Friday, May 4, 2012

Courting diversity

I was on jury duty this week, something I haven't had to do for two decades. The last time I went I was on a high-profile Federal racketeering trial for three months. That was an education: there were eight defendants and 29 counts, including drug conspiracy, money laundering, two murders, kidnapping, assault, and gun trafficking. This week I was at the State Supreme Court.

My first thought when I walked into the jury room was Where did they find all these white people? I guess the population of registered voters and licensed drivers is different than the makeup of the city as a whole. But when they were calling attendance, the pronunciation-mangling was significant enough to make it clear there were many nationalities in attendance.

During voir dire for a case, another weirdness emerged: out of forty people questioned, only six were single. One person's brother had been murdered last month, a dozen or more had been robbed at some point in their lives, about half had a family member or close friend in law enforcement, and two had misdemeanor convictions. Oh, and one had a best friend who'd been put on the sex offender registry because he'd mooned some people at a concert, and some of the 'victims' were minors.

There were two psychologists, a sign maker, a bus driver, several financial analysts, a retail clerk, a reporter for USA Today, a graphic designer, some retirees, and an executive chef.

*       *       *        *

This morning I stopped at a food cart near the courthouse to get a cup of coffee before going in. Remembering how hungry I'd been the day before, I decided to get an egg sandwich as well. I gave my order, and a moment later a cheerful voice said, "You forgot two things: sugar in the coffee? And cheese on the egg?" I glanced up, startled to realize I hadn't looked at the man long enough to see what he looked like. He was Chinese. I smiled at his friendliness, saying no thanks to each item.

As the man readied my egg on his griddle he asked, "Pepper?" I looked at him and deadpanned, "Not in the coffee!" He and the man in line behind me laughed, and the vendor said in accented English, "I'm going to be extra nice to you. I want you to come back every day; it's good to laugh in the morning!" We were all suddenly in a great mood.

The man behind me (I think Nigerian) ordered a glazed donut and grinned, "No pepper on that." He got his donut and headed off, then came back in a moment and put a dollar on the counter. "Hey, Give this man a coffee, too," he said, gesturing toward a homeless person behind him. And we all went our separate ways, happy for a few minutes of very human contact.

*       *       *        *

The court building is near Chinatown, one of my favorite parts of the city. On Thursday after being released from jury duty I headed on over. I have ironclad self-control when it comes to buying snacks and treats in a regular store, but I am capable of buying impossible amounts of rice crackers and wasabi peas and black sesame candy and what my kids call mystery candy (the ingredients are not listed in English) at the Chinese grocery.

I wandered the aisles contemplating candied plums and bags of fresh noodles, guessing what sea creature had been dessicated in each tub, and selecting tea. I did not mind being the only white, middle-aged lady in the crowded store. What was weird was that over the din of chattering Cantonese came the voice of John Denver, singing "Rocky Mountain High".

I wondered briefly if John Denver shopped in Chinese grocery stores, and if so, what he bought.


  1. Posts like this and the previous one about the store clerk are a big part of why I like reading your blog. Being someone whose closest encounter with NYC was seeing it from a plane as I flew into Newark 20-some years ago, I'm afraid my perception of your city is heavily tainted by Hollywood and the national media's crime report.

    It's refreshing to hear that it's not completely filled with brusk, uncaring, harried socialites and cabbies.

  2. I totally agree with KiteFlyer, except that I've never seen NYC from a plane. I usually just hear "This is "Today" on NBC" and that's how I see NY! What a cool diverse place. Thanks for your blog and for sharing and for writing in GP! Yours are some of my favorites!