The Enchanted Jury Summons

by

12/31/2006

346 Broadway, NY, NY 10007

Neighborhood: Financial District

I had gotten a summons for jury duty. Or should I say yet another one. I was afraid of those tall, gloomy, impersonal Wall-Street-area buildings full of people in somber look-alike suits. Jury duty was some sort of gulag. Stripped of rights. Where was the joie de vivre? What about poetic justice? Besides, I wasn’t feeling any great affection for Manhattan; it was the late eighties and the city was acting like a jerk, showing its true colors. It was snobbish—too conscious of fashion, even if I did write about it; crooked—I’d been pick-pocketed on an escalator; smoky—clubs, restaurants … even my office puffed away, and the men were all lousy—I’d dated a morose lighting-designer who had tombstone-shaped rocks lined up against all the walls of his (poorly lit) apartment and a baby he’d neglected to mention; a Swiss textile guru with a villa in Bergamot and a live-in girlfriend he’d neglected to mention; and a single, charmingly dirt-poor Columbia student who had anger-control problems he neglected to mention, until he punched a hole in my door.

I worked at a start-up magazine with crazy hours and I was trying to establish myself as journalist. I was writing for a living, finally. I interviewed celebrities and wrote deconstructive (yes, fashion) essays. Me help out this nasty old city? Me help empower the people? I had my own life to sort out. Unless jury duty was going to be potential material for the next “In Cold Blood,” forget it. I attempted my third deferral. “Look weird. Wear blue lipstick,” advised photographer Henny Garfunkel in her slow-motion voice. Henny always sounded like she’d taken some kind of drug that slowed you down to a luxurious, unhurried speed and never sped back up to normal. Henny I’d met through my home-town comrade, John Waters. She’d done film stills and taken a picture of him with a two-headed calf that we’d published with my article on bad taste. Henny had an eye for curious things that other people missed or shunned; her photographs cast a spell, evoking both gasps and smiles. She was original in every way. She had at least 15 ear piercings and a nose ring before it was trendy and wore deep red lipstick painted in a dramatic Mortitia Addams arch. Her hair was buzzed close on the sides and the top stood straight up like Nefertiti’s headpiece. She’d worn blue lipstick and got off jury duty.

I had normal hair and no blue lipstick. But I did have blue eye shadow and taking my cue from the expert, I globbed it on my lips. I got in that line and when I presented my summons to the lady at the table and said I needed a postponement she took one look at me and stamped MUST SERVE in angry red letters.

I’ve since served here and there, dressed up for the occasion and even tried to be chosen, though I refuse to answer invasive questions in front of strangers—e.g. What do you do? Where do you live? Do you have any family members who are convicted felons? Of course I have a family member who is a convicted triple-felon, and his crimes aren’t even sensational enough to exploit, so I’m writing fiction instead of a family memoir and FYI, prison hasn’t helped rehabilitate him in the least—and I wish they’d reveal astrological signs. (Aries/Taurus cusp, very psycho.) I’d pondered, why is the whole ordeal so unpleasant? Why is the region-tilting-toward-Wall Street so uptight, oppressive and depressing? Why can’t they make jury duty more…charming?

Felons are exempt, but movie stars, lawyers and doctors aren’t anymore. Robert De Niro has served. So has Harvey Keitel and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Even weirdos have to show up, now. So when I got a summons last year I deferred by phone and punched in my ideal serving time, March. My sense of patriotic duty blossomed, I openly admit, after September 11th. But I was ignored. Never heard back. Until last week. A summons arrived declaring I’d postponed twice and been absent. Not so! I never got the March summons. But I would be away on the September date they had randomly chosen. Would they believe me? What paperwork did I need as proof? Our ferry ticket was in my husband’s name, better get a wedding certificate. What if they made me cancel our vacation? I ran through all the worst scenarios and then determined to go in with a smile and a bounce in my step.

