I Warned You Not to Touch That

Hard Time

by on Mar.12, 2010, under Essays

Security was tight. A stack of green dog food bowls awaited my wallet, cell phone and keys. Then they asked for my belt. Ordinarily, I find the prospect of a strip search liberating but, since the Tampa air temperature was 49 degrees, I balked. I believe they wanted to check my belt for nuclear explosives. Reluctantly, I complied. I asked the attendant how often people’s pants fall down. After evaluating me as a potential security threat, she replied, “Its happened.”

They ran my meager offering along the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine. I hoped they couldn’t detect how little money I had in my wallet. Poverty is not pretty. If only I’d stopped at the bank first. I walked through the magic rectangle that, I imagine, detects terrorist leanings. I passed without incident, with my pants still on.

Far from flying down to Rio, my destination was the Jury Auditorium at the District Courthouse. I took the escalator to the second floor and gave my summons to Sandra. She seemed happy to see me. I told her we have to stop meeting like this. I scanned the room looking for a comfortable chair, preferably next to someone impartial. These were my peers? They seemed mostly white, overweight, and unhappy. I settled on a fifty-something woman named Karen who was reading from her Kindle.She gave me the kind of welcoming look religious fanatics get when they knock on your door. Since moving to a home with a three mile long driveway, I’ve noticed this type of traffic has diminished. Occasionally, I’ll get a wholesome young couple who has survived the razor wired fence, booby trapped explosives and trained vultures to arrive at my door. Regardless of whether it’s freezing or scorching, the guy is always in a dark suit and tie. The woman contrasts his look with her long flowery dress. Sort of a good wardrobe bad wardrobe team.

I love when cute couples show up. Especially ones that, with one look at me, have decided I don’t have the intelligence to arrive at my own religious beliefs. I need guidance and, fortunately, they can provide it. To be honest, for these discourses, I’m a bit more receptive when strapped to a dentist chair with my mouth pried open and drugs rendering me barely conscious.

As you can imagine, our conversation was a bit one-sided.

“Can you hand me the mallet and chisel, Doris?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Thank you. I was praying this last wisdom tooth wasn’t fused to his jaw but, unfortunately, it is. Sometimes, our prayers aren’t answered, are they Bill?”
Unable to speak or even shake my head, I stare groggily at the light.
“Of course that doesn’t mean prayer isn’t beneficial, does it?”
It’s hard to argue with that or with anything at this point.
“Can you attach the radiator tip to the vacuum and hand me the hose, please?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Why, just the other day, I was seeing a patient with an acute case of lockjaw. Do you know what lockjaw is Bill?”
Much as I’d love to respond, words escape me.
“No? Well, lockjaw is when someone can’t open their mouth. Can you imagine that Bill? Not being able to open your mouth? Of course, it’s bad for the patient but think of how tough it makes things for the dentist. Can you jack his mouth open wider, Doris?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Thanks, now hand me the prybar…I mean how in God’s green earth am I supposed to tackle a dental problem when I can’t get the mouth open?…Hand me the sledge hammer, will you?…So I prayed, Bill. I got down on my hands and knees beside the sink…Can you vacuum the blood and jawbone up so I can see what I’m doing?…and I asked for guidance from above. At first, nothing came to me…that’s better, Doris…so I prayed even harder. I must’ve knelt there for twenty minutes praying and asking for guidance until finally…electric carving knife please, Doris…I saw the light. It all became clear to me, Bill. I realized I didn’t need to do anything at all. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Why worry about doing dental work on someone who’ll never use his teeth?…I’ll take the hacksaw now.”
“Yes, doctor.”
“It was the answer to my prayers, Bill. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And I’ll tell you something else. It’s changed the way I view my practice…Can you hand me the pickax?…and my everyday life. I realize I can’t help everyone…Do you think he’s bleeding too much, Doris? You do?…the only person I have to worry about…I thought so…is myself and living my life a certain way…Will you call an ambulance, please?…and so I pray while I’m doing the simple tasks that are before me just like…They’ll be here in ten minutes?…I’m praying now….Doris, come kneel with me and let’s pray for Bill.”

Just when my focus drifted back to Karen and my potential jury mates, a video started playing. It was part pep talk, part information, and part therapy. They told us that, in case the attorneys approached the bench and whispered among themselves, “nobody is trying to hide anything.” I learned not to take it personally if they excused me. I wondered how many went home bitterly disappointed at not having to spend the next three months of their lives sitting in a jury box with eleven others listening to testimony. If they excused me, I planned to celebrate by knocking over a convenience store.

