I land on the steps of The Superior Court Building one June morning in buoyant, conflicted downtown Los Angeles and queue up with the rest of the prospective jurors to squeeze through security and “go right” into the big gray-feeling jury pool room. Can you tell I’m jittery? Actually I am freaking out. Like I’m the one on trial.
I’ve been fretting about this one day for months. Months! Will they know–these judges and lawyers and official-looking people in uniforms–that I stole an eraser in 4th grade? Will they know that the last courtroom drama I watched from beginning to end was “The Verdict” with Paul Newman? Why? Because I’m not wired for this kind of stuff. I’d rather eat cardboard than be here.
So back to the jury pool room… As if there is swimming or billiards? Just before noon a disembodied voice from on high calls my name, along with 37 others, to report to “Courtroom OMG” for a criminal trial at 1:30pm. We obediently reply by saying “here.” When someone doesn’t say “here” loud enough, a chorus of others in the room calls out “here-here-here” for the low-energy person in question. It’s a lovely moment of community service.
After lunch we gather in the hallway outside the courtroom until the Superior Court Wrangler Guy herds us into three lines and hands each of us a little piece of paper with a handwritten number on the front. We are told to slip it into our juror badge. I am standing at the head of one line and just like that my new official name is Juror 18. All this is virgin territory for me and I haven’t given one thought to math. As in—divide 36 by 2 and you get 18.
But all this becomes evident as we are escorted into the big courtroom and the first 18 of us head to the jury box. Mind you I can’t feel my legs now and the inside of my lips are sticking to my teeth. Thank you for asking. The remaining 18 get comfy in the gallery. And it’s going to be a long haul, for all of us, because the judge and the lawyers ply us with questions for almost two and a half hours. Until the end of the day.
I must say that everyone is very kind except for the lady bailiff who gets a little testy with a guy in the back of the courtroom for, gasp, looking at his cell phone. She’s wearing a gun. He puts his phone away.
I will also spare you most of the details—like how I tell the judge I believe only 50 percent of what I hear because people spin the truth and forget stuff, or worse, omit important information. He looks at me incredulously and asks “50 percent, really?” To this I reply, “okay, 51.” Obviously all I need to do is look in the mirror to prove my point.
Now I’m watching the prosecuting attorney build a flow chart with a pad of Post-It Notes, colored pens and highlighters. Each juror has his or her own Post-It with lots of little scribbles on it. I glance at the defense attorney two long desks over and he’s doing the same thing.
When I was in college I took a class in experimental psychology. We were issued our own lab rat to run through the mazes. I called my little guy Sam. Sam was an asshole. Once he tried to bite off the tip of my finger and I was so mad I threw him across the room. No worries. Sam, all bravado and puffery, survived his flight and taunted me for the rest of the quarter. Along with my fellow students…who called me out to the professor. I’m not proud of my behavior and still feel prickles of guilt. But I’m telling you Sam’s story because, in this courtroom today, I feel like a lab rat.
The judge concludes his very civil inquisition in grand style, asking each of us this: “How would you describe yourself, using ONE word?”
Yes! One Word.
Take a moment… What word would you choose that completely captures the essence of YOU? Okay, times up…
One person says happy, another boring (that gets a ripple of ha-ha’s in the room). As I recounted this story to my Saturday ukulele class, one guy said his word would be “incontinent.” I have a few seconds to think about my word because remember I am number 18 but when it’s my turn here is what pops out of my sticky lips:
And you know what, it’s true. As bad as things can get, I’m still breathing and personally think it’s a miracle that any of us are here. That’s because I’m kind of a pessimist too. I just expect things to go south. And when they don’t (and they usually don’t) I’m SO happy. Actually I’d say I’m a “grateful pessimist” but that’s TWO words and I don’t want to piss off the judge.
At this point the prosecuting attorney rises to his feet, stares ME down and says “If you don’t mind me asking, Juror 18, what are YOU grateful for?”
And this is what I say:
“I’m grateful because this morning I woke up. And I’m grateful you woke up too.”
I’m referencing my own song of course, “This Morning Something Wonderful Happened to Me (I Woke Up). Can you believe it? The words just bounce out of my mouth like ping pong balls. Boing, boing, boing. After that the prosecuting attorney leaves me alone. So does the defense attorney. And in the end I am excused from the jury. I assume the remaining 18 in the gallery have to return the next day.
Believe it or not, this is ONE day I wouldn’t give back for all the swimming pools in Los Angeles. It blasts me out of my comfort zone. (You think my lawyer-ly friends are rolling their eyes about now?) And I take full responsibility for my self-inflicted fretting–even though it feels like all that worry shaved a few months off my life.
I also reflect with gratitude…yes, gratitude…that my degree in psychology led me on a most circuitous route…to piano bars. I’m grateful I get to play music today. I’m grateful that lawyers, judges, jurors make the best of it within an imperfect system.
That goes for all of us.
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You gotta love synchronicity… Speaking of This Morning Something Wonderful Happened to Me ( I Woke Up), here is a video I made shortly before my adventure in Jury-Land.
I am sitting on the sofa in the living room, just the uke and me. I clamp my iPhone to a music stand and strain my brain to look at the camera lens instead of my own face on the phone. With a Sharpie I draw an arrow on a baby Post-It and point it at the lens. Cali…CALI…Look Here!
And there’s more! Over the years I’ve come up with strums and tricks to play fast on the ukulele and I show them to you in the accompanying video tutorial. CLICK HERE to watch both on my website and download the ukulele arrangement of my song.
And remember that this morning something wonderful happened… YOU woke up.