The Surprising Civility of Civic Duty

Like many people who get a jury summons, I cringed and pissed and moaned upon its arrival. What a way to end my summer. Ugh! God knows how long I could be tied up doing my civic duty! After another postponement, I got a firm warning that if I rescheduled one more time, I’d get a bench warrant for my arrest. Really? Now I’m a criminal?

Practicing avoidance, I checked on the validity of that threat, and it seemed pretty legit. There was plenty of evidence of hefty fines and warrant round-ups; they’ve even arrested people at their work place. Yeah, I didn’t need that. There was no getting out of this one.

In Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is the largest city, registered voters are summoned every three years to make the traffic-laden crawl ‘downtown’ on demand, where they sit in a room with another 200 people of all walks of life, and wait and wait to be called upon. Sometimes one waits all day. Sometimes you’re called up on ‘a panel,’ only to be returned to ‘the holding room’ if the parties at war decide to settle. There’s a lot of waiting.

In the past, this has not been a good experience. With the exception of a little casual socializing with the other ‘inmates,’ one sits, reads, scrolls through their phone, walks up and down the halls of justice, and visits the bathroom often, as in my case.

But today, there was a different feel in the air right from the beginning. I think it was something akin to ‘kindness and civility’ that permeated the scene, maybe even something else like, dare I say it, ‘fun,’ which began as I was leaving the third floor of the parking ramp in route to the court house.

A young fresh-faced woman, new to San Antonio from Houston, walked beside me on our way out of the parking garage. Sharply dressed, polite; she had a radiance that was hard to miss. She asked the usual questions that many of us ask when we first try to navigate toward this lawful drudgery. “Do you know where we go into the building?’ she inquired. “There aren’t any instructions as to what to do when we get in there.“ I gave her a quick run-down based on what I had experienced as the ‘walk/don’t walk’ sign audibly counted down “5,4,3,2,1…begin walking, walk, walk, walk,” until we were safely across South Flores Street which was already steaming up in the south Texas heat and humidity, the bus fumes hanging in the air like a cloud of doom. Her companionship brightened the dark journey.

When we walked in the door with dozens of other summoned folks, one of the officers yelled, “Okay, who smells like cotton candy?’ I knew it was me. I get that all the time. I cautiously waved my hand. My purse lit-up, literally, through the x-ray machine at the same time that the metal detector alarmed with bells and whistles when I stood under its arch. ‘Come over here, Cotton Candy.” Ugh! “I have a metal rod in my arm from a horseback riding accident,” I explained as my limbs were being wanded. The two middle-aged officers in starched uniforms, armed and intimidating, seemed to have a kind of good cop, bad cop comedy routine going. Maybe it was tipsy Tuesday, or something, but they were so unusually fun-loving I was waiting for one of them to offer me a drink. The scent detecting officer ran my purse through the x-ray machine again and yelled, “What is THAT?’ his voice booming down the corridor. “A banana?” I replied, thinking, “Good God, what did he think it was?” turning as pink as my newly appointed nickname. “Great! Now I’m going to be arrested for the fruit in my bag?” Officer Bald and Bold, jokingly offered me my purse (and banana) back while asking me the name of my perfume.

By this time, I was on to the sass, and replied, “Well, officer, I can’t tell you. My scent is a secret.” He giggled, yes giggled, then sternly looked into my eyes and asked, rather nicely, “Can you tell me your secret?” Yeeeaah, so I told him, fearing shackles and a single phone call. He graciously smiled and sent me on my way. Nothing like a little flirting at 7:45 in the morning to rev-up an old gal’s engine! Meanwhile, the sweet young girl from the parking garage was just steps ahead of me and the first person we joined in the line was a young man who, with a few facial differences, was the spittin’ image of my 20 year-old son. He had the same easy-going, social skills and even the way he smiled and moved his hands when he talked kind of put me in a state of affectionate shock. I had to fight my maternal urge to hug him. Before we knew it, a rich conversation evolved about what to expect inside and what we’ve experience before, dotted with laughter, and laced with personal information about ourselves; the three of us were like best buddies even before the jury room doors opened.

