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Last summer in Venice, my painting professor spoke frequently about the feeling of dislocation and how it can benefit an artist. She said she had not learned any Italian, nor did she plan to, because she enjoyed the public privacy she gained within her own thoughts. I came to understand the significance of not belonging somewhere, the mental vacation that accompanies a physical one, and since then I've ascribed a sort of dreamy and poetic sensation to being out of place.

Earlier this week I was summoned for jury duty, which put me in a room full of my fellow Brooklyn citizens. There were people from all walks of life, and I really enjoyed looking around, learning about people from their dress, activities, and occasional utterances.

After sitting around for over an hour, a man finally came out and began a series of instructions on filling out our juror's cards, writing down phone numbers etc. He then started with the people who were requesting to be excused, including those with doctor's notes, those who were the principle caretaker of a minor and so on. Then he came to the portion which I think may have more appropriately come at the beginning of his process: those who do not understand spoken English.

It was in a way rather funny. He acknowledged that if you could grasp the sentences he was speaking with regards to understanding basic English, then you would not need to come up to ask to be excused. A woman repeated his announcement in Russian, and then another woman made the announcement in Spanish. I understood her announcement, and it was much blunter "If you feel lost and do not understand what is being said in English, come with me."

One man a few rows in front of me was middle-aged and Hispanic, wearing a freshly pressed plaid cotton shirt tucked into belted jeans, his juror summons and a pen in his pocket, his hair neatly combed. He startled up when the woman began speaking in Spanish, and he seemed relieved as he started walking toward the aisle.

The front of the room became crowded with people who, presumably, had been completely clueless for the first hour and a half of sitting there. They were led to another room off of the room in which the general mass was sitting, and I kind of forgot about them as I watched people making their excuses for other reasons.

Some time later, a smaller group of people started coming back out from the left. I'm not sure why I even looked up, since there had been people trickling in and out all morning, but I saw a group of older Russian women, followed by Hispanic people. Most of them looked mildly relieved or neutral, and I gathered they had been excused.

The plaid-shirted man, however, looked hotly embarrassed, his cheeks red and his eyes stinging with tears. He blinked rapidly, and his entire demeanor was crestfallen. He walked toward the back of the room with his head slightly lowered in shame, and I felt terrible for him.

In all my privileged notions of the romance of dislocation and not belonging, I'd forgotten about those who desperately wish to belong. Like so many other citizens, he got his summons, showed up in the appointed place and time with the supplies he'd been instructed to bring, and he was ready to act as an American citizen. Unlike almost all of the rest of us, he actually wanted to do it, and it hurt him when he was told he didn't understand English well enough to be part of the judicial system.

Since living in Italy, among hordes of American tourists, I learned to tune out English and experience the same blissful unawareness as when I listened to crowds of Italians. On my lunch break from jury duty, I sat on the post office steps by Columbus Park, looking at Brooklyn through a foreign lens, tuning out all the English conversations and signs (this was easy without my glasses on), looking at its charms the same way I might in Piazza San Marco or on the Spanish Steps.

I looked at rows of park benches surrounded by rose bushes and lush planting, watched the sunlight dapple pavement, ate my prosciutto and mozzarella panini (with entirely too much meat and not enough cheese or sauce), listened to conversations in the foreign language of other people's lives, and really took in the wonder of this city.

In a backwards exercise of dislocation at home, I think I finally learned to love Brooklyn and appreciate the privileges of being a citizen here. What a refreshing change of pace.

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This page contains a single entry by Vicki published on June 5, 2008 9:30 PM.

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