Earlier this summer circumstances found me boarding the 2 train to the financial district every morning. I was surrounded by suits, briefcases, dress skirts, high heels and black flats. I am happy to say I successfully blended in with the crowd. I am usually loath to look proper, but clean up well and only had to keep up this act for two weeks. Being an imposter is fun and jury duty gave me the opportunity to be one.
For two weeks on jury duty I was a nine-to-fiver. Going downtown every morning. Mingling with the millionaires of Wall Street and the assistant district attorneys of city hall. Being a poser.
I was placed in a grand jury of 23 other people. It was a random configuration of strangers who would never share the same room in any other circumstance; people who I will never forget and never see again. I could only guess what they were in their normal lives. Were they stock brokers? Doctors? Artists?
It turned out to be a mixed bag, many slices of the big New York City cheesecake. A grandmother, an electrical engineer, a puppeteer, a future minister, a photographer, a web designer, several teachers and students. We were assigned seat numbers, and that’s how we knew each other until our warden wrote down everyone’s name in the record book. I was known as “21″ and the middle-aged woman to my left was the foreperson, number 22.
In due time I learned 22’s name, Julie, and that she is a Spanish teacher at a school in the West Village. Between cases she would knit beautiful bags and sweaters. Julie knitted like the fate of the world depended on the clackity clack of her needles. Like she was trying fix all the unraveled futures of the people who passed through the court system. She was the lost sister of the Three Fates, and her creations were reincarnations of all the discarded strings of lives that had been cut.
During lunch break one day I saw Julie whizzing by the New York State Supreme Court on bike, which immediately added a dimension of bad-assness to her aura. I decided I needed to interview this renegade, knitting teacher-woman.
We sat down on the Astroturf soccer field in a park on the edge of Chinatown. Groups of retired Chinese gathered around benches playing chess, card games and erhus. We ate our lunches and talked. The Star Spangled Banner, a remix of Jimi Hendrix’s version played on an erhu, provided the appropriate background music for the occasion.
We discussed jury duty, cycling and knitting, among other things.
What are your hobbies? You know, things that you would be doing if you weren’t in jury duty right now.
You may have noticed during jury duty that I knit a lot. I never buy sweaters. I like to ride my bike everywhere I go. I like to read … it’s actually a dull sounding life when I talk about it. Sometimes I read and knit at the same time. I have a secret vice. I like to watch Teen Mom when no one’s looking. My husband doesn’t know this, but my daughter does and she scoffs at me.
How long have you been cycling?
I’ve been cycling forever. I grew up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. You can’t get anywhere without a car if you live in the Midwest in the suburbs. The idea of having to depend on a car to get anywhere was always very unappealing to me. It’s a waste of space, gas and money. They get messy and dirty and they’re funny looking. They’ve always been unappealing to me. Biking feels so good.
When did you start biking?
I started biking in high school and I never stopped. There’s no better way to get around a city. Cars close you off. When you’re driving around Cleveland in a car going to the supermarket or whatever, you’ve probably got the radio on the AC is up and you’re in a bubble all by yourself and I don’t like that. In New York when you’re going around on your bike or in the subway, you’re right there with everybody else. I like that about New York. I like the public aspect of life, the contact that you come in with everybody and anybody. It makes me feel very much closer to things that are far away—closer than I would if I were living in Ohio and driving a car. And that’s what makes jury duty so much fun too is that you’re sitting in a room with people you know nothing about and by the end of the two weeks you’ve had some really interesting conversations with them.
What were your thoughts on jury duty before service?
I have a friend who said it was very interesting and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I didn’t know what to expect. There is one thing that is surprising to me: since I’m a teacher I think a lot about how to convey information accurately to people who you’re going to hold accountable for knowing it. I’m shocked at the dismissive, casual attitude the assistant district attorneys have when telling us things. There are so many ways of making sure you give information to people besides just standing up in a suit and talking. Teachers would look at this and think that this is a poor, outdated and ineffective way of getting a point across.
How much of a learning experience was jury duty?
It’s very interesting to step out of your routine and into the life of a juror because you hear about a lot of other things going around you that you would really have no idea of. This is a big, complex, dynamic city. I’ve been at my job for 15 years, and I’ve been living at my apartment for the past 20 years. My routine is a very salient feature of my life. Being outside of my zone and seeing what goes on pretty much up close, not at the crime scene or in the DA’s secret chambers, but hearing details about parallel universes is what it feels like to me and it’s really interesting to know that what I’m doing in my own world is just a very tiny slice of what’s happening on any day. The wheels are turning all around and you’re not even aware of it.
Did you learn anything about yourself while on jury duty?
It’s refreshing to me to feel, since I was the foreperson, satisfied with the ability that I had to let a conversation happening and let people express themselves. That’s not always easy to do. I think being a teacher helps but I feel like I’m in my own little niche and that my skills are quirky and it’s nice to know that I can function well in a different environment.
Tell me about your post jury duty plans.
Ha Ha Ha. I’ve put together a high profile crimes of Soho tour, which is not related to jury duty. Bernie Madoff’s son jumped out of a window a few blocks away from where Etan Patz was taken and a few years ago there were several suicides in the NYU library. Very dramatic. This is my darker side. Maybe I’ll start a walking tour. It’s awful to say, I don’t want to profit from someone’s tragedy but I can’t help the way my brain works. So yes, I’ve jotted down the addresses of the minor crimes we’ve talked about during jury duty. I’ve already taken my first forays of the tour on my bike.
What was the worst thing about jury duty?
The responsibility kind of weighs on me. The things we’ve indicted on aren’t that big of a deal. That kind of troubles me.
Your favorite thing?
It is an escape. It is a vacation. For anything else in your life, everybody is willing to say ‘Oh right, you’re on jury duty’. If I don’t cook supper, if I miss a meeting at school, it’s okay. Better yet people have told me how much they miss me being around. I love that! I never knew!
What would you say to people who wish to avoid jury duty for political reasons?
My husband is one of these people. For one thing it’s not all up to you and you’re allowed to dismiss something as you see fit. There’s discretion involved. If you’re leery of indicting people on small things then you don’t have do. It’s cool to be part of a system that says it needs the little people to function, even if it’s only true in a superficial way. I think that the system is more broken than not. I think that there is privilege inherent in who gets caught and who doesn’t, and what kind of defense the people that get caught are able to provide. There’s privilege and lack of privilege completely wrapped up in that and you can’t get away from that. It’s troubling, but it’s a better system that a lot of places on the world have.
What did your students think about you being gone on jury duty?
I had to tell my students that I was going to be away and miss the end of the year. I wanted to make jury duty understandable to them. Indictment and prosecution are words that are very hard to understand. You frame it in terms they know already, like playground conflicts—he said she said kind of stuff. These things are immediately understandable to even the smallest children.