It happened. I finally got a jury summons in the mail. I postponed it once and eventually showed up to the San Francisco Superior Court on a Wednesday.
I sat next to a stern older woman in the jury selection room. My ears buzzed when they later called her name. I sat next to a nun! It wouldn’t be my last brush with the courts and clergy.
Eventually a city worker shambled across the murmuring room, pushing a VHS tape into the player on a pair of TV carts. Which would be fine except for the four giant LCD televisions that hung from the ceiling unused—a perfectly sound analogy for what I was about to experience.
I’m not sure if it was the preachy civil duties video or the three seasons of Law and Order I consumed in the previous months, but I wanted a taste. I longed to get through enough of the selection process to glimpse the familiar procedural exhibition. I didn’t love the idea of getting dragged away from my regularly schedule life, but secretly thrilled, I imagined getting picked.
The selection process took three days. On the first, we filled out a long survey, turned it in, and left. I imagine that the plaintiff and defense lawyers read my answers, looked up at each other, shrugged, and said “Yeah! She’s ok by us!!”
Halfway into the second day, the courtroom clerk called specific people into the jury box for the first time. I heard “Walters, Juror #1” and I remained there for the rest of the trial. The attorneys made it through the entire bunch of eighty randomly summoned people. The last two humans in the room ended up as our alternate jurors.
As teeth-grindingly boring and slow as those following two full jury selection days were, I realized that I had it pretty good. I observed the plaintiff and defendant from behind my sketch book, then from the pages of my novel, and even glanced up at them from my iPhone. They sat silent and unmoving, enduring the proceedings with what I imagine to be a rich, fulfilling inner monologue.
The court finally confirmed what we suspected—that’s it, we’re jurors for Room 510. Fourteen previously distant and closed-off humans blossomed into a jokey, doomsday team, making the best of our state-mandated future together. We endured elevator rides, lengthy courthouse hall waits, and the tediousness of not being able to talk about the one thing we had in common. The court promised us a 10-15 day trial. It lasted 21 days over the following six weeks.
I grew accustomed to the rhythm of court. We enjoyed a morning break and an afternoon break, with lunch punctuating the day’s half-way point. On average, we spent only five hours in trial every day.
How much time does a typical person take for lunch nowadays? Probably thirty minutes. Maybe an hour if you’ve got errands to run. Or do most people eat hunched over their desks, taking equal bites of sandwich and email? The court adjourned for an hour and a half every day. Those courtroom doors closed and we were on our own. What can someone do around the Civic Center for that long and not lose her mind?
Well, I’ll tell you how I did it—I made up some rules.
Don’t eat lunch sitting in the sample place twice. Walk around with your eyes open. And when you’re feeling curious, go after it. Record the things that you see, hear, and observe. I sketched, painted, and wrote down the little things that showed up, sometimes mid-stride. Added together, these weird little boredom-fighting tricks taught me about this lively corner of the city.
I immediately felt self-conscious because people watched me. They’d looked at me sideways while I worked but would usually go on their way.
Then I disappeared into the background and went unnoticed as I observed the people around me. I emerged from the Muni Station every day and walked through UN Plaza, past City Hall, and into the courthouse. While the buildings don’t change, everything else does when you’re not there. There’s a constant shuffling of people which transforms those city blocks over and over. You see homeless people, the employed, one-time visitors, begrudging return citizens, and bicycled legal couriers in any combination.
I recognized weekly patterns. UN Plaza holds its own schedule, with gift vendors on most days and a farmer’s market on another. Tuesday and Thursday hosts a collection of food trucks called Off the Grid which lures workers into it’s arena of folding chairs and pigeons.
I realized that I didn’t see certain typical San Francisco things. No one camped out during the day. The homeless community congregated in certain parts of UN Plaza, or by the Library entrance, or the Asian Art Museum, but would never be in the same spot at the end of my day. I didn’t see police officers patrolling the area, or security telling people to keep moving—not once, not ever.
I saw classic San Francisco left and right. I witnessed City Hall demonstrations for the Lee Family eviction and political speeches. There was a sculpture art showcase on the plaza where I overheard two artists talk. “It’s like writing. If you want to wait for inspiration, it’s one day of three. You have to pick up the tools.” Preach it, ladies.
The brides, grooms, family, and photographers are a constant presence, but so is the San Francisco history. There are statues, informational plaques, and the ornate City Hall itself—boasting enough pomp and gilding to indicate that when you’re here, it’s important.
I observed what a profound effect simple changes make. One lunchtime I sketched people lounging across the City Hall plaza. This grass quadrant, cut up the middle with a wide gravel path, is where homeless people, city workers, lawyers, and dog owners alike come to sit, talk, nap, eat, do drugs, and poop. The day after I captured their mingling, someone erected chain link fence, tore out all the grass with bulldozers, and erected billboards notifying us of “Mayor Ed Lee’s Grass Beautification Project, due 2014.” The area is like that—one day you take something for granted, and the next you realize that yes, even the lawn is important.
On another afternoon I stumbled across a group of lunching construction workers. They relaxed in a circle of camping chairs, perfectly spotlighted by the sunshine. Their loud jokes seemed at odds, and yet perfectly welcome, among the manicured grasses, ornate fence and light posts, and cold, looming Opera House.
Because lunchtime was an ample hour-and-a-half, I ate my lunch along with a bonus treat. Snacks metered the time. On a bright day, the sun warms the chocolate chip cookies on display at Slow City, a coffee tent outside City Hall. I’d buy an oversized, melty cookie and sit at their tables, tracing the building lines surrounding me. There’s a small cafeteria downstairs in the courthouse. I can’t say definitively what sour cream and onion tastes like, but thanks to its chip supply, I can say what it doesn’t taste like. A nearby coffee shop supplied me with a terrible brownie.
I once happened upon interspecies street justice. A pigeon swoop attacked a bike frame-wielding man who walked in front of me one morning. He got an unexpected peck him in the ear. He could not believe it. (I could, bike thief!)
The forces inside the courthouse are another reminder that you’re dealing with people, so many people. The elevators occasionally served as a five-second confessional. “My tenant hasn’t payed rent in seven months and I have to pay HIM?! And he doesn’t even show up to court!”
And then there are the courthouse lawyers. I had plenty of time to check them out. They’re identifiable 50 feet away but could easily be mistaken with a title wave of real estate agents. The trademark bland dress, suits, modest skirts, muted colors (if any), and tidy hair are a giveaway. Perhaps the only thing that lawyers love more than winning a case is buying another pair of sensible black shoes.
I adored the dog owners (and a cat on a leash) who trot their creatures to poop and pee on any and all grass in the area. I thought I might catch someone tsk-ing at the practice, but no, they never did. I later came across a dozen skateboarding teenagers outside the Opera House. The security officers stood around, puffing their chests and waving, tag-teaming duties until the kids got a move-on. Which is all to say, you may bring your animals to use the city hall grass as their personal rest room but NO SKATEBOARDING.
Although 21 days (roughly 30+ hours) feels like plenty of time to get to know City Hall and its brother and sister buildings, it’s not. There remains a list of places I’d like to explore.
- There’s a children’s waiting room on the courthouse’s main floor. What’s it for?
- I learned the hard way that the Asian Art Museum is not open the 2nd Tuesday of the month. I still need to visit.
- There’s a special collections room on top of the library—what wonders await?
Maybe next time.