In all-day situations like this, it’s nice to connect with people, unless you are one of those totally anti-social, angry people who are eternally pissed off. And there were a few of those as expected, as well as the drooling sleepers, who remarkably slumber sitting up-right and don’t stir unless their name is called.

I’ve always loved ‘school.’ Even in college, in those big auditorium lecture halls, I loved the feel of filing in and settling into my chair ready to be instructed and inspired. As so it was, the filing in, the handout of rules and procedures, the gift of the special ‘jury pin’ that one must wear at all times, and surprisingly, the humor of which all of this was delivered.

Seriously? When did all these civil servants get a sense of humor? From the initial over-seeing Judge who swore us in to the minor characters who read off the lists of names and validated our parking passes, everyone was so cordial and light-hearted it threw me for a loop! I was waiting for someone to start passing out the appetizers and Jell-O shots, it was so weirdly festive.

In time, it got quiet and subdued, seats emptied; people found their corners and did their own thing during the long wait. My son’s doppelganger ended up in another row, though I could hear his familiar voice above the hum of others as he chatted with some other appreciative mother yearning for her son. The happy young lady from Houston and I engaged in conversation about her military days in Ohio at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of which I knew something about since I’d spent a little time with my sister, also a veteran, in Yellow Springs at her little hippie farmhouse 40 years ago. “Oh, Yellow Springs is still very much a little hippie town,” this 30 something-year-old confirmed. “It was always fun to visit that town,” she mused with a far-away smile lost in some bittersweet memory. Hmmmm….she has stories, I observed. She pretty much had me when she referred to her classic, button-up sweater as a ‘cardigan.’ Like finding a shining penny deep in a pocket of dull coins, it’s so refreshing to be around other people who use appropriate ‘vocabulary.’

From FFA stories, (she was raised by a single mother in rural Missouri), to travel, to the best school districts in San Antonio, up until the moment I was called to serve on a panel; we talked away like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years! It was so charming and completely unexpected.

I was the first person called, number #1, and was the lead in a 60 person panel up the stairs to circuit court 226. It was only 9:00 AM, and most of us in that first group of 60 were thrilled that we were called so early! We knew the panel would get whittled down to maybe 12 jurors, so the odds were that we’d be done before noon! We were light-hearted and curious about what kinds of questions would be asked of us, not at all a tone of resignation or frustration among the lot of us!

One gravelly voiced, wrinkled gal, a retired construction worker, loudly proclaimed, after the bailiff told us that we had to move in and out of the courtroom as ‘one’ during HIS comedy routine, that us women over 50 would need to use the restroom more than others, “So be prepared, y’all, to ‘move as one’ if one of us has to go!” sending a ripple of laughter down the line of stern business men, disheveled college students, heavy-ankled grandmas, and sleep deprived young mothers.

Before we even had the chance to take our jovial selves into the courtroom, we were informed that the plaintiffs had settled out-of-court, and we all had to return to the main jury room and wait to be called again. Yet, we all kind of jokingly filed back down the stairs to ‘the basement…dungeon…troll room’ full of other ‘waitees’ until lunch.

Though my gracious friend and I kept trying to give each other space, we just naturally gravitated towards each other, and we ended up having lunch at the same table in the court house café. And that is where something remarkable happened. Two virtual strangers, 25 years apart in age, one white, one African American, one on the brink of her new career adventure in San Antonio, and one almost done with her career, babies grown and gone, got to talking like women with no racial, economic, or generational differences. Women talk deep, you know, if all the stars are aligned and there is an openness felt between them. It’s one of the strengths of womankind to naturally reach out to each other, in spite of the entire back-stabbing, competitive, tit’n ass propaganda splashed all over our social media pages. Women are social glue, natural networkers and communicators, intuitive and sensitive to unspoken messages. I speak from years of experience among women, with a certain amount of higher education on the subject. This may not be everyone’s truth, but it’s mine.

