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One Day, One Trial, One Bounced Check

Thursday, June 25, 2009
The Urban Coaster
by Francis Scudellari

On a crisp early morning last April, I made the trek down to the Daley Center to perform a civic duty that fills most Chicagoans with more dread than pride. I had been summoned by the Court to sit through a process of jury selection that seems patterned after the most angst-inspiring metaphors of our best existential writers.

Our County of Cook has christened its system “One Day, One Trial” based on the fact that you need to endure either a single day of rejection or the more dire sentence of empaneling on a single trial’s jury. The solitariness of the moniker is fitting, as the whole experience engenders feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Seated in a crowded room of strangers, unable to communicate with the outside world or escape the internal exile until reaching the end of a Kafkaesque labyrinth whose length no one can accurately measure, I watched the training video and waited. This bit of Court PR hosted by a local “news personality” reassured me that the exercise was worthwhile.

Never mind that such a valuable civic service is rewarded with below-minimum-wage compensation, reflecting society’s true feelings of its worth. I’ll skip past as well the knowing nod it made to American Exceptionalism, trying to instill pride based on the fact that no other country does things quite the same way (a logic that doesn’t hold up so well when discussing our health care system, recent foreign policy, or a process for electing judges that breeds corruption). Uniqueness is often confused with value.

After the propaganda spooled off, I sat back and listened for the digit inscribed on my paper slip to be called, feeling a bit like Patrick McGoohan’s character Number Six from the TV show “The Prisoner.” Groups of thirty-six were beckoned in waves, and they queued up two abreast to be taken into the bowels of our civil justice system.

The minutes slowed to a drip, but finally I got to take my place in the ebb and flow of souls ferried off to cloistered rooms where the degree of their mental malleability would be probed by judge and opposing advocates.

Once in the actual court room, half our number were seated upon the jury stand and subjected to the dull repetition of seeming simple questions dressed up in polite smiles. Where do you live? What’s your occupation? Did you go to college? Is there any reason you can’t be impartial? And eighteen minds simultaneously retraced their personal histories to find fitting excuses.

One hour turned to two, and six were selected while 12 were dismissed. Then the scene was re-staged with the same setting and plot, but the actors swapped. Knowing that seven of our number (including one alternate to achieve an unlucky 13) would be taken, the tension grew and the self-descriptions and excuses became more creative.

After another two hours, our stage managers retreated to a back room to engage in the give-and-take that would determine the trial’s final cast. Returning an eternity later, the Judge played Jehovah and read aloud the roll call of the damned; a gallows-gloom descending upon the features of all those whose names were announced.

We the remaining eleven scurried to our freedom, quickly grabbing the $17.20 pittance for pay checks that were handed to us by a bailiff on our way out. Caught up in the naive conceit that I had escaped the system’s clutches for another year, a grin gripped the corners of my mouth.

I dutifully deposited my check at a Chase ATM a few days later, feeling underpaid but rightly compensated, and closed that short but dramatic chapter in my mind. Ah, but, my journey was just beginning.

A week passed, and an envelope arrived from the bank. Inside was a photocopy of the Cook County pay slip, but it was newly stamped with a cryptic bit of decoration: “RETURN REASON – S REFER TO MAKER.” The check had bounced, and the money bounded away from me with a punitive ten dollar charge attached.

I called Chase with a simple question, “How could a check written by the nation’s largest bureaucracy possibly bounce?” That provoked a 30-minute investigatory pattern in which the heavily accented, disembodied voice of the offshore customer service rep punctuated the piped in music every five minutes with requests to continue holding.

At the end of that half-hour, I still had no answer, although they did wave the returned check fee. To get to the bottom of it, my guide advised, I had to refer to the check’s maker, Bank of America (BOA). I may as well have referred to creation’s Maker for an explanation of the origin and meaning of existence.

The BOA telephone rep was courteous and patient. He keyed in the various combinations of possible account numbers printed on the check, trying to match something useful in their corporate database. He had no answers either. I could, he suggested, take it to a local BOA branch to see if they’d help me.

We have one of those on Clark Street near Howard, so it’s there I went to continue the quest. The branch proved neither courteous nor patient. Dismissing my query with waving hands, they told me to do what anyone does who gets a bounced check from a friend, call up the offender. Obviously they weren’t very familiar with the unfriendliness of the Cook County bureaucracy.

I may not have friends in high places, but I do have a useful contact in Commissioner Larry Suffredin’s office, so I called Karen Chavers (and I highly recommend you do the same if ever in need of help with County matters). She took down all the pertinent information, asked for a copy of the check, and promised that she’d look into it.

The very next day, Charlene called from the Office of Jury Administration. She was very apologetic. I just needed to fax her a copy of the document. Better yet, I could mail it to her. Everything would get sorted out once the Comptroller could determine why the check wasn’t paid. Having no other choice, I believed her.

Finding myself unexpectedly trapped in a Samuel Beckett play, for two weeks I visited my mailbox in the vain hope that a replacement would come. The waiting, Godot-like, continued until I got another call from Charlene just before we went to press.

The Comptroller had made a “technical error” and a new check, she assured me, was in the mail. When it arrives, I’ll ignore that previous glitch and press on to the bank once more, a bit like Sisyphus who with unbounded hope and determination pushes a stubborn rock up a steep hill, only to have it repeatedly roll back down on him.

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