Smile Politely


Psalm 46, verse 10

Be still.

Tao Te Ching, verse 2

The Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.

With these inspirational words of wisdom comes relief. My ordinarily impossible list of things to do, scrawled onto scraps of paper littered around the house, gets reduced considerably.

1) Do nothing.


Let me recount my recent experience fulfilling the civic responsibility of jury duty. A large part of jury duty involves doing nothing for long stretches of time. For most people it involves doing nothing at all, after which one is paid nothing at all. It would seem, then, that jury duty is not only a service to society, but also a spiritual exercise.

This was not the first time I’d been tapped for the job. Years back, I was nearly chosen to hear a case against County Market. An older woman had fallen when the automatic doors opened unexpectedly and knocked her down.

Perhaps I subconsciously preferred to be doing nothing at home than in the jury room, so when I was questioned by the prosecutor during jury selection about my familiarity with County Market, I replied that I also was knocked down by the doors at County Market on a regular basis. I was dismissed from duty.

In 1974, my Mennonite grandfather, Theodore, was called for jury duty in a case to determine community standards for Champaign County. Getting past the swearing in was difficult enough — Mennonites don’t swear to anything (at least not in public); they affirm. After the trial began, he learned that his obligation on the jury was to analyze the movie Deep Throat.

Grandpa, who had never before seen a movie in his life, claimed later that he’d turned his back to the screen and hadn’t seen a thing. The jury, however, decided that the athletic abilities of Linda Lovelace were quite in keeping with the standards of the community. If Grandpa had little worldly knowledge before the trial, he seemed satisfied with his service to the community afterwards. Telling the story, I think he even smiled.

When I showed up to serve myself this year, the process in the new Urbana courthouse had become clinical and automated. We passed through metal detectors and removed our shoes and belts. We were instructed on the do’s and don’t’s of jury service with a half-hour DVD, watching Judge Heidi Ladd give a stunning and flawless performance.

And then we waited. I read newspapers and books and thought of ideas for future columns and letters to the editor. I started jotting down new items for my things to do list.

2) Send suggestion to the Tea Party that they form a rock band whose members would be named AYN RAND PAUL & RINGO.

3) Plan column for July 4 about the Tex-Mex farm workers in the Illinois cornfields at dawn on the Fourth of July last year; how they resembled slave workers in the cotton fields while the rest of the country celebrated freedom.

4) Make note of overhearing two old guys outside the News-Gazette press building, discussing the Kwane Carrington case, cursing the headline “OFFICER SUSPENDED” and blaming Obama!

5) Steal hilarious quotes from Don Quixote, Book 2, Chapter 7. Sancho tells his master to lay off correcting his mispronunciations and malapropisms.

7) Find way to reference the 1990 University of Minnesota “Nun Study,” which analyzed diaries of Catholic sisters and found that writing with high “idea density” made one 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. (Breathe sigh of relief.)

8) Complain to the Urbana Post Office that the new, earlier pickup time of 5 p.m. is putting a crimp in my Netflix returns.

On Thursday, the fourth day of doing nothing, my number was called. I was among the pool of potential jurors to hear the case of a young black man accused of assault on a police officer at Rantoul High School. There had been a scuffle, apparently. It sounded to me as if he had not wanted the policeman’s hands upon him, but I never got that far into the case.

The boy, really, sat with his lawyer looking a little defiant and resigned, a pose of aloofness masking a certain sadness.

Again, this time in real life, Judge Ladd gave exquisite instructions. She should have been an actress. She has star quality. She could read her rules on any Broadway stage and draw an ovation. I’m talking Tonys here.

In groups of four, our numbers were called and for the first time, I found myself wanting to be on this jury. I wanted to do something, not nothing.

As though auditioning for a part (more and more the theater thing seemed appropriate), everyone tried to present himself or herself as squeaky clean. Judge Ladd asked them if they had any personal connections to the police force, to local educational institutions, or if they or anyone in their families had ever been the victims of a crime or been arrested.

One by one, they admitted knowing no one, or this person, or that person, and none had any arrests in their family tree.

“I had a speeding ticket once,” one smiling guy joked.

“And how did that turn out?” Judge Ladd asked.

“Oh, I was guilty,” he boasted, playing to the crowd in the benches. They responded with knowing chuckles.

After questioning each potential juror, the black kid’s lawyer conferred with his client in whispers before deciding to accept or reject the would-be juror.

The obvious elephant in the room was the spirit of Kiwane Carrington, the tragic 15-year-old whose recent killing by a Champaign police officer still festered in the racially tense community.

When most of the jurors had been chosen and I thought I was going to go home, my number was called.

“It says here you are a writer?” Judge Ladd asked me.

“I would not write about this,” I said, and I meant it.

But, in retrospect I have to acknowledge that this is the inevitable and most colossal lie a writer always makes. Never trust a writer. Writers will always sell out their friends, their families, and themselves for a story. It is what we do.

“Has anyone in your family ever been arrested?”

“Yes,” I said without thinking. “I have. I was arrested in 1968 for possession of marijuana.”

The defendant and his lawyer sat up straight in their seats and watched me intently.

“And how did that turn out?” Judge Ladd asked.

“I was convicted,” I said.

A hush fell over the room. I really felt nothing saying this. It was so long ago and today someone in the same circumstances would barely be given a finger-wagging.

The defense was clearly chomping on the bit to have me on the jury. Without conferring with his client, yet not trying to sound eager, the defense lawyer stated, “We will accept Mr. Springer for the jury.”

The lawyer for the prosecution, however, thought otherwise. As someone who has actually been through the system, I was way too likely to empathize, to use the word of a wise Latina judge on the highest court of the land.

“We will thank and dismiss Mr. Springer,” he said.

Judge Ladd smiled at me kindly, with what seemed to me to be genuine empathy. She thanked me for my service and sent me back home.

I stepped down from the jury box and walked back past the remaining potential jurors. They averted their gaze. But the defendant and his lawyer looked me in the eyes. And I looked at them. We did not speak or smile, but there was an acknowledgment between us.

For the next two weeks, I scoured the newspaper to see what the outcome of the case may have been. Nothing appeared that I could find. The case disappeared. The boy may be been convicted or released. He even may have been guilty. I never found out.

But I hope that my mere appearance in the jury box may have had some effect on the trial. On the earlier case about County Market, the old lady had won her suit. Even though I was no part of the trial, it may be that my words during jury selection had some impact on the case, for indeed I had been hit more than once by the same erratic automatic doors at County Market.

Maybe in this case too, even though I had no part of the trial, my presence as the seemingly upright white guy with a record had revealed that everyone and anyone can have had a life more than nothing, that we all have been subject to being a teenager and struggling with life’s inevitable injustices and the richly filled cornucopia of circumstances.

I went home humming the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line.

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