A Beautiful Thing

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I LOVEHATE LOVE My Fellow Man

The difference between standing in line for a security check at the airport and standing in line for a security check at jury duty is that most people at the airport are going to (or coming from) something they really want to do.

In the jury duty line, no one wants to be there.

When you report for Jury Duty in Harris County, Texas, you enter a “beautiful glass pavilion” sitting atop a “downtown Houston green space.” Unfortunately, when you arrive, the first thing that happens is that you are directed to go downstairs. You know, underground. So if you’re an I-need-windows kind of gal, this is not your morning.

THE LINE

As people wait in line to take their shoes off and walk through the metal detector, they complain about traffic and compare parking rates.

“You park on Congress?”

“Took the bus. I was too nervous to drive. Houston drivers are crazy.”

An indignant story from a spunky little woman who took a practice drive the day before and got lost ends with: "I asked a police officer for help, and his first words to me were, ‘Don’t you have GPS?' Can you BELIEVE that?" She stomps her little foot and continues on in a rush:

"I told him, ‘YES, I HAVE GPS AND IT’S DRIVING ME IN CIRCLES. CAN YOU NOT HELP ME?'" She pauses for effect, raising her eyebrows. “I mean...they’re police. They’re supposed to help, right?”

The group allows the woman her moment, nodding heads and murmuring assent.

Then a well-dressed black man remarks, “I’m 60 years old, lived here all my life, and this is the first time I’ve been called.” A millennial in the next row calls out, “What’s your secret?” and everyone laughs.

A no-nonsense female security officer in uniform shouts at everyone to “start-taking-your-shoes-off-BEFORE-you-reach-the-scanner-please-ladies-and-gentlemen,” and there’s a mad scramble to comply.

A soft spoken young woman hands out purses and belts and shoes on the other side of the scanner, her tone conciliatory, almost apologetic. “There you go, ma’am. Thank you so much.” “Here you go, sir.” (I wonder if she feels part of her job is to be extra pleasant - to make up for the Shouting Officer.)

THE ROOM

There are four jury assembly rooms. I pick a seat at the very back of the room to which I've been assigned; and over the course of the next hour-and-a-half, I watch the room reach its 250-person capacity. Instructions in different languages flash in power-point style on a big screen at the front of the room. One of the languages is pretty, with lots of dots and swirls.

While we wait, we fill out paperwork. I look out over all the heads in the room and I realize –

EPIPHANY 1: I Love My Fellow Man

Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation, is culturally diverse, and this room reveals that. I see all ages, colors and ethnicities. And everyone is on their best behavior. Kind to their neighbor. Heads ARE bent over cell phones, but not as many as you would expect.

The senior citizens are in suits and ties, and they’ve packed lunches and books. The millennials are in jeans and glide in with only cell phones and car keys. The millennials talk to the seniors about their jobs, internships and plans for the future. The seniors listen patiently and smile. The Prepared People share their pens with the Scattered People. And everyone watches when Loud-and-Proud-Texas-Guy enters the room, the biggest and tallest of us all. Loud-and-Proud-Texas-Guy struts to the back of the room shouting,

“WHAT a wonderful way to spend a Monday, ‘eh?”

There is a small rumble of laughter, but Loud-and-Proud-Texas-Guy is not satisfied.

“Ok,” he says. “How ‘bout this?" <pause> "GO ASTROS!”

The room erupts into laughter.

I feel good about my fellow man in that room. It’s a beautiful thing.

TUNNEL WALKING

Around 10 o’clock they pull 64 jurors from the 250. The 64 try to ignore the happy squeals of the 186 who are dismissed.

The 64 follow the Bailiff through tunnels that are sometimes broad and often narrow. There’s a lot of stopping and starting. One of the stops is so the Bailiff can give each person a number. (After you get your number, you are not your name anymore. You are your number.) The other stop is to allow the Bailiff to search for Juror 18 and Juror 47, who are already missing...

Finally the group reaches a freight elevator, and the Bailiff explains we’ll have to ride up in three groups. When we reach the top, we better GET BACK IN NUMERICAL ORDER outside the courtroom and WAIT FOR HIM TO GET THERE. He does NOT want to have to come looking for us, he says, like he did for Jurors 18 and 47. He flashes us a smile after he says it, but we also get the feeling we damn well better be in correct numerical order when he comes to get us.

When the judge and attorneys are ready, we, the 64, are ushered into the courtroom. The judge speaks briefly, and then the attorneys begin asking us questions.

EPIPHANY 2: I hate my fellow man.

I learned some interesting things during my brief stint as Juror 23.

I learned that a young girl with beautiful green eyes will tell the attorneys that she cannot – CANNOT—send someone to jail. Not after what her own family has been through. Can’t bear it on her soul.

I learned that an older man in a sports jacket will raise his hand and tell the attorneys that he's back in school now, studying social science, and recent studies show that longer terms don’t work as a deterrent…so he is NOT going to be comfortable "laying a lot of years on someone."

I learned that some people believe that if you take your friend to the bank, and she comes out to the car in a rush and tells you to “GO! GO NOW! HURRY!" you should ask your friend why she wants you to hurry and refuse to drive away until she tells you. Also. You should pick the right friends. If you pick the wrong friends, you’re going to jail.

I learned that some people might start out answering a lawyer’s question about the legal definition of intent but will end up talking about social media and iphones for ten minutes. (Side learn: If you burst into laughter when your new Jury Duty Friend whispers, “If they seat me with that guy, I’m gonna shoot myself in the head,” the Bailiff will scowl at you and motion to you to be quiet.)

I learned that an angry-looking woman with glasses and curly hair will wait for the attorneys to leave the room and then tell the judge that the attorneys did a TERRIBLE job of explaining the law and that it was ALL SHE COULD DO to KEEP FROM SCREAMING when they were talking.

BUT MOST OF ALL

But most of all I learned that a middle-aged white woman will lean over to you – you, who she does not know – and whisper loudly:

“The defense attorney will pick all black jurors. Because black people stick together, you know.”

When you say you don’t think that’s true, she’ll repeat it, a little louder, even though a well-dressed young black man with dreadlocks pulled neatly into a ponytail is sitting right in front of her. She insists. YOU GUYS. THIS TIME SHE DOESN’T EVEN WHISPER.

And just like that, I’m not loving my fellow man anymore. It is NOT a beautiful thing.

EPIPHANY 3: I love my fellow man.

Somehow the attorneys figure us out, figure out which 12 they want on the jury. The rest of us are dismissed.

When we, the dismissed, reach the hallway, the woman who whispered that the defense attorney would choose all black jurors (the defense attorney did not, by the way, pick all black jurors) -- anyway,  the woman who made the comment looks this way and that way, up and down the hallway, and says, with distress, that she doesn’t know where the parking lot is – all the tunnel walking was so confusing. She doesn’t know what to do or where to go.

She starts getting flustered.

And it is the black young man with dreadlocks who turns around, walks back to where she stands and kindly explains to her where she is, and how to get to the parking garage.

“If you go to the end of this hallway and look out the window,” he encourages her, “you’ll understand just where you are, and you’ll even be able to see your parking lot.”

She is surprised. She is grateful. And she thanks him.

I have a lump in my throat. I love my fellow man.

It’s a beautiful thing again.

Be part of something beautiful today, my friends. If you get the chance, be the man with the dreadlocks.

I use the word "hate" in this piece for dramatic effect. I don't "hate" people. Jesus says it's not cool.