Sunday, April 27, 2008

Me, The Jury...

Americans take great pride in our democracy and the duty that we have to preserve this democracy, until it's actually time to perform any of this duty. Even in close elections, the number of citizens who vote is usually a low percentage of eligible voters when compared to other democracies. So it is with jury duty.

Jury duty is an essential American right. The right to a trial by jury was one of the essential freedoms upon which the United States was founded. Still, like every other New Yorker who gets a jury duty notice, my thoughts turned not to our inalienable rights, but to my potential excuses.

I received a notice for jury duty late last year and sent a letter requesting another time when the court system's web site was not able to process my request online. I got no response to my written request but received another jury duty notice several months later for another date. I delayed looking over my second notice, thinking I had more time to delay my jury duty service. Once I actually looked at my form, I learned that you can't delay your jury duty service a second time unless you have some kind of written excuse from a doctor or some other accepted authority. Without any such intervention at my disposal, I informed my place of employment that I was going to have to be civically responsible at last.

When living in Queens in late 1999, I couldn't believe that I was picked to be on a jury in a criminal case. As much as I didn't want to be on a jury, I refused to debase myself the way I saw others doing. With a black defendant, several prospective white jurors said they were racist. A Spanish-speaking man, who had been living in the United States for decades, pretended not to understand English. Because I was the first juror picked, I was automatically the foreman. The judge in the case was New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman, who recently passed judgment on three police detectives charged in the Sean Bell shooting.

Now I was back at jury duty after almost six years. Arriving at 100 Centre Street early, I got through the metal detectors and found the Jury Room on the 15th floor. It was a large room with a dozen or more rows of seats that faced a counter at the front of the room. On the wall behind the counter in a frame was the Flag of Honor, a special American flag inscribed with the names of September 11 victims.

A polite man in a shirt and tie behind the counter told people to have a seat, said there was a special room for eating that was connected to the large Jury Room, and pointed out where the bathrooms were.

"You remember the movie Groundhog Day?" he said. "Well, that's my life. I have to give the same introduction every day." The good news was that we had only two days to give to jury duty if we didn't get picked for a jury.

The routine of jury duty was established quickly: sit and read, wait to see if you get picked to possibly be on a jury, read some more, take a two-hour lunch, read some more, don't get picked for a jury again, go home.

And then it was over. All the second-day jurors were called into the room and dismissed in an orderly fashion by name. It was a different clerk this time, who gave us each a form letter stating that we had completed our jury duty obligation. We were to use these to placate employers and to ward off further jury duty for the next six years.

People eagerly grabbed their letters and left. "Run, before we change our minds," said the clerk.

"See you in six years," one fortunate dismissed non-juror told another outside. I bought a hot dog from a street vendor and made my way up Centre Street.

Deep down inside, I was disappointed that I never got to appear in a courtroom as a prospective juror. With two days sitting around, my ego wanted to be sated by proving my worthiness as a jurist to someone. I would have been happy to dissect the extent of my possible prejudices in relation to the case at hand, and prove my understanding of Constitutional law and proper jurisprudence. But I will have to wait six more years for this privilege.

I was free from jury duty and there were several more hours left in the workday. I was due on Rivington Street in a few hours. If I hurried, I could have gotten there and worked for a few hours. But of all the sins to commit in New York, or anywhere, returning to work when you don't need to has got to be one of the worst.

Downtown Manhattan is one of the best places to walk around and see things. In the financial district, you'll discover all kinds of interesting small streets and alleyways you've never heard of before. In Little Italy and Chinatown, you'll find real Italian and Chinese restaurants, historic buildings and a sense of what New York was like years ago.

I walked uptown, making my way through Mulberry Street in Little Italy. I passed by 247 Mulberry St. It is now a ridiculous designer shoe store called “Shoe,” but the address is more well known for being the address of the Ravenite Social Club, which John Gotti used as his headquarters after taking control of the Gambino Crime Family. When I first moved back to New York City, I lived in Ozone Park, Queens, right down the street from Gotti's original headquarters, the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club. Here was the juxtaposition of what had gone both right and wrong with New York. Whatever romantic visions you have of the Mafia, understand that John Gotti was a murderous thug and leech who profited from the misery of others. It is good that John Gotti was put out of business; the city is better for it. But these fanciful and gluttonous shops honor neither the spirit nor the architecture of the neighborhoods in which they dwell and are a blight on the city. I look forward to the day that overpriced boutiques and ugly condominiums are a sad chapter in New York's past.

I stopped by Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, which sits on Prince Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets. Old St. Patrick's is a beautiful church that has a walled-in cemetery around it. Inside, it looks like a smaller version of the St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue and 50th Street. Unlike that more well-known St. Patrick's uptown, Old St. Patrick's is not teeming with tourists every afternoon. I decided to duck inside for a brief moment to view the inside of the church, where I had not been for some time.

Old St. Patrick's was as beautiful inside as I remember it. Even if you've never been to New York, you may be somewhat familiar with the inside of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, as it was used as the church interior for the baptism scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (a church on Staten Island was used for the exterior shot). I sat in a pew and looked around at the amazing stained glass and statuary. It was nice to be alone in a peaceful, beautiful place.

I am fairly certain that Old St. Patrick's Cathedral will not be turned into condominiums for the wealthy. Then again, nothing is sacred in today's current theme park version of New York. But if the Catholic Church ever lowers its standards enough to give the likes of me a Catholic funeral, let them have it in Old St. Patrick's.

After a few minutes, a man came over to me and told me that the church was closing for the day. He was very friendly and spoke with what sounded to me like an Italian accent. He asked me to please return with some friends, that he would gladly give me a tour. He showed me to the door and locked the front gate behind me.

I continued down Prince Street, satisfied that if there is a God, He is still on top of things enough to keep me out of one of His churches. I savored the New York twilight, knowing that the next day I would be back behind a desk once more.

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