IN MARCH of this year, I had the honor to serve as a Juror in a civil case in the New York court system. In the months since I served, the city and state have been trying to honor me over and over again. And so, on a hectic Friday where I should have been at my desk, working, I found myself heading to the New York State Supreme Court.
The rule is, after you serve, you’re excused from serving again for six years. Yet a month after my service, I received a second summons. I responded logically, by returning the summons with a copy of my proof of service and a cordial explanatory letter. A few weeks later, I received a third summons stating in red capital letters that I was now in violation and absolutely had to present myself at 60 Centre Street or suffer the consequences.
I was too busy to go, and, after all, I had served. Then this morning, a free U.S. postal digital service I subscribe to (which emails you scans of postal mail you are about to receive) showed that I was about to get yet another summons. So I hustled to the bottom of Manhattan Island to throw myself on the mercy of the court … clerk.
At 60 Centre Street, I went through Security, walked down a hall, and within a few minutes was speaking with a very nice, overworked, underpaid, exhausted clerk, who, in spite of those things, treated me with courtesy, compassion, and respect, and took the time to help me understand what had happened.
Turns out New York can’t deal with my having a first and middle name. Specifically, the fact that my parents named me Lewis but called me Jeffrey (long story) apparently broke all the computers in the New York courts. The court thought that Lewis Zeldman, Lewis Jeffrey Zeldman, L. Jeffrey Zeldman, and Jeffrey Zeldman were four different people, each of whom was required to do jury duty.
This kindly clerk sorted it all for me in under ten minutes. As we were finishing, I asked her what to do about the summons that was still headed my way (per the US Postal Service). She didn’t know the post office offered that service, so we talked about that first. Then she punched her computer keys for a while, and told me nothing from the State or City courts was on its way to me. If yet another bogus summons was en route to my mailbox, it must be from the Federal Courts. “Since you’re down here already,” she advised me to cross the street and talk to her counterpart in the Federal Court system, whom she believed would do me the same solid service she had just performed for me.
So I did.
No country for old men
In contrast to the sleepy but fairly friendly backwater from which I’d just emerged, the Federal Courthouse was a fluorescent nightmare of angrily wisecracking security guards who behaved as if any first-time visitor unfamiliar with their unique security procedures was mentally defective, and who loudly commented on my shortcomings in my hearing. (“He thinks I’m his Mommy and I’m supposed to watch his stuff for him,” one guard complained after I laid my hoody on a counter because I thought that’s what she had just told me to do.)
They made me hand in my phone and yelled at me again for leaving my hoody on a counter and told me to go to a room number that didn’t exist.
I felt like I was in a different country. One court was New York. The other was Federal America. The air was ripe with sullen triumph.
Eventually I found a clerk who could and would help me. But when I tried to explain my problem, he gave me that same withering “you pathetic mental case” look and cut me off at every other word. The situation was a bit complicated. I wasn’t trying to over-explain, only to tell him what he needed to know to understand my problem.
I present to audiences and clients and I’ve written a couple of books. I’m usually pretty good at leaving out extraneous details and communicating quickly and clearly. But here, I was tongue-tied.
No, I said, I hadn’t actually received the federal court summons yet, but I’d been told by the state clerk that the summons I’d seen in my mail program must be federal, and, if it was, it was because the state system had inadvertently created duplicate accounts for me as a result of their difficulty with my name. The system from the post office that lets you preview your mail before you arrive. The New York Supreme Court across the street. Jury Service.
I stammered. I couldn’t get the story out. I couldn’t get my words out. I began to believe that maybe I was crazy. I felt myself sweating. The clerk’s eyes narrowed. He shook his head meaningfully at my every word.
“The New York State—“
“I know. But I received a—“
“We’re a different system.”
“I understand that. But—“
Eventually, after sufficiently chastising me and telling me he couldn’t do anything for me, the clerk allowed me to go back to the formerly angry man to whom, minutes before, I’d surrendered my phone.
“Out so soon?”
“Lucky,” he said.