Together we shared our thoughts about today’s political scene, racism, abortion, moral compasses, the father role, the Confederate Flag removal, and gay marriage among other intense subjects with ease and conversational fluidity. It was interesting to hear her perspective of being one of only two black students in a K-12 school in rural America, the other student being her sister. Her views on the removal of the Confederate Flag were different than mine, me being an advocate for history, good or bad, and acutely against revisionists. Yet, she was so articulate about her thoughts on the subject that I began to understand her point of view. She in turned asked me about the feminist movement, of which I was very involved during the 70s and 80s. There was a kind of bridging of the generational gap when I explained what it was like to be a girl athlete BEFORE the passage of Title Nine. Being a student of Women’s History in college, I shared my knowledge of the beginnings of Planned Parenthood, the social depravities that motivated the leaders of that social reform, and how the right-to-choose verses the right-to-life movement evolved from the turn of the 20th century to its present day controversy standing. Though we came from different perspectives on some issues, there was an atmosphere of respect and civility between the two of us. We laughingly agreed that we were gray-shaded people in a black and white world, and no one was listening to the wisdom of the middle. In so many ways I felt like this day that I had initially dreaded was turning into a blessing, just because I had met this astute and refined young woman and shared a meal with her.

Heads tilted toward each other, our words carefully spoken and hushed among the other jurors lunching; we were suddenly summoned back to the courtroom in mid-sentence. For a second there, both of us looked terribly disappointed. We had had our own civics lesson right there over ham and cheese sandwiches, and there was so much more to discuss. We were so engaged in meaningful conversation that it seemed a shame to have to end it so abruptly.

My original 60 person panel was called up again, lined-up in the hall and graciously let go; my day was done. And though I felt some relief that there would be no more waiting, I felt a little sad to leave. My beautiful young friend came out of the jury room and connected with me one more time before I left. We exchanged numbers and embraced like mother and daughter, teacher and student, sisters, friends. As I was leaving, I looked back at her standing in the hall in her bright yellow cardigan and trim, finely-cut floral dress. So prim and proper she was, this soldier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now had a career as a medical records administrator and still hopeful about meeting the man of her dreams. She was everything we ‘early feminists’ wanted for our daughters: confident, self-sufficient, accomplished and still very much a poised and attractive woman. I felt a satisfying form of confirmation for everything my generation of women, and women before me, had fought for. Her bright smile and wave sent me off with a feeling like maybe this is what all of this ‘duty’ is about: connecting with other humans, strangers corralled in a room together, like an experiment in tolerance and humanity, as we do our part to keep the American judicial system in working order.

Certainly, connecting is NOT the goal of jury duty. I would wager that most people come and go out of the situation with little if any redeeming value from their experience. But today, from the humorous officers just trying to make the 8 AM reluctant participants feel a little more comfortable, to the other jurors who seemed to be of the attitude that, well, ‘attitude is everything, let’s make it a good one;’ my civic duty was a bit of a joy! Unexpected connections, shared conversation, and three more years before I’m summoned again certainly off-set the $3.99 protein drink at the counter and agony of driving into the city chaos. It was all worth it! And, I got a little mutual flirting in with the cops, who reminded me that I smell sweet! Ha!

Some personal growth, an unexpected encounter, and a boost in confidence…all in the line of duty! And with the exception of my banana scare, I wasn’t arrested.

Photo from the 1960 film “La Verite,” courtesy of deeperintomovies. net

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4 thoughts on “The Surprising Civility of Civic Duty

  1. A perfect day, a perfect story…

  2. Kurt M. says:

    And yet another fantastically and beautifully written account of a “Day in the Life of Cynthia.” Your words always draw the reader in and invite them to sit down for a minute, “rest your feet for a bit and let me tell you a story…”

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