In New York you’re called up for jury duty every two years. You can delay it a few months but eventually you have to go. Getting the dreaded jury duty notice could ruin your day. I never had a job that paid my salary while I was doing my civic duty. I understood that it was a good thing in general. But it was never good news.
There was a central room where you sat with a couple hundred other people waiting for your name to be called. Nowadays I imagine people sit around staring at their phones and computers. In those days you brought something to read. I don’t remember a lot of talking. New Yorkers are great at treating strangers like friends, and they’re great at respecting boundaries. This room was more about boundaries.
This one time (thirty years ago now) I was called to the jury box and questioned regarding a criminal case. It involved a black kid and a car and a crime.
I was raised to be a people-pleaser. The underlying message of this sad social illness is that other people are better than you – so for heaven’s sake just blend in. Otherwise you’ll make a fool of yourself and people will reject you. And on some level you’ll agree with them. This feels like humiliation and it sucks.
Also, my formative years were spent in an ultra conservative environment. Then I moved to Washington DC and later to New York, two ultra liberal environments, at least the circles I was in. In DC I was a volunteer with a group that advocated alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent offenders. I learned a lot about minorities and the criminal justice system.
In the play The Iceman Cometh a character declares that he is “cursed to see every side of every issue.” I’ve always identified with that line; cursed to see every side of every issue, and wanting to please everyone. What a coward.
Voir dire. It means to speak the truth. Absolute terror welled up inside of me. I was about to say what I really thought. I told the lawyer that I couldn’t be objective about this case because the justice system was a biased, racist institution that made money off incarcerating poor kids like this one and that if this kid ended up in jail his life would be ruined. Something like that.
After some eye-rolling, tisking, and general scoffing from a jury of my peers, I was dismissed. I made my way back to the holding room feeling self-conscious and a little embarrassed.
Well, that was it. Being honest out loud felt as bad as I always suspected it would. I found a place to sit off to the side, and started reading my book.
Eventually I sensed someone standing in front of me. I looked up. It was a man about three feet away looking very hesitant. He was probably in his thirties but had that thoroughly worn-out look. A survivor in a world that wasn’t for him. He seemed humble, tired, and nervous. We stared at each other. I didn’t know what was going on. He was working up to say something.
I …I know what you mean.
I nodded once and said, Yeah.
After a few frozen seconds he quickly walked off looking self-conscious and a little embarrassed.
And I thought, Oh. I get it.