Tons of well-read magazines weighed down the tables between the chairs. I considered American Baby, but settled on an Esquire magazine with the recipient’s address ripped off the cover. It had been years since I dared to venture through its pages. Billed as a men’s magazine, it had an appalling lack of nudity. The current iteration promised me fifty-one pages of fall fashions. Given that it was March, I was sure the styles were now passé.

I turned the glossy pages with a mixture of curiosity, amazement, and shame. I had no idea Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards peddled Louis Vuitton luggage. Condoms seemed like a better match for him. As I viewed the products and models in the ads, I felt embarrassed at my own lack of sophistication. The men were so pretty I thought the publisher should consider touting it as a woman’s magazine. I searched for the index hoping to find the piece on cover boy, Tom Brady. The index was on page thirty-five. Why bother with an index if you have to paw through half the magazine to find it? Just when I was about to learn about the Patriot quarterback’s glamorous lifestyle and fine threads, my name was called.

After three hours and three roll calls, forty of us went to the fifth floor to continue waiting. As I looked around at the granite benches, grey walls, and stainless water fountains I noticed something was missing. Entertainment. Courthouses could turn into profit centers by simply adding a few arcade games. Talk about a captive market. I’m sure, if you look up boredom in the dictionary, there’s a picture of a jury pool standing around waiting to be called. Had anyone considered the appeal of a petting zoo to ease the tedium? I was almost ready to give Esquire another stab when they lined us up and marched us into the courtroom. Finally, some action. Unfortunately, after explaining the judicial process and our important role in it, they returned us to the halls of boredom. I’m sure this is done to make whatever case they’re trying seem more interesting to the jury.

To pass the time, I wandered into an adjoining courtroom. I watched as the judge lifted restraining orders and gave defendants a choice between jail or anger management classes. I thought about the classes. Did they advise throwing paper plates instead of china? Was there a discussion of the strike zone when hitting your significant other with a bat? When throwing someone over the fifth floor balcony, should you make sure there’s a pool directly below? Worried that I’d miss my call to service, I returned to the halls to wait.

Later in the day, I slipped back into the same courtroom. This time, it was a completely different cast of characters. I discovered my seatmates were mostly criminals awaiting justice. My eyes lit on a group of seven dressed in bright orange county jumpsuits. Their arms and legs were shackled and they all wore the same beige sandals. I didn’t think the sandals went with the jumpsuits at all.

One of the defendants kept looking at me. He was a young, thin Hispanic guy with pencil line beard, short dark hair and olive complexion. He was mouthing something and used his handcuffed hands to add to the pantomime. I couldn’t decipher if he was speaking in Spanish or English, and the hand gestures only clouded the message. Perhaps he was asking if I brought the hacksaw. I wanted to signal something back, but thought I’d get busted for aiding and abetting. I turned away.

When I looked back, he was still trying to communicate with me. What could he possibly want? Perhaps, this was part of his insanity defense. As a juror, I’d have bought it. He really wanted me to know something. Was he unhappy about the sandals? Did jail food disagree with him? Were his cellmates snoring? I turned around to check the clock and discovered an older Hispanic woman, right behind me, mouthing and using hand signals too. Much as I was curious to be in on the conversation, I refrained from asking her for details. If they were planning to bust him out, things could get dicey. I returned to the waiting area outside the courtroom and thought about my new friend.

Another potential juror worked for Carnival cruise lines. It surprised me when he said business was booming. According to him, it’s cheaper to take the family on a cruise than to go to Disney World. Parents loved the way kids could be in a contained space while adults could slam back rum punches at the poolside bar. I asked if any of the kids ever fell overboard. He said no but that adults did. I thought it would take a good deal of effort to fall off an ocean liner. What could you possibly need to see leaning that far over the rail that was so compelling? The water looks the same against the ship’s hull as it does twenty yards away from it. One passenger fell in the water from eight floors up. After a pleasure boat ran over him, they rescued him as he clung to a buoy. Some people just refuse to die.

When we were finally back in the courtroom, the prosecution and defense did their best to agree on twelve of us. I worked on developing a facial tic. I’d forgotten to wear my, “Guilty until proven innocent” t-shirt. Many in the pool had novel excuses. “I’m a single parent and my child is scheduled for a brain transplant tomorrow.” Excused. “I’m supposed to appear in court on another matter tomorrow.” Two for two. They let me go after I mentioned my ride back to Mars would be leaving the following noon.

I left with a mixture of emotions. I’m sure release from prison feels similar. There’s elation at being, “on the outside” but regret at the loss of free room and board and friendships only found while sharing the same cell. At least felons are exempt from jury duty.

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