I received a jury summons. Aside from visits to the DMV this marked the first time I’d butted up against government and its processes.Friends recommended various strategies for avoiding jury duty — act racist, claim hardship or religious exemption — but I actually wanted to do it. Seeing firsthand how the whole thing worked seemed interesting. The only friendly advice I listened to was this: Bring a book. “Actually you better bring two. Most of your time is going to be sitting around waiting,” my friend told me.
I went to a Waldenbooks, a mall bookstore piled high with volumes from Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Dean Koontz, all with brightly colored dust jackets. They looked like Happy Meal toys. I checked out their Vonnegut section, but they didn’t have anything I hadn’t already read. I looked for Bukowski and Fante — no luck.
Maybe it was time to catch up on some of the books the smart kids were reading while I was busy being a fuck up, I decided. Not a bad idea, aside from the fact that I didn’t know what books the braniacs read those eight long years ago while I sulked my way through high school. I stumbled upon The Catcher in the Rye – that was one of the nerd books. Lolita was “that book by Nabokov.” If it was smart enough for Sting then it must have been a brainiac book, too. Near Nabokov rested Henry Miller. Bukowski slammed Miller fairly often for his pseudo-intellectual bullshit but begrudgingly complimented his sex scenes. Why not? I picked up Tropic of Cancer.
Monday morning I reported for jury duty in Beverly Hills. My buddy was right: The process consisted mostly of waiting in a big room with other prospective jurors. Some read The Los Angeles Times, others sat at tables and worked 500 piece puzzles consisting of 483 pieces. I sat in the corner and read Catcher in the Rye. After a couple of hours they dismissed us for lunch. I walked across the street to the library and kept reading. After lunch I went back to my corner of the jury room and finished the book. It didn’t do much for me.
The next day featured the same routine, but with Lolita. Nabokov’s style knocked me out. I’d never read an author who crafted sentences so well. Reading Nabokov was like listening to music.
On Wednesday morning I dove into Tropic of Cancer, the mostly true story of a young man who was convinced that he was a writer though he’d never written; a man who wasn’t very good at daily life but who found a muse who would spark his fire and then leave him gutted. This wasn’t a book, it was a lifeboat.
It occurred to me that some books have to be read at specific moments in one’s life in order to deliver maximum impact. The reason that Catcher in the Rye bounced off of me without making a dent wasn’t that it was a bad book, but rather that I’d missed my adolescent window of opportunity. Maybe if I’d gotten to it at 15 or 16 things would have been different. But age 25, lost in Los Angeles with dreams of writing and nightmares of losing Jody: Finding Miller was like finding a soulmate.
My reverie was cut short when my name was called. I walked to a court room, where a middle-aged judge and two attorneys waited. They looked bored out of their minds. My little group of fellow citizens and I were ushered into the jury box, where the attorneys asked us a variety of questions.
Do you or someone you know work in law enforcement?
Have you or someone you know been a victim of a crime?
Do you know or have you ever had a roommate?
On and on. At the end of the day I was a juror. There would be no reading time for me on Thursday.
For two days we sat in the jury box and listened to a dispute between two former roommates, one of whom had the other arrested for stealing his television. The defense argued that the TV was offered as compensation in lieu of back rent. The prosecution painted the defendant as the Antichrist, only darker. When the poor bastard finally took the stand in his own defense, the D.A. kept interrupting her own line of questioning to interject asides like: “Are you okay? Your eyes look pretty bloodshot. Are you sure you aren’t on medication or…something?”
Late Friday afternoon the attorneys offered their closing statements, and we were ushered into a jury room where a bailiff gave us our instructions. “You have an hour until we close for the night, but take your time,” he said. “I’ll come back around a quarter to five, and if you don’t have a verdict I’ll let the judge know that you’ll be back Monday morning.” He left, we picked a foreman, and the 12 of us faced off.
“To hell with that,” somebody said. “I’m not coming back Monday. Let’s vote.”
“He’s guilty,” another man said. “I’ve been on three of these things and nobody has been found guilty.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“He’s guilty, I know it,” the man said.
“He’s on drugs,” an older woman interjected.
“We don’t know that,” the foreman said.
“Yes we do, the attorney said so,” the woman said.
“No, she asked him if he was.”
“Oh, he was. You could tell. His eyes were bloodshot.”
“Let’s just find him guilty and get out of here.”
“He could get three years,” the foreman said.
“That’s his problem.”
“He probably sold the TV to buy drugs,” the woman said.
The remaining nine of us sat quietly and listened to the three of them go back and forth for thirty minutes. “We’re running out of time,” the foreman finally said. “Let’s take a vote. If you think he’s guilty raise your hand.” The talkative man and woman raised their hands.
“Not guilty, show of hands.” The other ten of us raised our hands.
“I’ll change my vote,” the woman said. “You all must know something I don’t.”
“I’m not missing any more work,” the man said. “If saying he’s not guilty means I don’t have to come back to this hellhole Monday I’ll change my vote, too.”
Guilt and innocence, good book or bad. Sometimes life just comes down to timing.