Many aspects of New York have been influenced by Jewish culture, including such speech patterns as the dismissive repetition of a word with the initial consonant (if any) removed and the repeated word begun with shm. Concert shmoncert. Taxi shmaxi. Latte shmatte.
There are other interesting forms of New York speech repetition, including the incredulous interrogative double echo. That was used to great effect in the 1992 movie “My Cousin Vinny.” In an early scene, the southern police are questioning an innocent New Yorker (if that’s not an oxymoron). The dialogue is something like this:
Police officer: “And is that when you killed the cashier?”
New Yorker: “I killed the cashier? I killed the cashier?”
Later, in a courtroom scene, the transcript of the interrogation is read back. “The defendant confessed, ‘I killed the cashier. I killed the cashier.'”
New Yorkers sometimes scream at each other in a friendly way. It is said that Jews of Ashkenazic (central and eastern European) heritage love to argue. Non-New Yorkers think they’re watching a family break up and are astounded to find that no one takes the yelling to heart.
Then there’s food. One theory has it that Jewish mothers always have large quantities of food available because Jews were often forced from their homes. Since there would be the possibility that they wouldn’t know where their next meal was coming from, it would be best to always start an exile on a full stomach.
Perhaps as a result, New Yorkers are never far from a source of food. We have supermarkets, street vendors, delicatessens, restaurants, and more. Maybe somewhere in the city we even have a 7-11.
I admit to having had a few moments of food concern after September 11 when inbound traffic stopped, but they didn’t last long. Perhaps foolishly, I’m rarely concerned about my mortality. I once toured a steel mill dressed as I normally am. The company insisted on a hard hat, goggles, and ear plugs, but they let me wear my open sandals.
Not fearing death or injury seems pretty common in New York. Even New Yorkers who wait for the “Walk” sign at a crosswalk almost invariably leave the sidewalk and approach the moving traffic before the light changes. In the subway, most New Yorkers attempt to hasten the arrival of the next train by performing center-of-gravity physics experiments. They see how far they can lean over the track (above the 600-volt third rail and in the path of the oncoming juggernaut) without falling.
I am by no means fearless. One of my fears is becoming entangled in a legal system on the order of the one in Kafka’s “The Trial.” That’s why I have never tried to get out of jury duty. It’s not that I feel some patriotic or civic duty. It’s that I feel that if I ever needed a jury, I’d want people like me to be on it. I suppose that’s the meaning of a “jury of one’s peers.”
My favorite jury joke involves a shepherd caught having sex with one of his flock. His lawyer tells him to just tell the truth on the witness stand and not to worry. The lawyer claims to be an expert at jury selection.
In court, the shepherd recounts the event. “And how do you think the sheep felt about what you were doing?” the prosecutor thunders.
“I think she liked it.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, she turned to me and batted her eyes sweetly.”
At that moment a jury member nudges the juror next to him and whispers, “A good sheep will do that, you know.”
It was another case of a jury of one’s peers.
Today is Friday. It’s also the start of Ramadan.
Years ago, I served on a New York jury hearing a robbery case. Strangely, in the middle of the trial, the judge gave us a day off. It, too, was a Friday. The following week, we finished the case, deliberated, and rendered our verdicts (there were several counts). Only after we were done did the judge tell us that the defendant was a Muslim, and that’s why we didn’t conduct the trial on a Friday.
I usually enjoy jury duty. All of the courts in New York County that use jurors are located on or around Foley Square in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Various organizations print up brochures for jurors. Some have sightseeing, shopping, and — this being New York — eating recommendations in the neighborhood. You never know who you’ll meet in the jury room. No one is exempt in New York anymore. The mayor, himself, served on a jury recently.
The only part of jury duty I don’t like is rendering judgement. Some years back, two companies suing each other in Federal court decided to make me an extralegal judge so they wouldn’t have to go through the legal system. I got to say “Swear in the next witness” and “Remember, you’re still under oath,” and one of the court reporters referred to me as “His Honor.” I still got to wear pepper shorts, a tee shirt, and sandals. That was the fun part. The tough part was rendering a decision.
On regular (petit) jury duty in New York, there’s usually no more than one case (and, more often, none). On grand jury, there can be more than a hundred for a single group. Once, when I served on a grand jury, I got so depressed that I went to a novelty wholesaler and bought a whole gross of laughing bags. That helped.
There’s no selection process for grand jury here. If you’re called, you’re on. Petit juries have the usual questioning, the ostensible function of which is to provide an unbiased panel of one’s peers.
It’s a common joke in jury rooms that a murderer should be tried by a jury of murderers, a thief by a jury of thieves, and so on. After all, those are the defendant’s true peers.
The problem is, if we knew the person was a murderer, the trial would be unnecessary. A person being tried for murder might be guilty or might not. If not, then murderers aren’t really the defendant’s peers.
This was the first paragraph of a column in the New York Times on Thursday:
“Misadvised by a frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general, a president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens. Intimidated by terrorists and inflamed by a passion for rough justice, we are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts.”
Was the columnist some bleeding-heart liberal? Actually, no. It was William Safire, advisor and speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, and a true-blue conservative.
The attorney general to whom Safire referred is John Ashcroft. In explaining the new policy allowing the president to determine who may be sent to a secret tribunal of undetermined rules instead of an open court of law, Ashcroft says that terrorists have no rights. But who, exactly, is a terrorist?
If we already know the outcome of the trial, why bother with the tribunal at all? But, if we don’t know the outcome, then the accused might not be guilty, and, therefore, not a terrorist, and, therefore, entitled to rights even under the attorney general’s criteria.
Five years ago, there was a terrorist bombing in Atlanta. You may recall that the chief suspect was a security guard. The FBI ransacked his home for evidence. He was pilloried in the press. And then the government decided the crime had been committed by someone else, Eric Robert Rudolph, number two on the FBI’s ten most-wanted list, second only to the person they call Usama bin Laden.
Innocent until proven guilty is NOT a good motto. That means the accused will eventually be proven guilty, given enough time and the appropriate tactics.
It’s innocent UNLESS proven guilty.