Today I have jury duty, and I'm sitting in a dull basement room lit by fluorescent lights with about a hundred other people who probably don't know just how much I don't want to be here. I mean, they probably think THEY don't want to be here. But are they germophobic? Claustrophobic? Have a seriously weak bladder from multiple kidney stone procedures in the last few months?
Okay, they might have equally distressing circumstances, but right now, with my full and queasy bladder and the nervousness I feel about packing up my things, losing my seat, going to the lavatory, and THEN having my name called is pretty wild.
It's not all bad, though. I'm sitting in a quiet place sans children, my laptop glowing before me all full of promise. How much Pinterest could I work into a day, given the chance? And also, I did get to enter the beautiful old courthouse on Franklin, and if you're not, you know, a criminal, it can be a very magical experience. Buffalo is so laden with rich and fantastic history. I don't think people realize how beautiful our city is, or how special.
The first time I was ever in this building, I was eleven years old. My mom and dad had taken just me out to dinner at Chefs, a family favorite restaurant. Getting to go somewhere, anywhere, just me with both of my parents was a rare and special experience. My older brother and sister not only monopolized my parents' attention, but were also terribly interesting. Jane was a star student who lived to study and read for fun. I'm not positive because I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure she was born fully-grown, popping out of my mom as an adult just like Athena from Zeus. Adults always seemed to accept and enjoy her without question, where they always shushed me, or worse, looked at me like I had three heads when I decided to share anything I found interesting.
Pauly was the boy, of course, which made him automatically fabulous in our family. My mom just positively doted on him, reveling in the chance to make him fancy meals of egg or pounded chicken. "Pauly never asks for anything," she would declare, which was a bald lie. "So of course I just have to give him something if he asks." Named for my father, it was expected Pauly would walk in his every footstep. Many dinner-table conversations were spent listening to an absurd exchange of their own unique brand of humor, throwing everyone into gales of giggles. Even if we didn't get the joke, their laughter was so contagious we were pulled in, anyway.
But this night, this special Friday night, both Pauly and Janie had somewhere else to be. Since my parents hadn't paid a real baby-sitter in years, they had no choice but to bring me along on their regular Friday-night date, and then, subsequently, to my dad's trial at the courthouse. I have no idea who he was representing that night, or what that person was accused of. I just know that it was by far the coolest thing I'd ever gotten to see.
Because of the nature of the evening's events, my mother encouraged me to dress up. I loved dressing up, so this was not a problem. I wore my red and black checkered skirt, the one that went straight out around me when I spun in circles (which I frequently did). My hair was neatly combed and pulled in a headband, and I even carried a purse. It was stuffed with tissues so it didn't sag in the middle.
After dinner at Chefs, where all anyone talked about was ME! GLORIOUS ME!, we drove through downtown to park closer to the courthouse. I had never seen the building close up, and I instantly loved it. I was between my parents as we crossed Franklin Street, holding each of their hands, staring straight up at the huge building. I loved the clock tower and the wide front steps. I couldn't believe my dad got to work in this building, and that tonight, I got to be a part of it.
Inside, my jaw dropped. Marble floors and brass doorways and massive staircases were everywhere I turned, and my father began to tell me, in a hushed voice because of the echo of the now mostly empty building, all the history that had transpired here. He told me how often he came here, how my uncle worked here, too, and, because there was time, he took me into the very courtroom where the trial took place for President McKinley's assassin. I stood there, in the dim courtroom, a raised-letter plaque beside me, imagining how history was made right here. I could hear in my imaginative mind the deep, booming voices of those involved, and I imagined a dramatic finger pointing at the accused, shouting, "GUILTY!"
And then it was time for my father to report to his assigned courtroom, so off we went. I felt so important walking beside him, like a movie star or some important member of government. Everyone was looking at us, stopping my father here and there for introductions. My dad, too, seemed excited to have me there. He practically leaped to the side and gestured grandly toward me, telling people, "This is my daughter, Mary Pat." And because it's the thing to say, everyone would respond, "She's so beautiful!" and they'd address me directly then, asking, "Are you excited?" Of course the answer was a resounding yes.
