Saturday, May 10, 2008


Room 1517 at the Criminal Courts Building, 100 Centre Street. I hadn't been there in four years and wasn't eager to repeat the experience. My summons read May 1, 2008, 8:45 A.M. So why was I fifteen minutes early? Velocity is my addiction. My credo: punctuality the courtesy of kings. Besides, they suggested arriving early for screening to avoid the crowd. Good advice. The only ones there at the moment were two spotless, no-nonsense officers eager to be of service. Co-ed pros, they bombarded my shoulder bag and Borges's Ficciones with x-rays, simultaneously frisking and whisking me on my way to the elevators in a matter of seconds. Clearly an improvement on my previous experience of long lines and surly gatekeepers as snappish as Cerberus. A good omen. I had heard that Judge Judith (i.e., New York State Chief Justice Judith Kaye) had worked wonders in jury reform since my last visit.

Upstairs on the 15th floor there were already thirty-one people in the jurors' bullpen. Catatonic early-morning faces, downcast eyes. They were reading newspapers, listening to iPods, snoozing--a silent majority of the sixty summoned for our jury pool. Waiting for something to happen. The one thing they weren't doing was watching the two TV monitors up front on which Ed Bradley (of CBS's "Sixty Minutes") was introducing them to the justice system and trial by jury. The same thing he was doing four years ago. The difference now being that in the interim he had died of leukemia. It took some of the steam out of his message.

First time I heard Ed's lecture the atmosphere in the room was electric. Every eye riveted on the screen. It was as if the tight-lipped martinet then in charge had warned us that it would be followed by a pop quiz. For 2008, I'd recommend a new upgraded video starring Wolf Blitzer. Fortunately the tight-lipped martinet had been replaced by Larry, a real human being--a mensch--doing a tough job. "I try to be helpful," he said, and he was.

In the past, exemptions from jury duty were not hard to come by, actually a snap if you happened to belong to any one of twenty-six professions:e.g., lawyers, doctors, judges, cops, optometrists, undertakers, ministers, podiatrists, and voluntary fire folks. More than one million New Yorkers excluded, but that changed with Judge Judith. In an attempt to achieve more representative jury pools, eventually all automatic occupational disqualifications were eliminated. Raising the jurors' fee from $15 to $40 per diem and improving court facilities (humble additions such as toilet paper and liquid soap in the bathrooms, public telephones that work in the halls) and improved services didn't hurt either. Now on a wall in 1517 there was even a sign announcing Wi-Fi Access--gladdening the hearts of laptoppers.

A rush of late jurors was stopped at the door. Larry was introducing Herbert J. Adlerberg, a recently retired state supreme court justice. His former legal partner Jerry Sheindlin, I subsequently learned, was married (twice in fact) to another Judge Judy--this one Judith Sheindlin from TVland. Adlerberg was a rather tall, stiff, white haired, avuncular chap, who in his spare time played the banjo. "Retirement is obligatory on the court at 70," he told us. That didn't seem to apply to jurors, or I would have left then and there. Frankly, Herb looked impressively fit, and I'm sure could have soldiered on for at least a year or two more. He didn't add a great deal to our legal knowledge, however, other than assure us that, "This is where the action is." I liked the get-up-and-go sound of that. Goodness knows, there hadn't been much action the last time I was here.

Larry then put all our names into a large medieval Teutonic helmet, cranked it around several times, and began calling out the winners. I was number 7. It wasn't my lucky number. We were going up to 1602, Judge Wetzel's court. "A good guy," said Larry. "He's the best." But under no circumstances were we to enter his courtroom without permission. I felt as tempted to peek as Bluebeard's wife. What the hell was going on in there?

Upstairs, we gathered in the hallway and waited for the door to 1602 to open. After an hour we were sprawled out on the floor, sitting on windowsills, propped up against walls and nervously crepitating. At one point a helpful young man with spiky hair and glasses asked a neat elderly gentleman wandering the halls whether he was looking for 1602. He stopped, stuttered "you-you-you," and took a deep breath. "You," he yelled, "you take care of your biz. and I take care of my biz. Got it?" Needless to say, we were all feeling a little tense by then. Another half hour went by before the door cracked open and a celestial voice directed us to return to the fifteenth floor.

According to Larry, another judge was working on a case that should be ready for us that afternoon. He suggested we go out for lunch and come back at 2 P.M. I had worked up quite an appetite by then. Torpor does that to me.

Chinatown! I loved the movie, and here was the real thing. Men in the park playing a board game with strange calligraphic symbols on their beige wooden checkers. Kibitzers surrounding them, arms folded, a Chinese chorus shaking their heads with foreboding. On the other side of the park, I recalled the last time I was here there was a Funeral Home with a service going on that you could see through the open door. Men dancing in circles with white ribbons. Lined up on the curb a dozen limousines, the first one a catafalque for flowers. Attendants frantically cramming funeral wreaths onto the back of it. The Funeral Home was still there, but had been done over. Its front door resembled a bank vault.

