"Who died?" asked Mimi Herbert, watching her boyfriend grimace after opening an envelope.
"It's my annual summons," Charlie Armel grumbled.
"Not the worst thing in the world."
"Compared to a root canal?" acknowledged Charlie with a shrug. "Or a kidney stone? It's the timing that sucks."
"Is the timing ever good?"
Charlie chose not to answer.
Prior to his involvement with Mimi, Charlie was resourceful in ducking jury duty. Year after year he requested a change in scheduling. By requesting the week of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the 4th of July, his exposure was narrowed from five days to what appeared to be three but was effectively two.
But living with Mimi had an undeniable effect on him. No longer did he leave sweatshirts strewn on the living room sofa or a kitchen chair. Nor, when he thought of it, did he leave the toilet seat up. Or belittle those who, like her, believed in civic duty.
When his week arrived, Charlie dutifully checked in by phone on Sunday evening, only to be informed that he'd dodged the bullet for a day. Monday, too, he was told he was not needed the next day. But when he called in at 6 PM on Tuesday, everything had changed. He was due at the Court House in Downtown Los Angeles the next morning.
Trying to override his resentment by considering it an adventure - one that was half-sociological, half-anthropological--Charlie fought the freeway at rush hour, then searched for a parking space. Passing through a metal detector, he checked in and headed to the so-called assembly room, which was a holding pen for potential jurors, none of whom seemed the least bit happy.
During the orientation, a monotonous speech followed by an excruciating video, Charlie remembered his last experience. After waiting an entire Tuesday morning and much of the afternoon, he and twenty-nine other diffident souls were divided into three groups, then led to a court room. There, as part of group #1, Charlie and his mates were presented with the facts of a case involving a young Korean woman accused of theft. The world-weary judge, whose name was Fancher, took the time to pose a series of questions about health- or family-related issues, thereby eliminating three people. Then the prosecutor, a tall brunette with a belligerent manner, asked if there were any questions from Charlie's group. A woman with a cane promptly inquired as to how many days the trial might take, then an old timer wondered if he could duck out to use the men's room. Just as the prosecutor was ready to move on, Charlie, who had been studying the trembling and clearly traumatized defendant, raised his hand.
"What was the value of what she supposedly stole?" he asked.
"I don't think that's relevant," was the prosecutor's reply.
"To me it is," said Charlie, who turned to the judge. "Your Honor?"
"It's a fair question," stated Fancher.
"Under a hundred dollars," mumbled the begrudging prosecutor.
"Does that mean ten bucks?" asked Charlie. "Or twenty? "Or maybe thirty?"
"I'd like to move on," grumbled the prosecutor.
"I'm not finished," announced Charlie.
"I think you've said enough," hissed the prosecutor.
"Your Honor?" implored Charlie.
"Go ahead," instructed the judge.
"Hasn't this poor woman been punished enough?" Charlie asked.
All too aware that the other jurors were nodding in agreement, the prosecutor wasting no time in excusing Charlie from the case.
"You really have a problem with authority," teased Mimi when Charlie recounted for her the afternoon's events.
"No. Authority has a problem with me."
Mimi sighed. "Isn't it tough being so cynical?"
"Not as tough as being a victim."
"Charlie, you're turning thirty. It's okay to chill once in a while."
"For you, maybe."
"Which means," said Mimi, "you can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can't take the Jersey out of the boy?"
Charlie nodded. "If I weren't the way I am, I'd probably have some boring job. Right?"
"Instead of being the king of show biz?"
"Far from it," said Charlie with a shrug. "But more importantly, I probably wouldn't have you."
Mimi didn't disagree.
Settling in for what promised to be a long, dull morning at the courthouse, Charlie read the sports section he brought with him, then stood up to stretch. As he did, an elderly black man seated nearby approached.
"Okay if I take a look at the scores?" he asked.
"It's all yours," Charlie responded.
"Pardon me?" asked the other guy, who was clearly hard of hearing.
"I'm finished with it," Charlie said louder, making sure to enunciate.
"Thanks. I'm Floyd."
"Charlie. Mind watching my stuff while I hit the men's room?"
"Hit the what?
"The men's room," Charlie repeated, again raising his voice so as to be understood.
After spending the rest of the morning alternating between checking messages and reading a book about the history of Specialty Records, Charlie, like the others whose names had not yet been called, was relieved when permission was given to wander off to lunch.
As he grabbed his things, Floyd leaned over to him. "Any place around here that's not too bad or too expensive."
"Like Japanese food?" Charlie asked.
"Can't say I know it well."
"Then you're in for a treat."
Seated in a storefront noodle joint, Charlie watched Floyd sample his bowl of soba with chicken. "Like it?" Charlie asked.
