FRESH YARN presents:

Trial by Jury Duty
By Mimi Friedman

I am attending to my serious habit of cashews and dried papaya, chewing absentmindedly and sifting through the day's mail. It's just the usual collection of junk mail, bills, and about eighteen catalogues. Most of it has very little impact on me except the Harry and David Catalogue which is hard core porno to a nut and dried fruit addict like me.

Then I see it. Oh no. Oh, yes. There is no mistaking the pink envelope with bold black writing. JURY SUMMONS. The mere sight of that thing makes my heart race and my breath erratic. Immediately I think, "How can I get out of it?" A red box in bold type warns that the courthouse does not permit any sharp pointed objects, pen knives, or protection sprays. I am instructed to leave all my various weapons at home. They don't mention my eyelash curler, which in my hands is a dangerous weapon. The deceptively colored amiable pink document also mentions that failure to respond will result in a hearing and penalties including a fine of up to fifteen hundred dollars. The summons makes me feel like I am the one on trial.

In a sense, I am the one on trial. I am the defendant in the court of my own conscience. The lightning speed of my reaction to avoid civic duty is suspect and yet somehow I feel it's completely justified. At times it really was justified by my contractual commitment as a writer to the sometimes irrational demands of television production. The show must go on. And on. And on.

But now, I am not in production. I am essentially without a legitimate excuse. This is the perfect time for me to serve. Apparently, the Superior Court has better timing than Jack Benny.

I write in my calendar when and where I'm supposed to go, put the summons into my desk drawer and for the moment, lull myself into

The day before I am due to appear at the Criminal Court building I am reminded that this jury duty thing does indeed exist and I have to deal with it. I take out the summons and read all the possible legitimate excuses. Being self-employed is no longer reason enough for exemption. A signed affidavit is required from a physician for a medical excuse. I don't know any physician well enough to ask them to lie to the government for me. There is a section indicating extreme financial burden. Truthfully, it wouldn't be an extreme financial burden for me to serve on a short term jury. In our society, for some inexplicable reason, sitcom writers make more money than teachers.

Okay, now I have no excuse. I will serve. And frankly, I do have a real curiosity about what happens in the court system. So it's settled.

Then, I look at the summons and realize I have to be downtown at seven forty five the next morning. I hesitate, and then quickly call the automated jury telephone system and touchtone my way into postponing my service until next month. I remember that in a month's time I will hopefully be working. No, I have to do it now, and only now. I call the jury number again and opt to speak to a real human being, who easily reestablishes my original service date for tomorrow. I hang up and see the words "attach death certificate" on the summons under legitimate excuses. You have to be dead to get out of jury duty. I am alive, but that will be seriously in question when I'm driving downtown at seven a.m. the next morning.

The eleventh floor assembly room is a large utilitarian room with many rows of chairs facing a lectern. There is a front office with a window where one of the civil employees acts as a kind of grocery story checker who scans your juror's badge as if you are a bottle of ketchup. I wonder if there will come a time when we will all have a bar code stenciled somewhere on our bodies that will be scanned for all of Big Brother's needs. (The book, not the show.)

I sit in the only empty chair on the front row next to a very pale man with long straggly gray hair who has a persistent dry cough and wears sandals with thin black socks. On my other side sits a big haired red-headed woman with a fondness for heavy floral perfume and sour cream and onion potato chips for breakfast. I clip my juror I.D. tag to my jean jacket and look at the number. 2193. My new identity. I wait to hear the first panel of potential jurors being called to a courtroom. And I wait. And wait. And wait. I read a novel that I had started and never finished. I take a short but deep nap, until I'm jolted back into consciousness by my next door neighbor's dry cough. The P.A. system clicks on and a woman's monotone voice tells us that she will be announcing the first panel of the day. She apologizes in advance for mispronouncing names. She then proceeds to massacre more ethnicities than Attila the Hun. Eventually, I hear the monotone voice say "Mini Fried-non, #2193" and I move as if in a large chain gang with the others to a courtroom on another floor of the building.

As the bailiff asks us to raise our right hands and swears us in, I find myself suddenly in awe of this process. It instructs that this disparate and motley group gather and objectively hear, and ultimately pass judgment on, another human being in trouble. I look at the young black man accused of the crime in the case and am struck with that awesome task of deciding someone's fate. I wonder what he is accused of. He looks at his potential jurors. He stands awkwardly in his off white loafers and blue suit. His hair is combed in a way that seems as if it had never held that particular shape before. He looks down at the floor and so do I.

Every juror is asked if they had ever been a victim of the type of crime that is on the docket or any type of crime at all. One by one, people tell their dark tales in solemn, angry and/or resigned tones. An elderly widower tells of being held up at gunpoint by a group of teenagers in his pet store. His beloved deceased wife was ordered to lie on the ground as they pistol whipped him and took the small amount of cash from the register. I look at him talking in profile, his anger giving way to profound loss. He works hard to hold back tears. He isn't the only one.

All the jurors are asked if they have ever been accused or convicted of a crime. A middle aged Asian woman wearing a purple sweatshirt with Janet Jackson's picture air brushed on it asks for a side bar. She and the judge and lawyers move to the side and whisper amongst themselves for a minute or two and she is excused. Everyone on that jury panel is thinking, "What was that about?" We would never know and it was just as well.

This case involves spousal abuse and one of the potential jurors explains to the court that she had been a victim of an abusive husband and has counseled hundreds of abused women since that experience. Her face tells the story without having to hear the details. She is thanked and excused.

