Because of ongoing life crises in the past few years, on top of the usual beatnik disarray of my existence, I missed jury duty several times. I simply forgot to show up or do anything about it. I like jury duty, though. I mean its philosophically interesting, although there is a lot of waiting, which I don't mind, if I have a sketchbook and something to read. The last few times I got a Jury Summons I would have been happy to go, or not unhappy, but I was going through some heavy shit and I forgot, man, that's all. I just forgot. So I started getting notices from The Law, increasingly menacing notices from someone named "Nancy Sunshine" saying I was delinquent and threatening me with serious discipline and punishment if I didn't respond. "Failure to respond may result in criminal contempt of court and is punishable by a fine of $1000 or imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or both."
Well! Good Day, Nancy Sunshine!
One morning late last year I got the ultimate menacing message, Threat Code Purple, and I took the M train across hipster bridge, to the F at Essex to the Supreme Court of the County of Kings Building at 360 Adams Street in Brooklyn to fill out a form saying I would show up on February 7, 2012 at 8:30 AM, or face a possible fine or imprisonment, etc. I did show up yesterday, but I wanted to get out of it so I could go with Lori to the cancer center on Thursday, and be with her for that different kind of trial she is going through and I am going through.
Room 261, Central Jury Room is like a big secular church with chairs instead of pews and a long podium. Instead of a church choir two TVs are showing the same video instructing us on the history of jurisprudence and the evolution of the concept of justice toward its present stage of modern American democracy. Ed Bradley, the late television journalist and star of 60 minutes is doing the voiceover. In olden times, he tells us, if you were accused of a crime you had to undergo a trial by ordeal. You had to stick your hand in boiling water, or you were dunked in a river until you almost drowned to prove your innocence. The latter, I reflected, was a primitive form of the waterboarding that is now a part of modern American justice. The twin TVs instructed us that this modern American concept of justice is more advanced and we are guaranteed a trial by jury. Must be a pretty old video. I try to remember if Bradley died before habeas corpus did.
The voiceover accompanies a reenactment of selected scenes from a fairy tale about justice and democracy. Hammurabi, Charlemagne, the Magna Carta, William Penn, John Peter Zenger, the Spirit of Democracy, the Bill of Rights, the right to a fair trial, and so on, are stages in the advance of justice, and the civic duty that has brought us, the good citizens of Brooklyn, to interrupt our work or out-of-work lives so we can participate in justice in our democracy.
"The right to a fair trial cannot be guaranteed by police or authority," Ed Bradley says, "but by the participation of the people." Groovy, I think, participatory democracy - Right On! - Occupy Wall Street! Then they show a scene from the old Perry Mason show, and then another star of TV news, Diane Sawyer, is on the screens to tell us how it really is, here in the real world of TV news stars. We are told the meaning some of the Latin terms terms used in what Kafka called "The Process." "Voir Dire," she explains, means "to see them say." I believed her until two minutes ago when I read in Wikipedia that this is a false etymology and the actual meaning of the Old French, derived from Latin, is "that which is true." Voir Dire is when the lawyers ask prospective members of a jury questions meant to help them determine who might have opinions that might prejudice their understanding of the case. When I was in a jury selection process in Kansas City one of the lawyers asked how we felt about obscene speech. The case appeared to be about a man making obscene phone calls to his estranged wife. I imagine we all believed he was guilty the moment we saw him, and she appeared to be a quiet and conservative victim. It so happened I had brought Frank Zappa's autobiography to read during the wait. I thought of the trials of Lenny Bruce as related in his book How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, so I raised my hand and said I would make a distinction between obscene speech and abusive speech. I wasn't even trying to be rejected, but I was the first to go. A friend of mine got dismissed from jury duty during Voir Dire when he said he didn't like the TV show COPS. I had a fantasy of standing up right there during jury selection and saying, "See me say this! The right to trial by jury is no longer guaranteed by the American Police State!" That would probably get me out of jury duty. It would also be the sort of guerrilla theater that would make me a Person of Interest to the Thought Police, so of course I censored myself and didn't do this.
After the videos, a clerk with a huge forehead comes out to guide us in filling out the cards we got in the mail and brought with us just like we were told to. He has the manner of a Sunday School teacher who has lost all faith and strictly adheres to doctrine to compensate. He tells us we are all residents of Kings County and we are here to serve on a trial jury. Then he has people come forward to confess their sins and tell why they are unworthy to serve on jury today. I tell him my wife has cancer and I want to be with her at her Thursday appointment. I have the schedule that shows she has treatment in two days. He sends me to a room -- was it 101? --where I stand in a short line until I talk to the clerk and show her the schedule and tell her my sad story. She took the cards I'd filled out and it looked like she was going to postpone my jury duty, no problem, and then she brings up the file of my transgressions on the Alpha 2000 computer and says, "Oh. You are delinquent. Go wait in the Jury Lounge." I obey her, unsure if I am going to be sent home, or if I'm being punished for my history of delinquency. I felt like I did in high school when I was put in detention. I sit in the front row facing vending machines stocked with junk to rot the body and television screens with Fox News to rot the mind, and my indoctrination continued. The sound is off, but there are subtitles that were hunt and peck typed by a semi-literate. Even without sound, the propaganda is bombastic. According to Fox, even Clint Eastwood walks and talks like a pinko because of his tough voiceover for a Chrysler commercial that could used by the Obama campaign. Fox illustrated the story with the worst photo of Clint I've ever seen, looking like a ninety year old cockatoo that had just been waterboarded. He's standing in front of a wall that has the name "Gucci" repeated all over it, so you know how close he is to Your World, Mr. Joe Lunchpail.
The book I brought is Gary Snyder's Cold Mountain Poems, his translation/rewriting of the poems of Han Shan, the original dharma bum of the T'ang Dynasty. But you can't read straight through a collection of poems. You have to stop reading after you read one and think about it and re-read it and study it or even write your own poem in response. I wasn't exactly doing that for the first two hours of detention in the Jury Lounge. I would read one and then watch Fox and get infuriated, and then I would read something like:
Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease --
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.
Then I would look up and see what Obama's latest assault on religious freedom is. Why do they only show Fox News? Does this indicate how Fair and Balanced the Kings County Supreme Court is? And another thing, if this is a democracy, why is it "Kings County?" Shouldn't it be "People's County?"
At around 12:48 we broke for lunch and I went out and got a Coke and a slice. The woman who had told me to wait had taken the card that said I needed to keep to get in. Would they let me back in without it? Maybe I wasn't supposed to come back. Now I wasn't sure she had told me to wait. Maybe she had sent me away and was unable to speak because she was so angry about my delinquency. I went back twenty minutes early to find out what I was supposed to do and, frankly, there is nothing to do in that neighborhood, once you've eaten your fast food. This time I didn't sit in front of the neo-Orwellian telescreens. Instead, I sat in the row of seats facing the big windows where you can look out over Adams Street where, frankly, nothing is happening, ever. So I read Han Shan. "Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness." I stopped reading and thought about it. Contemplated the void and nodded off. I was awakened by a command from the public address system -- "Lawrence Swan, come to Room 101." The clerk handed me a a letter size sheet of paper that said "JUROR'S PROOF OF SERVICE CERTIFICATE. saying I won't have to do this again for eight years and I would be paid forty dollars for the service I did Kings County today.
It was signed Nancy T. Sunshine, Kings County Clerk.