Trial by jury

I watch a lot of "Law & Order" — or, at least, at one time I did. It got repetitive, and after 10 years watching a show, it got a little old. I also got myself a paralegal degree when I was certain I would never get a full-time job with a magazine. And inherently, I like the logical arguments that go with discussing law and the legal system.

Not so much the jury duty thing.

It was all going a lot like it did six years ago: I showed up at a governmental building in Queens which was designed by a guy named Edward Mills. Despite having a wall of windows, civil court building typifies all that is wrong with so-called "modern" architecture: Square, soulless, and sitting right beside a much more lovely piece of architecture — the courthouse itself, which is unfortunately hidden behind a black wrought iron fence.

Anyway, inside near the wall of windows are rows and rows of soft black seats, not unlike in an airport waiting room, or the DMV. A wisecracking bailiff sits at the front of the room and tells you in excruciating, first-grade detail what you're to do next with your summons, and the rest of your day. I suppose they have to; not everyone in the room is well-versed in the English language, to say the least. I was left wondering if they save all of the class clowns from the police academy for this particular position.

I sat around for a couple of hours, reading "The Waste Lands" with increasing speed (there are just whole sections you know have no real bearing on plot or character development and ultimately it's just arduous to read, though this book has Dave McKean doing the drawings and he knows what he's doing) and New York magazine. Over lunch I wasn't hungry so I wandered the neighborhood, which is even more utilitarian and somehow cheaply sad than most I've seen in Queens. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a $1 store, or the equivalent, and the hair places don't take credit cards. Twenty minutes and a stop in a Duane Reade later, and I was back in the building.

After lunch, a group of us were called by name and ushered up to a small room with several rows of seats, and at the front a desk with several chairs and a device with a handle. Here's how it works: When you tear up your summons on the dotted lines earlier in the day with Officer Clown, you give them one strip of paper with your name and juror number. A collection of those are given to the lawyers in the case, you're sorted into a room, and those little strips go into this bingo-like drum, which is rotated. They pull out six names (a civil trial needs six and two alternates) and those people go to the front row of the chairs. They are then quizzed relentlessly as part of voir dire. The plaintiff's lawyer is — believe it or don't — a guy named Larry Love, a name you just can't forget. His client was working what seems to be a construction job, put his hand in a ceiling space, got "zapped" (Love's word) and fell off the ladder, injuring himself. The other three lawyers (considerably whiter and in better suits than Love) represent the electrician, the construction company, and the contractor. I think. Each of them gets to also quiz you. Then they all leave the room and come back and either send you back down to the general pool to be picked again (or sent home at the end of the day) or they say you're on the jury and go sit outside in the hallway.

I got picked at 4:30.

The trial started today. Or, I should say, the trial was supposed to start today. Around 11:30 I noted a fire truck parking outside the big glass windows, and smelled an odd acrid odor. Smoke was billowing outside the courthouse. As we learned, a manhole had exploded (subsequent muffled booms indicated more problems) and transformers had blown and ConEd was called in. They gave us a two hour lunch, and then at 3:30 excused us for the day. So, back again. Your tax dollars at work, folks!

(And not very "Law & Order" like at all.)