me the people
Traditionally, I look forward to the day following Easter. Bunny cookie cutters are tucked away for the season and Cadbury chocolate peanut butter eggs are 2-for-1 at most pharmacies. This year posed a major conflict; work summoned with a very large decorated cookie order at the same time I had been summoned to fulfill one of the “highest duties of a citizen,” Jury Duty. Of course I wish to contribute to the administration of justice in the Garden State. More importantly, I do not wish to pay the $500 fine for rsvp-ing in the negative. Enroute to the Hall of Justice I count eleven fried chicken emporiums.
Everyone is exceedingly cordial upon my arrival. I’m scanned, screened and handed a badge emblazoned with the word JUROR and my name directly below. My badge must be visible at all times (makes me feel a little Hester Prynne-ish) and it is highly recommended that I remember my juror number.
Ushered into Room “A”, there’s nary a Henry Fonda nor a Lee J. Cobb in sight, but we all resemble Angry Men. The man seated behind me is slung low in his chair, giving directions in a stage whisper on his cell phone. “Just move the sheetrock, that should cover it.” Uh oh. That should cover it as in “Move the sheetrock to hide the body?” or “Move the sheetrock to complete the addition to my summer palace?” The man is agitated and I don’t want to be placed in a group with him. When they call our numbers, guess who is in my group?
Overhearing two would-be jurors in front of me discuss their Easter Sunday, I’m reminded that this invitation to the Hall of Justice conflicts with my chance to stop at the pharmacy and pick up a few Easter Monday Cadbury chocolates. Now I’m starting to get a little bit hungry, but no, not for fried chicken.
We are instructed to watch a video detailing our responsibilities as Jurors. Mr. Sheetrock is having none of it and steps over me uttering a few choice words. The audio on the Responsibility Video isn’t working so we are given permission to recess to the Coffee Lounge with strict instructions to wear our badges in full view. Exiting “Room A” we tumble out into the vestibule and are immediately assaulted with the scent of Styrofoam cups and Coffee-Mate. In the distance, I can hear the sweet sound of a vending machine. With chocolate and peanut butter on the brain, I’m hoping for a peanut butter cup or a Snickers. Better still, I spy the familiar red and brown wrapping of Goldenberg’s original Peanut Chews. Unearthing a dollar bill from my jacket pocket, I make my purchase only to find that the confection deposited in the slot is not my Peanut Chews at all, but a package of Twizzlers. A fellow Juror suggests I try again using the Twizzler button instead. “Why would I do that?” Turns out the numbers in the machine don’t quite align with the selections and you have to choose the candy next to the one you want. It works. Things are looking up. Until I look down and realize that I am experiencing a badge malfunction. The clear lucite name tag sleeve is clipped to my sweater, but the JUROR badge is missing. Having committed the heinous crime of losing my name and number, I am fairly certain this is punishable by law. Am I not entitled to one phone call and one candy bar?
Awaiting my sentence, my name is called over the loudspeaker urging me to return to the main desk. A bespectacled Superior Court representative hands me my badge and I offer her a peanut chew which she declines. Clearly, there’s no bribing the clerk and there is little chance of being pardoned for good behavior.
We return to Room A where we spend the next three hours listening to HGTV (“Love It or List It?”) and waiting to be sprung for lunch. I don’t want lunch, I want to go home. Actually, I need to go to work. Fortunately, we are allowed to leave the building from noon until 1:30. Warm in the sun, lunch hour (and a half) is spent in peanut chew bliss.
At 3:00, our group is divided in half and my group is allowed to go home, with the understanding that we are to return the next day at 9:30 am. I run to the parking garage with the fervor of Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread.
The next morning I dial the Juror Hotline number with the hopes that my appearance today has been deemed unnecessary, but it is not to be. “All Jurors must report to the Hall of Justice.”
Bad deja-vu all over again; I am scanned, screened and badged. The second day is more challenging; we overspill from Room A to Room B (ESPN, not HGTV) and are told not to linger in the hallway. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Mr. Sheetrock and my fellow band of Merry Jurors angling for seats near the vestibule connecting the Hall of Justice with the Hall of Records. They must know something I do not. The Clerk takes her place at the front desk and turns on the PA system. She begins summoning Jurors by name and number to be taken to the Court House by a Sheriff sporting a handlebar mustache. They call my number but the name is wrong. I look at the name on my badge, it’s correct. They call my number again and call me Ms. Green. Now everyone is looking at me as if I’m some sort of rule breaker. The Clerk looks at my badge, looks at her list, looks at the Sheriff, and for a moment I fear they may actually send me up river. Instead they “instruct me” to follow the Sheriff and the rest of the group to the Historic Courthouse which is several blocks away. This can’t be good.
Sheriff Mustache is standing directly in front of me and tells us that he is our escort to the chambers of the Honorable Judge So and So. We are advised to keep up because we will be traveling through the intricate tunnel system that runs below the Hall of Justice. He sets off at a furious pace and I am right on his heels. The labyrinth of passages are dimly lit, with a slight Shawshank Redemption feel to them. Mr. Sheetrock must be a non-athlete, because he is falling far behind. When we arrive at the Historic Courthouse, Sheriff Mustache advises the elderly members of our group that they may wait and take the elevator to the fourth floor. Sheetrock feigns old age and hides amidst the geriatric crowd. The rest of us are to continue on at breakneck speed up four flights of dizzying marble. The building is a magnificent structure, recently renovated to the tune of almost $50 million. A placard states this courthouse has received the highest award from the Preservation and Landmarks Committee, and it is indeed jaw dropping. There is a blur of museum-quality murals on all sides and soaring Tiffany skylights overhead. We learn that the building was designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of New York City’s Woolworth Building and Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Supreme Court. Interesting to note that the Historic Courthouse dates back to 1907. Had this been been an Art History field trip, I’d be all for it. But it’s not.
Ushered into the courtroom, we hunker down to listen to the Judge (who is not smiling) as he begins his monologue concerning Jury Voir Dire. Jurors come and Jurors go, citing extreme personal hardships. When it is time for the Judge to speak with me at “Sidebar” (cue Law and Order soundtrack) the attorneys and the Judge tell me that the case will require two to three more days of my service.
“But, I, I, have to go back to work.” They want to know what I do. They are not moved by my response and send me back to the bench in the front of the jury pool. I’m frantically treading water as I see my entire week slip sliding away.
There is a brief synopsis of the case to be tried. More questions, more Sidebar. The attorneys deem me unable to render an impartial decision. Fancy that. Ultimately, blissfully, the Judge excuses me from the pool. One of the attorneys feigns slight interest in my line of work. “So what is it that causes you to hurry back to work?” Swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but, I reply, “We are in the midst of a huge cookie order. It has to be completed and then shipped to D.C.” The nation’s capital grabs their attention so I add, “350 cookies, decorated to look like the White House.” The Judge states, “You are excused.” I had hoped he would bang the gavel and say, “Next Juror.” He doesn’t.
As I make my way back to the parking garage for the second day in a row, I pause to reflect on the day’s proceedings. Did I just get away with murder?
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