After listening to all the mini-life stories and being questioned by both lawyers and the judge, I, along with about half of the original jurors, am thanked and excused by either the defense or the prosecutor. I can't help but wonder why I didn't make the grade and find myself feeling a little rejected. I can't really come up with anything that I said that might have given them just cause to excuse me. Is it because I am a white female Jewish Hollywood comedy writer who they felt couldn't relate to a young black man from the 'hood? How dare they! Didn't they know I had been a writer on In Living Color? I knew the 18-24 year old black inner city male demographic. Shouldn't that account for something?

Okay, it's ludicrous, but I knew I was being judged as unsympathetic and I didn't like it. I could relate to this person because no matter where we came from, we were both human beings. I have to just accept the defense's request and let it go. But, I can be as fair as anyone else. After all, I am a Libra. Balancing scales. Justice is supposedly in my true nature. The fact that I am thinking about my astrological sign might be reason enough to excuse me. "Thank you number 2193. Please return to the Assembly room."

This process repeats itself four more times over the course of several days. In between, I wait. And wait. And read. And wait. I am called to panel, questioned, thanked and excused.

On my ninth day of service, I see from the signs taped to the walls that it is Jury Appreciation Week. It will be celebrated by domino and spades tournaments during lunch hour. There will also be a rubber stamp artwork demonstration by a retired volunteer. The drab assembly room is decorated with balloons and streamers, which magically transform it into a drab assembly room with

I look next to me at a large lady in an orange pantsuit with matching lipstick as she eats day-glo orange Cheetos from her long curved nails. They look like the brightly colored talons of some exotic bird. She holds a tiny television and watches Star Jones talk about the pros and cons of spanking children. We exchange weak smiles when the P.A. system clicks on. The monotone voice announces that there will be a raffle with prizes because of Jury Appreciation Week. Well, at least it'll help pass the time… precious wasted time that I wanted to waste in my own way.

The raffle tickets are being passed out by a woman whose bone colored heels are so high, they cause her to teeter dangerously from side to side. She really needs someone to spot her as she moves perilously around the room. A large plastic container of free vending machine treats are offered in appreciation of jurors on a chair directly in front of me. This friendly gesture causes a fierce stampede. A young woman, wearing a large gold necklace spelling out "I Love Jesus," is scolded by an older craggy faced man for taking two treats instead of one. I wonder if her necklace refers to the Jesus or maybe her boyfriend. A very tall man wearing red suspenders and two pair of glasses simultaneously, steps hard on my foot on the way to his foil wrapped Rice Krispie treat. The combination of free food and agonizing boredom doesn't bring out the best in this group.

The P.A. clicks on again and the monotone voice begins announcing the raffle prizes and winners. The first giveaway is a package of six ball point pens. The response is lukewarm, but it's a free gift, so there is still a measure of excitement. A number is announced and a woman with a long thick braid and very large teeth, who had been knitting constantly, gets up to collect her prize. She is happy but clearly embarrassed to have been singled out. The next item is a C.D. holder. There's another mild but detectable response from the crowd. Another number is announced and a rail thin man in a seersucker suit and new white sneakers talks on his cell phone as he receives his new C.D. holder.

Then, the last prize is announced. The monotone voice says that the last prize will be completion of jury service for the next ticket holder, no matter where you were in your ten days. A hush falls over the large room. Voices start filling the air in waves of excited anticipation. Everyone wants that prize. This will mean freedom. And soon. This is the motherlode of Jury Appreciation Week. The voices die down and a crackling silence fills the room. There is an almost religious air about the place. It feels like a chapel full of silent prayers to whomever and whatever people pray. I have a clear, strong, direct moment with my mother who passed away seven years before. I say, "Idah, please. Help me out here." There are a few more seconds of loaded silence as I stare at numbers on my ticket. As they are read, I match up every number with the ones called. I won.

In this moment, I couldn't have been more thrilled if I had won a million dollars in the lottery. It feels like I have been sprung from the Big House. I jump up and look out at all the people in the room who are cheering. Even though they hadn't won, there is clearly a vicarious thrill that at least somebody, somebody is getting to leave. I take a spontaneous bow and feel the need to apologize to the cheering crowd, because they have to stay. The lady in orange says, "Don't apologize, Honey! Get out of here and enjoy your life!" I gather my things, thank the monotone-voiced lady who scans my juror's badge for the last time, and wave goodbye to the room.

I am euphoric. The only thing I have ever won was six pork barbecue sandwiches in high school. And I was a vegetarian. As I walk the distance to my car, I don't know whether I am more grateful for my liberation or the way it had happened. My mother had been my partner in this victory. I asked for help, she heard me, and came through. Maybe it was just blind luck, but it sure felt like something else.

So, I never actually got to serve on a jury. Yes, my normal routine had been disrupted but sometimes it's the disruptions in life that allow for things that otherwise would never happen.

During the juror's lunch hour, I got to know downtown Los Angeles. I took advantage of the wide array of incredible multi-cultural eating opportunities: Japanese, Chinese, Lebanese, Korean and Kosher Burritos. I watched people at the amazing Central Market. I saw storefront wedding chapels crowded with immigrants eager for citizenship. I mourned the passing of an era as I stared at the grandeur of a faded movie house marquee. I watched an artist paint a colorful folk art mural on the side of a building. I saw homeless people living in a city-within-a-city of cardboard boxes. I went to MOCA. I marveled at the magnificent eight story wrought iron and wood lobby of the Bradbury building. I walked in Los Angeles.

This is a city of extreme geographic isolation and social segregation. The eclectic mix of humanity downtown and at the Criminal Court revealed many, many different aspects of life. It's way too easy to not see things here. Too easy to go about your business in your car and stay in your little protected bubble and not see what's around you. I was grateful for the reminder.

All in all, I think I came out way ahead. And now, with the "one day, one trial" system, the citizens of Los Angeles have been spared that ten day drudgery. So, next time that pink document arrives in my mailbox, and it will, I won't have any of my past hesitations.

Oh, who am I kidding?

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