I have to confess: I didn’t want to go. Who wants to jump in their car at 7 a.m. and trot over to the Hall of Justice to report for jury duty? Certainly not me.

Except I have another confession to make. Part of me did want to go.

I believe everything happens for a reason. That’s right, I’m one of those people. So when I got the summons for jury duty, and when I found out that Wednesday morning was my allotted time to show up and fulfill my civic duty, part of me was excited.

photo: zzpza on flikr

I had a feeling that an adventure was waiting. Something new, something surprising.

And I was right.

I’ve been called for jury duty before, so I remembered where to go. The Hall of Justice has a special room reserved for would-be jurors. You sign in and park yourself on one of those not-possible-to-be-comfortable plastic chairs.

photo: Taber Andrew Bain on flikr

And then you wait. And wait.

At one point, a young man asked if the seat next to me was taken. I replied that it was not. So he sat down.

I’m going to call this young man Mr. Red.

It’s not a metaphor, or a random nickname. I call him Mr. Red because he was dressed entirely in red. He was sporting a floppy red sweatshirt, red sweatpants, and red tennis shoes with – you guessed it – red laces.

photo: monsieur menthe on flikr

The only item of clothing that wasn’t in line with the allotted color scheme was the scarf tied around Mr. Red’s head. It was, for some unknown reason, white.

I used to work in the social services field. Mr. Red was one of those people we would call “gang-affiliated.” Was Mr. Red in a gang? I had no idea. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he was identifying to some degree with the red, or Norteño portion of the gang family. As opposed to the blue, or Surreño gang.

I have to say, my heart went out to him right away. I worked with kids who were gang-identified, and it helped me understand the desire to claim a color – safety, empowerment, a sense of belonging.

Mr. Red, however, did not know this. He didn’t know that I understood. He didn’t know that I didn’t immediately dismiss him because of how he was dressed.

In fact, Mr. Red seemed to be agitated by my presence. I often get mistaken for a guy, sometimes a teenage boy or young man, so I wondered if Mr. Red was sizing me up. 

And then it hit me. I was dressed in blue that day. Dark blue, the color of the Surreños. That morning I’d been inspired to put on my dark blue tennis shoes, in order to better match my dark-blue shirt and sweat shirt.

photo: z egloff

Indeed, I looked just like Mr. Red, except I was Mr. Blue. I was the yin to his yang, the South to his North, the Popeye to his Brutus. 

It didn’t matter that I understood his choice of apparel, I was dressed in enemy colors. I was a threat.

How had I managed to attract this unlikely pairing? Was Mr. Red sizing me up for a potential rumble in the parking lot? Was I about to get involved in the criminal justice system in a way that I hadn’t planned?

After a wait of several hours, a group of us were called upstairs and instructed to wait outside the courtroom. My new buddy Mr. Red was included in this group.

I have to say that, aside from possibly getting pummeled in the parking lot later, I was extremely excited about getting called into court. Being a law-abiding nerd my entire life, I’ve never gotten an up-close-and-personal view of a court of law. This was exciting!

photo: Clyde Robinson on flikr

As I sat outside the courtroom, I watched the people around me. The lawyers in their snappy suits. The sheriff’s deputies with their badges and thick belts. The defendants with their stooped posture and tired eyes. I noticed that Mr. Red looked more like a defendant than a juror.

What was his story? Had he done time? Was he actually in a gang? How had he managed to end up here, as a potential juror?

A few times, I caught Mr. Red looking my way. He still seemed to be sizing me up. I sent him psychic messages across the hallway: I’m
a nerd. A goofball. I come in peace. Don’t beat me up! Please!

Finally, we were escorted into the courtroom. We were introduced to a smiling judge and two unsmiling lawyers. After a brief introduction to the proceedings, the first round of would-be jurors were called into the jury box to be questioned by the judge.

And guess what? I was in this group! I was going to be cross-examined by a judge!

Not surprisingly, given our intense karma so far, Mr. Red was also in this group.

The minute I sat down in the jurors box, my left eyelid started to twitch. I hadn’t realized until that moment how tense I was. I’m not sure if it was the potential-parking-lot smack-down with Mr. Red, or the overall-vibe of the court system. Either way, I was a mess.

One by one, we took our turns being questioned by the judge. When Mr. Red’s turn came, he spoke quickly, with his eyes toward the floor. He looked embarrassed. Or like he was hiding something.

When my turn came, I mentioned that I’d spent thirteen years working as a social worker for Sonoma County Public Health. I saw the defense attorney’s eyes narrow.

The case in question involved a man, her client, who was fighting to keep himself out of the County Mental Health system. She probably saw me as part of the institution she was fighting against.

Sure enough, I was the first potential juror she excused.

And just like that, my brush with the justice system was over.

I trotted downstairs to the juror room. I felt dizzy, like I’d just come off a roller coaster.

photo: txbowen on flikr

And I had, in a way. My eye was still twitching slightly, my head buzzing with excitement.

And then I saw him. Mr. Red. He walked into the juror room, grinning.

Mr. Red was a new man. His posture was straight and tall. His eyes were clear and shiny. He looked at me and smiled. Not a malicious smile. Not a I’m-going-to-pound-you-in-the-parking-lot smile. Just a regular old smile. Like we were buds.

“Man, I’m so glad that’s over,” he said.

Mr. Red was talking to me! After all we’d been through. Now we were talking!

“Yeah,” I said. “It was pretty interesting. I think they let me go because I used to work for the County.”

“Hmmm,” he said. He smiled again. “I always dress like a gang-banger when I get called for jury duty. My job’s really intense and I can’t afford to be away too long. Works every time.”

“Is that right?” I said.

We walked out of the building together.

“Have a good one,” said Mr. Red.

“You too,” I said.

As I walked to my car, I thought about how little I know. About anything. Or anyone. And I vowed to remember this as often as I can. No matter what my eyes tell me.

Where have you gotten caught in your own assumptions? How has life surprised you with the truth?

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