Because my family is afflicted with Chronic Earliness Syndrome--we are always EARLY for everything, so much so that if we are on-time we consider it LATE, the courtroom was nearly empty when we entered it. It was disappointingly bland, but the air became charged again when the judge exited her chambers and approached us. My father gave his great introduction to me, and I smiled and responded to questions politely. This being my first real court experience, I'd never stood before a judge wearing full garb. Her black robes rustled and swirled as she spoke vigorously to us. I was intimidated.
"Would you like to see my chambers?" she asked. I was taken aback. The way she said, "Chambers," I expected something akin to a queen's quarters. Would there be a grand four-poster bed and servants? I was so nervous being in her presence, all I could do was look to my father for guidance. I turned my head to find his face, familiar and reassuring.
"Of course!" he boomed. He grasped my hand in his, leaving my mother behind (apparently she wasn't invited...or interested). I followed the judge's swishy robes behind the massive bench and through a small unassuming door I hadn't noticed. To my grave dismay, I found myself standing not in a room for royalty, but just a great oversized office. The best part of it was the expensive couch and the fancy tea seat on the coffee table before it. The judge invited me to sit here.
"Are you going to be a lawyer like your father?" the judge asked then. I suppose it was an obvious and inevitable question that night, but the way she was looking at me so sharply, I suddenly felt like I was on the stand. While I'd never been in a courtroom before, it was a feeling I was uncomfortably familiar with. It was how my parents handled all questionable issues between my siblings and me.
"Um," I stammered. I felt stupid immediately, and was instantly worried I would embarrass my father. "I want to be a writer," I said in a stronger voice. "Maybe a lawyer, too."
She nodded approvingly. "So you like to write." I didn't like the way she said it, though I still don't like the way people say it. Looking down their noses like I'm just a foolish kid with a silly dream, wasting my time.
"She's already written a novel," my dad interjected proudly."She's really fantastic. And I know she's already composing something about tonight. She loves this building."
I beamed at him shyly, so thrilled that he'd noticed.
"And a lawyer, too?" the judge went on, skimming past the writing nonsense. "How about a judge? Is that something you might aspire to?"
I swallowed. I'd never really thought about this, but the way this woman in front of me looked, hardened and all sharp angles and eagle eyes, I wasn't too sure. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, or disappoint my father, but I didn't have a good answer prepared. I shrugged one shoulder, in that silly way young kids do when they are shy and unsure, and said, "Maybe."
My dad squeezed my shoulder and smiled at me, and we stood. The judge leaned down and said, "Wish your father luck. I'll see you all in a bit."
I did as I was told, and we returned to the general assembly where only a very few people were gathered now, my mom included. She smiled at me enthusiastically, and reached a hand out for me to take. I did so almost desperately, so unnerved was I by the whole judge experience, and sat beside her. She leaned down and whispered, "How was that?"
I said nothing, just looked at her and shrugged. She smiled knowingly and smoothed my hair. "Not really the fun part?" she asked. I shook my head.
"That's okay," she said then. "The fun part will be watching your dad win. But you have to be very good, and very quiet. Children aren't usually a part of this." I nodded nervously and sat back in my chair. I was in the sixth grade, but I was small for my age and when I pushed back in my seat my feet lifted off the floor. I gripped the armrests of the chair and waited, unsure of what would happen next.
As I was prone to do, I drifted off into a daydream and I really don't remember much after that. Nothing really, until the moment when my father's client, a large man in really extraordinary clean red sneakers, jumped out of seat and shook my father's hand heartily. Over and over again he said, "Thank you, Mr. Michalek! Thank you so much! Thank you!" My father's smile was broad and was all the way in his eyes, and my mom was squeezed my arm and shoulder with both of her hands hissing, "He won! Dad won! Aren't you so excited?"
I was. I grinned at my father and gave him our usual signal: a thumbs up. He looked so proud--of his work and to have me there to see him win. I will never forget the magic of that moment, the pride I felt for my life and my father and what I got to see that my brother and sister never had. Ironically, it was they who went on to become the lawyers, not me. I know my father wanted to me to join the club, as it were, but from that moment in the judge's chambers it had never really felt like the right place for me.
But being here now, waiting around for my name to be called for jury duty, it is a memory that makes this a special and good place to be. Even if jury duty kind of sucks.