When I was a senior in high school, a teacher gave our class a piece of parting advice that has stayed with me through the years: “Wherever you go in life, whatever great things you accomplish, don’t forget the insignificant people on the New York subway.”
I was reminded of this teacher’s call to stay in touch with the great melting pot of our society yesterday when I spent the day at the Sacramento County courthouse as a potential juror. The courthouse, like the subway, is a great place for people-watching and speculating on the lives people lead. As a 66-year-old resident of Sacramento’s middle-class Land Park neighborhood, I feel I have lost touch with how many people live.
While waiting for assignment to a courtroom, I pulled out the latest Sports Illustrated from my backpack loaded with snacks, coffee, water, magazines and ear plugs. The cover story was on a Chicago basketball player named Jabari Parker.
The 6-foot-9 junior was touted as the best high school player since LeBron James. Parker is a player seemingly destined for a year of college stardom followed by a lucrative NBA contract. But Parker, who has a 3.7 grade-point average, is unusual among up-and-coming high school players because he is Mormon – and a Mormon from a racially mixed background. His mother is Polynesian and his father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, is black. According to the SI story, only about 186,000 of the nation’s 6.2 million Mormons are black.
In two years, Parker, described as a devout Mormon like his mother, will likely face a major decision between his faith and starting a pro basketball career. He will have to decide whether to declare for the NBA draft or, like thousands of other Mormon men who turn 19, embark on a two-year mission to spread the faith. The young men do not return home for two years, the article said, nor are they allowed to have a job, attend college classes or pursue other personal interests. A two-year break from competitive basketball could jeopardize his NBA career.
I had just finished reading this uplifting story of a gifted young black man when I finally was assigned to a courtroom along with a few dozen other folks. A neatly dressed black man with wide shoulders and dreadlocks, perhaps 25 years old, sat at the defense table. A deputy sat directly behind him.
The judge told us that one final juror and a couple of alternates were needed. The case would take about five days. The defendant, the judge said, was accused of fatally stabbing a man in his 50s in a North Sacramento apartment and torching the apartment. One of the victim’s hands had been cut off and other was partly severed.
Although early in my journalistic career I had covered courts and cops, it was difficult to associated the violent facts of the case with this handsome young man at the defense table. It was hard to square this image with that a man on parole from state prison at the time of the crime.
On the other hand, I spent my working years at a newspapers that regularly reported on the violent actions of criminals and the grim conditions that often shaped them. I sat in courtrooms and saw neatly dressed young men convicted of doing the most sordid things. It was a useful, sobering experience.
I didn’t get called to serve on this jury. I left the courtroom a free man. I thought of the young man inside whose fate would be decided within two weeks. I doubted it would be a happy tale. I thought of Jabari Parker with a whole world of opportunity stretching out before him.
As the poet Robert Frost put it: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood … .”