An unwelcome camaraderie

On Tuesday, all of us were asked to perform our civic duty at the voting polls. Some wore their “I Voted!” stickers like badges of honor, others grumbled about the lines, and still others heeded the siren song of the sleep button on their alarm clocks and skipped the vote altogether.

Despite the importance of the individual vote in our democracy, shirking that responsibility isn’t penalized. Try that with jury duty, however, and you could be the one on trial.

Jury duty is the octopus hug of local government. Everyone experiences that pit in the stomach when we open our mail to the mandatory jury summons. Outside of “We might need a biopsy on this,” a call to appear for jury selection at Superior Court in Bridgeport is one of my least favorite things.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s important; I do. In fact, every component of the justice system reminds us of how important we are: The flyers, the introductory video, and the elementary signs that dot the walls all laud us for our critical role in the judicial process.

Most of us have to take time off work to come and fight over parking spots for the right to wait endless hours during incessant roll calls. However, if they really thought we were important, they’d provide Wi-Fi. Instead, people huddle by the far wall to grab a piece of the weak Holiday Inn signal that disappears every other minute. They guard their spots closest to the hotel like prisoners hovering over their dinner trays.

The waiting room for Fairfield Superior Court is an awkward combination of theatre seating and scattered tables near electrical outlets in the back. For a room created specifically for the purpose of waiting as you fall behind at work, it’s a spectacular failure. There’s no artwork, no pithy signs, and almost no windows. People sit at the outside row seat as if to say, “This one is closed.” No one sits in the middle unless they absolutely have to, and those who do are invariably asleep or in desperate need of a shower.

Those (like me) who incorrectly assumed it’d at least have internet access are left to play the few games available. One is “Guess why there’s a huge water bottle on the floor with a tube that reaches up through the ceiling.” Another is “How many times will Mr. Businessman fume that he shouldn’t have to be here today?”

Waiting is an art form, and it’s easy to spot those who’ve perfected the art. They’re armed with newspapers, books, laptops and crosswords; they already have coffee and snacks in their bag. They stay seated when the announcement is made to line up for the purpose of signing in, (the rookies stand uncomfortably in line for 20 minutes).

Those unlucky enough to be called every three years realize that the system is designed for those who are chronically late. We’re asked to appear no later than 8:30 a.m., but even the written signs say attendance isn’t taken until 9:30. I usually get there early, but the morning guard just looks at me incredulously and says, “You’ll just be waiting.” He’s right.

We wait for the sign-in desk to open, for the bathroom stalls to open, for the water jug to be refilled (it never is), for lunch to be announced, and — most importantly — for our names to be called ... many, many times. People who appreciate lines love jury duty. There are lines to ask questions, lines for the elevator, lines for the bathrooms, lines for the water fountain, lines to get paperwork signed — there’s even a line to get in line before heading down to the courtrooms!

If it’s your first time showing up for jury duty, know that the courts don’t provide visual relief. There’s nothing interesting on that projection screen, no magazine rack or borrowing library to sift through. You’re left to observe the morning musk of irritation grow into the stink of anger as the day progresses. It makes the DMV look like Disneyland — after all, at least the lines at Disneyland move. Here, there’s only two employees to deal with over 150 jurors. It’s a system that treats those performing their civic duty like irritants on the buttocks of jurist prudence.

In the end (sorry), we’re left to commiserate with each other, laughing at a system that pays lip service to our importance while providing no material evidence in that regard. Stranded amid the unwelcome camaraderie that exists among potential jurors, we hope that poor sucker on trial is having a better day.

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