On My Way to Jury Duty
I met a man on my way to jury duty. It was a chance meeting, and I never asked his name. I’ll call him John.
I exited the underground metro station at Judiciary Square confused. Nothing I saw looked familiar except the dingy air of a cold Washington, DC day. As I turned a complete circle, contemplating the direction, I should take.
“Are you lost?” A crackling voice asked from thin air.
“Sort of,” I answered and spun around simultaneously. There he stood with a crooked smile and collapsed top lip; a telltale sign of missing front teeth.
“Where you headed?” He asked while fumbling inside his backpack. I tried to think of something to say to avoid answering his question. I preferred to find my way and his appearance suggested there was something about him I should mistrust. I scanned the area for an escape, but there were no visible street signs and no one in the vicinity to save me had I needed it. There was only John.
“The courthouse,” I answered reluctantly.
“That’s where I’m going. Follow me.” He slung the dingy backpack over his shoulder and waited for me to catch up. I felt a tinge of vulnerability but had no immediate solution to avoid being rude to this stranger. Oddly, I was too embarrassed to say ‘no thank you’ and be on my way.
I accompanied John along the city street, unusually deserted for a weekday. Being trained in defensive tactics, I bladed my body strategically. If necessary, I was in the position to cold-cock him with my oversized hobo bag, weighed down with bottled water, snacks, and a hardback book. I kept one eye on John, alert for any fast movements. We were several steps into the journey before I noticed he was holding, what appeared to be, a joint. This could end badly.
“What are you going to the courthouse for?” He asked as he reinforced the ends of the white twisted paper.
“On my way to jury duty.” It was out of character for me to be side-by-side with this sandy-haired guide forcing me into conversation with him. I was annoyed by his familiarity, but, by then, I had the feeling he was harmless.
His kindness was peculiar, and he was oblivious to what should have been obvious; I was less than thrilled to be in his company. The evening news and my last stint at jury duty, two years before, reinforced my predisposition to avoid strangers on the street, at all costs; particularly ones that looked like John.
“I’m going there to take a piss test.” I turned my nose up at his candor.
When he lit one end of the blunt, I was relieved by the sweet smell of tobacco smoke although I had no idea people still rolled their cigarettes; not the legal ones anyway. I had quit smoking more than twenty years before and detested the smell of burning nicotine. I had always bought mine by the carton.
John held the hand-rolled smoke between his thumb and index finger and struggled to wrap his loose lips around it. Between drags and puffs, he shared details of his life and the reason he was headed my way; an unfortunate run in with the “po-lice.”
His honesty was fascinating; given the world where most people go to great lengths to put their best foot forward on Facebook, regardless of the reality of their circumstances. John was an open book and had no regard for his unfortunate privacy. He divulged private details; getting arrested more than once was of no consequence to him. His words flowed out with the lightheartedness of a circus ringmaster, but the edges of his drooped eyelids told a different story. There was a pain in his eyes, yet he willed his voice to tell his secrets in a disguised “water-under-the-bridge” attitude. His sentences ran together as he rambled, topic to topic, as though he had saved his confessions for an entire year and wished to tell me each one of them in as little time, as possible.
The judge had allowed him to enter an intervention program that had kept him out of jail, as long as he remained trouble free and submitted to regular piss tests. It was better than nothing, even if it meant a thirty-minute train ride, once a week, for the six months.
“The cop tried to cut me a break.” He said, indicating no sign of animosity toward the police officer who escorted him from Union Station and told him not to return.
“But then, he arrested me.” He chuckled as he took a deep drag from the blunt he had smoked down to his fingertips. It was a laugh that hinted he knew he had done something so stupid; he could not help but laugh.
“I thought you said he cut you a break?” I asked.
“He did, when he kicked me out of the station, the first time. When I tried to sneak on a train, he said I was going to jail.” He blew the smoke into the air as hard as he could, tossed the butt on the ground, and straightened the dirty book bag.
“I guess I didn’t realize how drunk I was. I just wanted to get back to Baltimore.” He said he liked Baltimore better than DC. The police were more kind in Baltimore, and he knew the area better. It was an easier life there.
“When you know people and know how to get around, it’s easier to stay out of trouble”.
