Responding to a jury summons in Alabama is more than your civic duty. It's a swan dive into the cultural pool of the South.
I am what you might call a connoisseur of conversation. Some people collect rare books; I prefer the spoken word. I love listening for that colorful phrase that I can hold on to and share with others down the road. My husband has his own pet name for my little hobby: eavesdropping. As you can imagine, summoning somebody like me to jury duty is like summoning a rat to a cheese factory.
Right off the bat, they tossed me into a government-issue holding pen, when at least 200 souls sat shoulder-to-shoulder. All afternoon, I struggled to focus on my copy of Harry Potter and the Something of Something, but I was irresistibly drawn to two voices behind me. Both had that lilting, refined tone that Southern women use to signal each other that we were raised right.
"Now, why do you suppose they struck you from the jury this morning?" asked the first voice, ever so politely. The response sounded as honeyed as a Kappa Delta welcoming top-flight legacies to fall Rush. "Well," explained voice number two, "they asked me if I would find it disturbing to see a picture of someone with an ax in his head, and I said, 'Why...yes–yes, I believe I would find that disturbing.'"
After that exchange, I was understandably dismayed when I heard my name called for jury selection in a criminal case. I actually landed on the jury, which included people from all over town and all walks of life. As we prepared to deliberate, one particularly amiable juror with a warm, preacherly voice asked whether anyone would object if he offered up a word of prayer before we began. Apparently, we were a God-fearing bunch because no one objected. Granted our case was nonviolent and not likely to land anybody in "The Pen," as my mother calls state correctional facilities. Still, we all felt a little better having asked the Almighty to help us be fair and impartial. And while the evidence compelled us to convict the defendant, we did so in a spirit of brotherly love.
Just last week, I made my second trip downtown to service to our judicial system. It was less eventful than the first but not without its moments. I particularly enjoyed the instructions we received on expediting our passage through security checkpoints. Ladies, a guard told us, could simply put any metal objects in our purses and then pass the purses through the scanner. Men, however, would need to remove their belts. "Put anything like that in one of these trays," the guard said. "Belts, keys, loose change–oh, and Skoal cans. Your Skoal cans will set off the alarm."
This time around, I got as far as jury selection for a civil trial but didn't make the final cut. I'm not sure what I said that scared the lawyers away. I've heard they never ask a question unless they already know the answer. "This may sound silly, but what kind of bumper stickers do you all have on your cars?" asked counsel for the plaintiff. "You mean besides Auburn or Alabama?" a prospective juror called out. I hope counsel for the plaintiff saw that coming. I know I did.