Citylife: Jury duty, part 1

September 2, 2010

The truth is, you never try to get out of it. You think about it, you read through all the legit excuses that come on the summons, and you understand the loopholes, all the unwritten, unspoken outs, and still you go.

Yes, you know all the jokes about the stupidity of people who can't get out of jury duty.

But you go. Because, in your own way, you're a little sentimental about America, about justice.

Because you're a child of exiles -- not immigrants, exiles -- and the very idea of participatory democracy still gives you a little lump in your throat.

You're scheduled at 9 a.m. in Bridgeview, past Midway, and the RTA schedule promises to eat up two hours there and two hours back of your life so you drive. It's straight out west, sunny, 30 minutes.

The parking lot at the Fifth Municipal District of the Circuit Court of Cook County is vast. You park in the outer reaches, watching a slow crawl of citizens make its way to the singular funnel up the steps to the building, into the gender-specific security lines.

You're shuttled upstairs, to a room that resembles the parking lot in its vastness, where more than 150 citizens are parked in hard-backed chairs. There's a side area with table and a glass-encased room where prospective jurors also sit that appears to have once been a smoking area. There's another side area with vending machines where cell calls are allowed.

You're given a panel number by a security guard and told to sit. He's an older fellow with a shaky hand on his Dunkin' Donuts coffee. He keeps track of the middle-aged women staring at the walls, the guy in locks, the girl furiously typing on her iPad, the man who keeps going to the cell phone area and has hurried, whispered conversations. No one else says a word.

You've brought a book, Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games: a fast and furious read about a totalitarian society that doesn't seem too unfamiliar, and again you imagine a certain comfort, a certain relief, about your place here.

But you're too restless to read anything that requires commitment, and you spy a magazine on the table, its cover folded over revealing only an "E." You ask the man next to you, the apparent proprietor, if he minds if you skim it, because you're hoping to confirm the luck of your leisure, to validate that here, in this society, all our basic needs are so taken for granted that we can wile away hours obsessing about starlet diets and Hollywood romances. But the "E" turns out to be not for Entertainment but for Entrepreneur magazine, and you get an affirmation of a different sort.

Soon, the lights dim and the security guard plays a film for you and all the other possible jurors -- it's a mini-civics class, emphasizing your importance. You welcome it only because it breaks the monotony.

Hours pass and the sounds are reduced to coughs, pages flipping, newspapers shaking out, the occasional beep from an electronic gadget.

At 11:30 you're told to go to lunch, to come back. The security guard recommends the 7-11 across the street. Everyone straggles out, tired from doing nothing, from sitting.

But you're all back in an hour, almost everyone returning to their exact same seat. And then there's a bit of chatting: about The Da Vinci Code and Inception, about the governor (but that doesn't get far -- an older man suggests that might not be appropriate).

And then, suddenly, you're being called by your panel number, standing in line in the room, then again out in the hallway, and still again before a court room door. There are more than 40 of you in groups of 12.

It's almost three. Court -- jury selection -- is about to begin.