We walked a few steps in uncomfortable silence. For once, John seemed to be at a loss for words.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye and noticed the etched lines on his leathery face. The yellowed fingernails of his dry and cracked hands. His pants and boots; larger than what you would expect for a man his height and the unnatural slump in his shoulders that faltered under the overstuffed backpack.
“Yeah, I’m a drunk, but I don’t do no drugs.” His words broke the silence as though he sensed what I had finally realized. John was homeless. Not just down on his luck homeless, but a sad drunk that likely drank until he passed out then slept wherever he was when he took his last swig for the night.
“That’s good.” I answered as I heard my grandmother’s voice, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” The chill I felt was not weather related.
“Except once, I did some heroin and crack.” John was unrelenting. Could my chance meeting with John be a test of my patience or a joke I would be let in on, at any moment? I checked my watch, careful not to flash my diamond wedding rings. I had less than twenty minutes to get to Courtroom B and still be on time.
“I did a line of heroin and smoked some crack, but I didn’t feel nothing. I had liquor in me, so I don’t know if that was the reason why or not. Maybe, the people I got it from gave me something that wasn’t real dope.” He said. In John’s opinion, drugs were a waste of money. He preferred the less expensive knock-out numbing he experienced with alcohol. John was the first person I ever spoke to that admitted doing heroin and crack. I wanted to seize the opportunity and inquire more about his experience, but I felt it would have been an intrusion, so I remained quiet and let him do the talking.
I wondered whether I had ever slipped by John and ignored him on a cold night as he lay, passed out, atop a street grate as billows of steam rose from the ground engulfing his motionless body. Perhaps, he was that person I saw sprawled on the park bench, covered by a shredded sleeping bag, as brownish yellow gushed from the midpoint of his body to the grass below.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” I asked as my uneasiness returned.
“I’m sure.” He said though I doubted his confidence. I was relieved when I saw a clean-shaven man, briefcase in hand, headed in our direction.
“Excuse, me sir, where’s the Superior Court Building?” John had asked before I had the opportunity to ask myself.
Without stopping or looking at us, the stranger pointed toward the sky, “Three blocks that way. It’s that tall building.”
“Thank you,” John called after him then looked at me with a sheepish grin. “I guess I got turned around.” We did an about face and headed in the direction from which we came.
“I need to stop drinking. Lord knows, it’s gotten me in a world of trouble.”
“Why don’t you then?” I blurted abruptly; frustrated with him for taking me in the wrong direction.
“I guess some people are just weaker than others.” His voice floated away to a different place and time. He began drinking when he was ten years old and had continued throughout his life, except the time he was sober for eight years. I estimated his age at sixty-five and wondered what it felt like to live the majority of one’s life in a fog and why there had been nothing worthy enough to make him stop drinking. His parents were long gone and neither of his ex-wives, or their children, wanted anything to do with him. He was going to get himself together, but it was going to take hard work and energy he was not sure he had left in him.
Once back on track, pedestrians appeared from out of nowhere; each one staring at John and I. How unusual we must have looked together; him with his second-hand clothes and me, with my black and blonde long, curly afro.
“Maybe it’s a blessing drugs didn’t do anything for you,” I told him, not knowing why or where the words came from.
“I’m going to get myself together.” He nodded; to convince himself.
When we arrived at the courthouse, there were two winding lines of people waiting to enter through building security. Light rain had begun to fall, and I hoped it would not take long to make it inside.
“Well, you have a good day.” He said.
“You too and thanks for getting me here.” I told him as he walked away then stopped at the back of the longer of the two lines, twenty feet away from me; standing in the shorter line. It was an odd thing to do, after having walked the whole way with me.
Periodically, I looked over my shoulder at him, but he never looked in my direction. He stared at the back of the person’s head in front of him in line.
I sat in the crowded juror’s lounge among an assortment of old, young, men, and women I avoided making eye contact with for the remainder of the day, except an hour for lunch. I never spoke to anyone in the room, and they did not talk to me. We engulfed ourselves in our private worlds of smartphones, and Kindles. I finally completed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao then switched to Words with Friends and challenged a random player; who beat me six times.
After seven hours of waiting, the clerk of court entered the room and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, no other jury panels will be needed today. You are free to go and thank you for fulfilling your civic duty.”
When I exited the Courthouse, I followed the signs to the underground metro station. It was less than a stone’s throw away.