"Love it. What're they made of?"
"Buckwheat," Charlie said more clearly before diving into his own bowl.
"You from here?" Floyd asked after several more mouthfuls.
"What's not to like? How about you?"
"Born and raised. Like music?"
"Live for it."
"Shoulda seen this town back in the day. Clubs everywhere. Jazz, Blues, R&B, you name it. Know about Zydeco?"
"Like Clifton Chenier?"
Floyd beamed. "A couple of times a year he and his brother used to play all night at Verbum Dei High School. The women would cook gumbo, assemblage, red beans and rice, then start frying up beignets. Better than sex, and that's saying something. Ask you something?"
"How's a white boy like you know about Zydeco?"
"Want the truth?"
"I also know about K-Doe, Frogman, Fats, Professor Longhair, and Irma Thomas."
"The Soul Queen of New Orleans!" Floyd reached over and slapped Charlie's hand. "Brother, you okay."
"For a white boy?"
Floyd shook his head and chuckled. "Sure you're white?"
It wasn't until well into the afternoon that Charlie and Floyd were among the thirty people who were called. They were divided into three groups--Floyd in the first, Charlie in the second--then led to a courtroom.
There, a young judge who introduced himself as Judge Suzuki gave opening remarks about the case to be tried. Then, as though adding a personal touch, he directed a question or two to every member of the first group. That went well enough until he reached Floyd.
"Where are you from?" the Judge asked.
"I'm fine, thanks," replied Floyd, drawing titters from some of the other jurors.
"Are you trying to be funny?" the Judge responded testily.
"Of course I like funny," answered Floyd with a smile.
"Do you realize I could hold you in contempt?"
Uncertain whether what he was witnessing owed to racism, obliviousness, or both, Charlie couldn't handle seeing his new friend cringe. When the Judge banged down his gavel, Charlie spoke up. "He can't hear you."
"Did I ask for your two cents?" the Judge snarled, glaring at Charlie.
"All I'm saying is he's hard of hearing."
"And how in the world would you know?"
"Because I just had lunch with him."
Once Floyd and several others were dismissed, the members of the second group were asked to take their seats.
"How many of you have or have had an involvement with law enforcement or the judicial system?" the Judge inquired.
Immediately a middle-aged woman who raised her hand was acknowledged by the Judge. "Yes?" he asked.
"My husband's a cop," she replied, which was duly noted by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.
Next the Judge pointed to a tattooed Latino whose hand was also up. "Tell me."
"My brother's a bailiff."
That, too, was noted.
The Judge was about to move on when Charlie, whose hand was held high, spoke up. "You forgot me."
"So," said Judge Suzuki, making little effort to hide his disdain, "what exactly is your involvement?"
"I created the LA County Teen Court, where first time juvenile offenders can elect to face a jury of their peers."
"Judge Miles created the county Teen Court," responded the judge haughtily.
"Ed Miles now supervises it."
"Judge Miles to you," snarled Suzuki.
"Maybe to you. Ed Miles to me."
"Do you realize I could hold you in contempt?"
"Before you do, how about we walk down to his courtroom and ask whether he knows me or not?"
Suzuki fumed silently for a moment before speaking. "My patience is limited."
"So's your knowledge of history," responded Charlie, refusing to give an inch. "Ever heard of Hector Morales?"
"He was Presiding Judge of Juvenile five or six years ago."
"Which is when I first approached him. And Larry Nieberg?"
"Chief Probation Officer around then," said the somewhat chastened Judge.
"The two of them helped me launch, as did the LA County Bar Association and the County Board of Supervisors. Now about that walk down to see Ed Miles--"
"If I were to believe you," said Judge Tanaka, "and that's a big if, why would you initiate something like Teen Court?"
"To give a second chance to kids who made a mistake."
"And that's important because?"
"Guess who was in trouble as a kid?"
The Judge bit his lip for a moment. "And now you're a lawyer?"
"To my mother's chagrin, no."
"Then what do you do?
"Among other things, I produced a "Teen Court" pilot for MTV."
With no hesitation whatsoever, Judge Suzuki dismissed Charlie from the case.
"So," asked Mimi when Charlie called her on his way home, "did you help make the world a better place?"
"Know what?" he replied. "In a way I might have. Okay if I'll fill you in when I get home?"
"Only if you tell me what you want for dinner."
"How about if I get some take-out Thai?"
"Somebody knows how to score points," said Mimi.
"With you, maybe. But not with a certain judge."
"Now I can't wait to hear," replied Mimi.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called When Houston Had The Blues. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. As an activist, he created the Los Angeles County Teen Court system together with the Presiding Judge of Juvenile and the Chief Probation Office.