Wending my way through the narrow busy streets, I peered into the store windows. Pink delicate duck feet, squid floating in its own ink, pig stomach linings. In fruit and veggie stalls, odd tortured Laocoön stalks. People eyed me from doorways. A small man with a cigarette hanging from his lips muttered he had something to sell. A backboard sign in a nearby narrow shop widow said turkey and muenster cheese sandwiches. "Perfect," I thought. The Chinese guy behind the counter had long sideburns and arms covered with tattooed dragons, but he made a good sandwich.

I sat in the back enjoying it. Strangely the only people in the cafe at that hour were the three guys carrying on near the front window. The big red-faced excited one was worked up about something but in Chinese, so I paid no attention. It was a nice change from 1517. In fact I barely noticed anything at first when my table started to tremble. Imagining a subway passing somewhere beneath the building. But then on his way back from the toilet, the creep banged into my table again and grinned. Refusing to acknowledge what had just happened, I slowly finished my sandwich down to the last scrap and only then headed for the door. The three of them zeroed in on me like a firing squad. Turning to the young Chinese woman behind the cash register, I said, "Good sandwich."
She nodded. "Yank you."

By the time we were all back from lunch, I learned that Judge Wetzel had resolved two cases that morning. With our passive help, I assumed. Apparently that's the way the plea bargaining system works. Many defendants need the imminence of a trial and the pressure of facing a courtroom, a jury, to focus their attention. Even nothing more than our heavy breathing outside 1602 seemed to have been enough to speed the legal process along.

Larry announced that he'd let us know by 3 o'clock if there was a third case ready and/or another judge in the building. There wasn't. For the sixty of us, the resolution of the two cases on May 1st had cost the city $2, 400.

Our second day began one hour later than the first which already was an improvement. By 10:15 A.M. there had been no call for pool jurors and we still had no assignment. Larry said, "The judges are doing paper work. Take a short break, but don't forget to sign out."

I decided not to go anywhere. I was making great progress with my reading through "Part I. The Garden of Forking Paths." Only occasionally slowed by a skirling yet luminous sentence such as : "What is certain is that the gray man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank without pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes." Or the distracting animated noisy conversation across the aisle, between the self-important young man
(a lawyer, he claimed) and two interested women, of which I could only catch such brief loud snatches as "Wow! You said that? Good for you," and "Oh my god!" and "Yes, yes, yes, yesss!" accompanied by excited bursts of gleeful orgasmic laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about and didn't really care.

It was noon before I knew it, and Larry was back to tell us that there was another case almost ready to go. We could go out to lunch now but had to return at 2:00 P.M. Down the hall was a small room that jurors who had brought their lunch could use. No need to go hunting all over Chinatown for a decent place to eat. There was plenty of room right here. Only two people with laptops inside. The woman softly chewing something and clicking away. The thin hatchet-faced man muttering under his breath and, from time to time, chuckling as if he wanted desperately to tell you what was so funny. A burly cop glanced in as he went by, and then making a sharp u-turn came back. I thought he was going to have lunch with us. But he just stood there, staring at this guy for maybe five minutes as if he were going to slap the cuffs on him for muttering. Then he turned to me, as I munched my provolone, and asked, "What time is it?" I pointed to the clock and kept chomping. It was hard to mind your own business in this neighborhood.

I had come to the last story in my book and my favorite. "The South" is the tale of Juan Dahlman, secretary of a municipal library on Calle Córdoba in Buenos Aires. Profoundly a city man, but one with a longing for the South and all it represents to an Argentinian. In Juan's code, the blood of his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores, a soldier killed on the frontier by a lance from Catriel Indians mingled with that of Johannes Dahlman, a German minister of the Evangelical Church. In the end, Juan Dahlman chooses "the line represented by his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death." A death outside a bar in a knife fight against a thug with a Chinese look under the Southern sky.

I was savoring this tale when the rest of the pool returned to 1517, buzzing about Uma Thurman and the stalker. They had been waiting almost an hour for her to come out of the courthouse, along with a host of Thurman groupies, TV reporters, and cameramen. John Slattery from WCBS had given someone his autograph. But it was almost 2 o'clock, and they couldn't wait any longer. The red hot center, I thought, amused. Maybe Judge Adlerberg was right.

Finally, there was no case for us that afternoon either. Larry seemed a little embarrassed when he made his announcement. The best he could do was offer us a shot at the big case coming up on Monday. A double murder. "You've probably read about it. It's going to last three weeks. We'll probably need 165. Anybody interested in hanging around for that pool?" It was all he could offer us in addition to another $2,400. Larry handed out a letter that was our proof of service. "Keep it in a safe place," he advised. "You don't have to serve again for six years." A teacher asked if she could come back on Monday. She said jury duty was a lot easier than being a New York City high school teacher. But for Borges or me, I don't know. I don't know how easy it'd be to judge the deaths some people choose.