My jury summons from the LA Superior Court included a helpful, little one inch square locator map on the back of the envelope, but alas, it had already betrayed me. I'd left early enough, hitting downtown at 7:30 AM. Plenty of time to present myself in court at the specified time of 7:45. I'm not one of those people who can breeze in late and feel good about it. I like to be where I'm supposed to be, on time. Yet despite scrupulous planning and the best of intentions I found myself racing along at breakneck speed in a dense, angry pack of downtown traffic, searching for the elusive junction of two streets.
Where the hell was it? The map showed a little dot that indicated an entrance to the jurors parking lot at 3rd and Temple. I drove up and down 3rd street looking for it. 3rd street descended into a dark underground tunnel just before Temple - and emerged again blocks after it.
Just my luck. The place I needed to go didn't exist. Or maybe it did, but in some other dimension. I tried to remember Algebra, how single points could coexist on two lines at the same time. A junction was a combination of intersecting things like z-function parallels, bilateral exigencies, decimatronic planes, and other mysterious and exotic stuff.
As I'd flunked Algebra, this wasn't looking to be a promising avenue of salvation. In sheer desperation I stumbled onto a ramp that led up to another version of 3rd street. Eureka! There were two 3rd streets, one at upper surface level, and a murky doppelganger lying just below in the tunnel. The junction did exist, but on another axis. I felt like Von Neumann discovering the theory of quantum mechanics. These County Court people were clever. But they'd have to work a lot harder if they wanted to to mess with me.
With a triumphant flair I flashed my summons at an attendant and careened into the official juror's parking lot. I drove up a series of switchbacks to the top. There, a fleet of men in fluorescent vests gestured, arranging me and vehicles containing other late arrivals into rigid rows. "Don't lose this ticket," they warned, handing me a tiny, grey, wafer-thin stub bearing a still-moistly inked number on it that immediately smeared into total illegibility.
I'd spent the better part of an hour trying to get to the courts building, and only succeeded in reaching its parking lot. The little map on my summons envelope was obviously a cruel joke devised by gleefully sadistic city employees, so I'd have to locate the building on West Temple by dead reckoning and my own wits, or not at all. I tramped with the handful of others across the parking lot, down several flights of stairs, and out to the street. The easiest solution would be to follow someone. I picked out a guy that looked the part of the hapless jury candidate who was, like me, swept along by inexorable forces greater than himself and propelled forward by sheer desperation. I quickly realized he wasn't the best choice to guarantee a successful outcome. I picked out another guy. A confident, well-adjusted-looking guy. One with a briefcase and a jaunty Tyrolean cap. I followed him.
We walked for blocks.
Down a steep hill, crossing Beaumont Street, left on some other street, right again on Temple. After twenty minutes of hiking at a discreet distance behind this guy I began to think that maybe he wasn't going to the court building after all. No, maybe he was using an old juror summons to scam free parking while he wandered the city streets seeking out converts for Scientology. Or Weight Watchers. Or the Republican National Party. It's a substantiated fact that anything can and does happen in downtown LA. Why should I trust him? Like Tom Sawyer unspooling his ball of yarn in the Indian caves, I made mental notes of passing landmarks. Mexican kid selling brown fruit from trash bag....big street with lots of cars....homeless man wearing loincloth...
Finally, what could only be the Courts building loomed ahead. Legions of cops waiting to give court testimony languished outside the entrances. I was shuttled through a metal detector, then sidelined for a hand search. The guard's detector wand shrieked as it swept over my crotch. "Are you wearing a belt buckle?" he asked. "No," I said, lifting my shirt so he could see that I was indeed beltless. He glanced at the small of my back for a hidden weapon and found none. He grunted and motioned me through.
The 5th floor led me to a door marked "JURY SELECTION." It opened to a seething mass of humanity jostling before an information window. To the left was a vision straight out of an Apple Computer commercial from 1984. Hundreds of people seated on hard-backed chairs arranged in neat rows stared blankly at video monitors hung from the ceiling. A man's face, the suggestion of some dark uniform visible below it, filled the screens. He said things like, "In the event your trial lasts several months you will have the opportunity of regular mail service and gender-separate hygenic facilities..."
Until that point I fully intended to see the process through. I figured perhaps at least once in my life I ought to serve as a juror. After all, it was my civic duty. I pictured myself being instantly elected as the jury forman by unanimous vote. I'd be Henry Fonda arguing passionately with cynical Lee J. Cobb in a sweaty, wood-paneled jury room over the fate of some hard-working but underprivileged inner-city youth wrongly accused of murder. My steely conviction and uncanny logic would result in a dramatic and shocking reversal of the vote to convict this fine, but downtrodden young man. After the trial, his tearfully emotional family would shower me with spontaneous gratitude and stage sumptuous dinners and wild block parties in my honor. At them, an endless variety of young and sexy cousins would compete for my attention. Yes, it would be a magnificent experience. That hall changed me.
The mob in front of the information window surged, thrusting me forward. I was handed a badge holder and an identity number. Now I was deep within the system, perhaps never to emerge again. Horrified, I realized that I could be mistaken for a criminal defendant and whisked into a high security lockup before the error was recognized. No one would come forward to identify me. I'd proceed through trial and conviction, then be sentenced to hard time at Riker's Island where I'd be forced to lift weights and wear tasteless tattoos. It didn't matter that Riker's Island was in another state altogether. I was bungee-jumping headfirst into a yawning chasm of anxiety.
Suddenly, a phrase I recognized arose from the drone of the video screens: "Self Employed." Hey, that was me! I clung to it like a drowning man clings to a bit of debris on a storm-tossed sea. "If you are a self-employed person and feel that jury duty would result in severe financial hardship," said the face, "report to the cafeteria on the first floor level."
In the cafeteria I was handed a one-page form to fill out. There was a checkbox that said "EXCUSE," and four blank lines below it. "PLEASE WRITE THE REASON FOR YOUR EXCUSE IN DETAIL" was the instruction.
As a freelance marketing writer I'm a one-man operation. If I'm not available my regular clients simply call someone else. Be unavailable too often and they stop calling altogether. I sat down at an empty table and stared at my form. How ironic. It all came down to writing. That was the real reason I was here today. Last time I'd received a jury summons in the mail I'd rushed through the excuse form. A few weeks later it came back to me stamped "DENIED." It was my fault I'd landed here. I had to write my way out of it. It was my only hope.
How much detail can you get into four lines? Certainly there was some trick to it. I approached the person who handed me the form, a stocky young guy with a buzz cut. "Look," I explained, "It's really going to hurt my business to be on jury duty. Is there some standard formula for how these things are written? Anything you guys look for when you review these?"
"I can't tell you that," he snapped. "That'd be unethical."
I slunk back to my table.
"What a farce!" It was a middle-aged man across the table from me. "Small business, they do everything they can to screw you." He said his name was Gustavo. I learned he sold hand-painted tiles from his small studio in Torrance. "The secret of this excuse," he told me, "is to get a lawyer to file it. One paragraph on legal letterhead," he said, measuring the size with thumb and forefinger, "and they leave you alone."
Gustavo said he customarily had an attorney respond to his jury summons. "Except for this last time," he explained. "Things have been a little tight."
"What your lawyer wrote," I said, "do you remember anything about it?"
"No," he smiled. "But it was very, very persuasive."