A Jury Of My (Distracted) Peers Op-Ed

| 16 Jun 2015 | 12:53

To say that I am not a huge fan of jury duty is an understatement. However, based on past stints of being summoned downtown, I have found jury duty has its redeemable qualities: the proximity of the courts to Chinatown and the possibility of crossing unexpected paths and bonding with interesting New Yorkers.

During the requisite long periods of tedious waiting between calls to the courtroom, I could always strike up a conversation with a prospective juror on any number of subjects, form an instant friendship and share a lunch at a local Chinatown restaurant. I once met a woman who lived in my uptown apartment complex; we had lunch and have been friendly ever since. If I looked around the jury room, I could observe and hear other similar connections being made between former strangers.

Sadly, that human interaction I remember so fondly had all but disappeared when I was recently called again for jury duty. To my utter amazement, the jury waiting room had morphed into a library, quiet, serious, with everyone’s gaze directed downward, fixed on their smartphones or tablets. Not wanting to intrude on another’s privacy, I, unlike my usual “Chatty Cathy” self, never spoke to anyone. Nor did anyone say a word to me. I was glad I brought my iPad along to play Jumbline 2, the word game to which I am helplessly and hopelessly addicted.

To be sure, about seven years ago, the time of my last jury service, I did notice some in the jury pool sitting in front of court-provided desktop computers or their own laptops, but they were in the vast minority. Everyone else, myself included, waited to go home to check e-mail or surf the Internet.

Not so this last time around. With the exception of three women with no visible electronic devices, who were heard chatting in Spanish, we were all immersed in our own virtual cocoons. I could not help but be struck by how invasive and entrenched the global technological revolution had become in our lives. Even though I was an active participant in this new reality, the isolation and lack of human connection I experienced among such a large group of my fellow New Yorkers felt disappointing and disturbing.

Since I had not cultivated any “new friends,” I took off for Chinatown alone. Not being in the mood to lunch by myself in a restaurant and feeling hungrier for human contact than for food, I opted to take out a sweet bun with red beans, an almond cookie and a coffee to savor in Columbus Park, where I knew I would find a bustling social scene with hordes of elderly Chinese locals. Besides, the early spring weather after a particularly brutal winter was glorious, warm and sunny.

Busy, full of life with no cell phone in sight (I looked around!), Columbus Park did not disappoint. It seemed as if the senior population, closeted for the winter, had been let loose, free at last to congregate, laugh, gossip and enjoy each other’s company. Clusters of elders played Chinese chess, checkers, mahjong and card games or practiced Tai Chi. A Chinese performer sang traditional Chinese music backed up by musicians playing classical Chinese instruments.

I was lucky to find a corner spot at a concrete picnic table next to a group of four animated ladies who were gambling with cards. Since I didn’t speak Chinese and their English, I surmised, was limited or non-existent, we exchanged smiles a lot. I felt very welcomed as if I belonged just by being there. I closed my eyes, pretending that I was in China.

I wish I could have stayed in the park all afternoon basking in the human warmth, but that story would have to wait. Jury duty was calling and I had to get back to my iPad.

Fredricka R. Maister is a longtime Manhattanite and freelance writer.