So yesterday, dismissing Henny’s advice (I hadn’t seen her in over 15 years, where was that blithe spirit?) and wearing a neutral lipstick called “Brave” and my most beautiful earrings—large, dangling clip-ons, the ones I’d worn on my wedding day—I took a cab to 60 Center Street. I was sure those earrings would set off the metal detector and they did, but the friendly, smiling sentinels waved me right in. What’s going on? I wondered, when did these people become so trusting and adorable? I asked for room 139 and was told, “Walk toward the light.” Gliding through the palatial atrium I gazed upon bronze zodiac figures embedded in the floor that made me feel as though I might be in a cultured European city or Nostrodamus’ s castle. The sun was in Virgo, sign of service, healing and anal attention to details. Was that beautiful floor always there or was I finally noticing it? I imagined trumpets sounding the arrival of a guest or royalty and fairly floated toward a light at the end of a hall.

I got to the room with the light. There was a sign saying “If you need to blah blah… you’ve come to the right place.” You felt like you’d won a prize.

I told my story to a woman behind a desk. She was actually smiling. “Take a seat.” I was the only “customer.” I thought they might make me wait forever, but within 60 seconds my name was called. I followed the direction of the voice and sat at a desk. There were Xeroxed photos of Naked-Lunch author William Burroughs on the side of his cubicle. More Burroughs behind the computer.

Thank heavens; I got someone with a rich, intellectual life. Thank heavens I got the Bohemian. (Never mind that this guy’s hero had shot his wife.) He had a thick head of dark wavy hair, and he was easy on the eyes. I was explaining that I’d never been absent, my paperwork proof of vacation in hand, when I noticed a book on his desk, a writer’s guide. “Are you a writer?” He paused, espresso-brown eyes too dark to see the revealing pupil of emotion … he seemed to be considering the question as though I’d asked him if he had a disease.

“Why, yes I am,” he admitted, grimly.

“Do you ever write about this place?” He looked around the room. “Nothing ever happens here.”

“What do you write?”

The next thing you know, Prince Charming and I were exchanging contact information, talking about writers from Burroughs to Kerouac. I gushed, “I’d love to read your work!”

He was reluctant but I insisted. “Do you want a novel synopsis?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’d rather read a short story.”

Am I crazy? I began to think. He might be an Aquarius but what if his work is terrible? He’s unpublished. Everyone’s writing a book. People give me amateurish, awful things to read all the time. What if I hate it and he’s the punitive type? What if he sends me a summons every month?! I’d been candid with him, telling him a confidential truth about my unpredictable, timetable for the next twelve months.

I was relieved to see an understated, fabulous title on his manuscript. “Black Car Service.” He seemed a man misplaced, like Melville or Kafka, with a job that in no way exploited his ambition or talent. I didn’t want to leave. Over the years I had metamorphosed out of fashion and into literature. Hardly anyone I know in the fashion business talks about books unless, of course, it’s “The Devil Wears Prada” or a biography of an overdosed star whose “look” is being rediscovered. I bet if I posed the question, “Do you like Anne Sexton?” most of them would ask if she designed clothing or sex toys. I stood up to leave. At the front desk in this otherwise client-free room I saw the back of a woman with a familiar, languid voice. She turned around. The red lipstick made its siren-call clear across the room. Henny Garfunkel! It felt like a cocktail party!

I introduced Henny to the misplaced Burroughs-obsessed writer, and they shook hands. Where was the champagne?

As we walked out into the August light, Henny, off to the Toronto Film Festival, asked me if I was serving.

“Oh that. I’m off for a year!” Yes, like a genie, the writer granted me my undeclared, secret wish.

In the cab, on my way back to the office I began reading “Black Car Service.” The words sparkled on the page, a spine-chilling, supernatural tale that started like this …

“The sky had been an insane pink that only occurred with any regularity in the fall.”

Bram Stoker meets William Burroughs meets Mickey Spillane. I couldn’t put it down. Ignored emails and phone calls and finished it at my desk. At six or so, I called him and told him he was brilliant. (Like most undiscovered writers, he was at a bar.)

He was wrong about nothing happening there. I fell back in love with the city.

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