potential jurors were then called, one by one, before the prosecuting and defending lawyers. I took careful note of these legal eagles - one looked like he'd just stepped out of law school with the ink still drying on his degree, while the other looked like the guy that played My Favourite Martian. In turn, each lawyer took a look at his notes, then the prospective juror, and muttered either "content" or "challenge." There were a lot more challenges than I expected, and they had no pattern I could grok. The clerk had to draw lots of twenty twice more, and another lot of twelve, before twelve jurors had been chosen - and I was surprised to find myself part of that last lot. The prosecutor had no beef with me, but the defence attorney took one long look at me and barked "Challenge!" I returned to my seat, not sure if I was disappointed or relieved.

With twelve jurors chosen, the lawyers packed up their gear. To my surprise, the lawyer who'd challenged me approached me on his way out, smiled, winked and whispered "Good luck!" I couldn't figure it. Good luck for what? Did he think I wanted to serve on a jury, and hoped I'd get picked in for the next trial? Was he sorry he'd had to reject me? Or did he think I wanted to avoid the responsibility, and had his fingers crossed that my name wouldn't be drawn again? I couldn't answer those questions, because I didn't know myself what I wanted.

It took only a couple of minutes for selection for the next trial to begin. This time around my number was called during the very first random draw. The silver-haired gent who'd taken our summons papers pointed out where I should stand, and leaned over to whisper "You should buy a lottery ticket after this." I couldn't help but agree - the odds of being drawn twice seemed pretty long. This time around the tables were turned: the defence had no problem with me, but the prosecutor took one look at me, grinned in a not-unkindly way, and proclaimed "Challenged!"

"You're excused, sir," said the judge. I nodded and left the courtroom. I had just minutes to spare over at the City Hall meters - plenty of time to ruminate a little while I made my way to the parking lot.

What did it all mean? Are we all just names and numbers in big spinning wheels, waiting for our number to come up, only to be tossed aside for some arbitrary reason we'll never know? Or do we escape fates worse than death every day, Lady Luck stepping in with her gentle, invisible touch to deliver us?

I hated bathos, but I needed a pizza. Case closed.

6 comments:

Sports Reporter said...

But did you buy a lottery ticket?

"Jeffdemption II" said...

It's interesting to note that while Earl expressed his story with a tone of noir, most legal experts prefer to express themselves with Shakespearean idiom:

"Much Ado That Ends Well", III, ii, 1, go:

THE LAWYER:

"O, then, I see Earl Woods hath been with you.
He is the muses' consort, and he comes
In shape no bigger than a two inch name card
In the hand of a paralegal,
Drawn hither by his salt-soaked Kia
Athwart civic parking lots of underground asphalt;
The wagon-spokes made of plastic,
The bumper of another sort of plastic,
The steering wheel yet another plastic,
The seatbelt of cleverest woven plastic,
His I-Pod plastic; his money in his suit;
His reading material of hard-boiled purpose,
Not half so tough as Marlowe though,
Picked from the bookshelf superabundant:
His shoes the chariots of his feet
Made by the joiner squirrel Adidas,
Time out o’ mind the muses' shoemakers.
And in this state he gallops night by night
Through zombies’ brains, and then they dream of brains anon;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on naughty spanking games,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the wordly Earl with pun-nishment plagues,
Because their breaths with sweets from Timmy's tainted are:
Sometime Earl gallops o’er a barrister's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes Earl with a shelled peanut
Placing it a person's ear as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams he of hearing goobers:
Sometime Earl driveth o’er a Romulan brother's neck,
And then dreams he of photon torpedoes,
Of hull breaches, warp drive overloads, shield modulations,
Of staccato warps along z-axis planes; and then anon
Starfleet earpiece in his left ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Earl Woods
That rolls the fate of bards in the night,
And bakes the company inadvertantly in wizards' eldritch lightnings,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the stud, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is he!"

THE JUDGE:

"For whence he stood before the bench
My baleful stare I did Earl drench
He showed to me no obvious flaw
I Am Judge Dredd; I Am The Law!"

King T said...

I've been called thrice. First time all three got cancelled or moved to judge-only trials.

Second time was two trials...not called up for either.

Third time was three trials with multiple call-ups...but not me. A gal got called up and rejected all three trials. Weird. Oh, and the judge looked like Carol Burnett.

Earl J. Woods said...

I didn't buy a lottery ticket, but I should. I'd use it to have Jeff's play excerpt printed on a faux-aged scroll and mounted in some artful way. That'd look great in my office.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

I find it irksome that so many of the comments on your blog are superior to most of the actual posts on my own... Iambic pentameter for pity's sake? Well done Jeff!

"Jeffdemption II" said...

Thank Queen Mab! It's Shakespeare's famous speech for Mercutio in "Romeo And Juliet" with some Earl references thrown in. I thought that Earl would make a tremendous Mercutio, and I dimly recalled from C LIT (Hooray for the U of A to have a program with that name in capital letters!!) that the speech had mention of lawyers in it. Instant blog comment.