Note: This is an ongoing story concerning my experience as a potential juror. You can find the beginning of the story here…
There I am, riding the DART Rail, hunkered down in my seat as the car gently rocks to and fro, doing my best to avoid all eye contact with other passengers because I celebrate this aspect of my introverted personality. To be really efficient at societal avoidance whilst in a large moving box, the best option is to stare out the window at all times. If you dare to look at anything inside the car, you run the risk of someone thinking you’re open to conversation, and here come the bunion stories and photos of astonishingly homely grandbabies.
And really, the sights on the other side of the glass are fairly interesting (at least the first fifty or so times that you see them). This particular rail line cuts through a wide variety of Dallas neighborhoods, so you get a decent picture of what the local enclaves are all about. Each rail station tells a story. You may not really care to hear the story, but there it is, nonetheless. It’s the history of Oak Cliff, a stand-alone city that was absorbed by Dallas proper in a frenzy of expansion, and then left to its own devices shortly after. Residents have been bitter ever since.
The station we had just left, the closest to our house, goes by the moniker of “Hampton” station. (No need to take notes, it’s not like there’s going to be a quiz.) Back in the day, there was apparently a bit of money in the area. There are some great 1920s or so neighborhoods still standing, with varying degrees of success. There are also some questionable retail establishments where you can pawn your outdated big-screen TV and probably arrange for a hitman to take out someone who has really irked you lately, should you have the need for such.
As with any older neighborhood where the rose has somewhat faded, you get a mix of good and bad. You might have one house that is perfectly preserved and/or restored, thanks to older couples that refused to flee the city during the White Flight to the suburbs, or to younger generations that lovingly swooped in to pick up the pieces, brush away the cobwebs and make a house a home.
Right next door to one of these glowing tributes, you might find a complete travesty where careless subsequent owners let things rot and fall as they may, completely oblivious to the treasure they are defiling. The bones are still good, because people used to build things to last, but the makeup and the hair have long-since faded, and the dress is in tatters. Breaks my heart to see this. Ruined finery. (10 points if you can name the movie I’m quoting with those two words.)
Okay, getting a bit maudlin. Back to the rail journey.
The next station is Tyler/Vernon, named for two streets that converge right where the station is located. (This converged street continues on, changing names so many times that you could lose your mind. This is another aspect of Dallas that makes the citizens psychotic and perpetually late for important meetings. Come on, people, give a street ONE name and keep it the same until the state line. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.)
Just to the south of this station is a massive complex owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints. I don’t know why they have an office here. It’s not really their demographic, to put it politely. But at least the buildings are pretty, and they apparently have a dedicated grounds-keeping staff. Leaves are not allowed to remain on the grass for longer than 47 seconds.
To the immediate southeast is a neighborhood planned in the 1940s, known as Wynnewood North, brimming with unique, spacious homes on large lots. Since the rest of Dallas looks down on Oak Cliff as a crime-infested hotbed of rampant addiction, careless sloth and teenage pregnancy, the property values have plummeted despite the treasures to be had. Which means you can get a good deal on some real estate, and therefore the gays have moved in and worked their magic. You always want the gays to move into your neighborhood. Ask any realtor. This place is now booming.
The next stop on the rail line is the Dallas Zoo station. This location doesn’t need any explication. All you need to know is in the title. And everyone on the train knew the Dallas Zoo was coming up, mainly because of a highly-strung little girl who had been bouncing off the walls of the train car for the last 20 minutes. She was clearly invested in seeing some animals in their non-natural habitat.
Her mother was not nearly as jazzed about the animal thing. In fact, she appeared to be very tired, possibly still in shock that the bundle of joy that shot out of her womb six years ago could have so much uncontrolled energy. The child was on perpetual crack. As the doors slid open and little Emma dragged Mommy to her fate, the poor woman just grunted and shuffled along, resigned to the fates of Hell.
Now, from this station to the next, we travel through some of the skankiest parts of Oak Cliff. We’re talking questionable houses where it’s a miracle that the things are still standing, and “mobile home parks” with the mobile homes being rusted relics where no maintenance has been performed in 30 years. Yet there will be a shiny BMW parked in the driveway. I’m assuming the owner of said BMW is the man-for-hire previously mentioned, should you still need him.
Our next demarcation point, christened the “8th & Corinth” station, is smack on the convergence lines of several demographics, so you never know who is going to get on or get off. The northeast quadrant is dotted with massive warehouses featuring no accompanying, explanatory signs, so who knows what the hell is going on in there. (It’s a fair bet that some people go in said structures and then never come out.) In the northwest quadrant, populated with lots of Mom-and-Pop stores that have seen better days (or perhaps have never seen them), there is a fairly-obscured entrance to a tiny little road that leads to a place lost in time. I took that road on a lark one day, and a bizarre thing happened. But it was a long day’s journey into night, and the experience deserves its own post.
In the southwest quadrant, we have an incongruous, enormous condo complex designed for folks who have a healthy income-stream but choose to break the mold of living in fancy Uptown Dallas, pursuing a somewhat-bohemian, culturally mixed environment in which to dwell. (Right next to the condo complex is an equally massive government-subsidized project where things are so shady that you really can’t see what’s going on unless everybody fires their guns at the same time.)
To the west is a bit of sadness, in the form of an extensive cemetery that has been mostly forgotten, wildly-overgrown and poorly-kept, or at least that was the case the last time I wandered the barely-discernable paths. It’s an old graveyard, at least for this state, and therefore follows the protocols from those different times. The white people are buried in the front (some of them very rich, with many early-Dallas leaders ensconced there) and the black people are buried in the back. It’s bad enough to see the tumbled and broken headstones in the front section. It’s even worse to see the back section, where there are very few stones, at all, just a big expanse of dimpled ground and unmarked lives.
Let’s hop back on the train, as I’m getting maudlin again.
Then we’re rumbling across the Trinity River, which sounds more exciting than it really is. The Trinity is not a massive river. For most of the year, it’s basically a stream that pitifully meanders through the middle of Dallas, separating the “haves” in the North from the “have nots” in the South. There are times in the rainy season when the creek becomes an actual river, but for the most part, there’s no drama. Move along, nothing to see here.
Once across the quaint little brook, we arrive at Cedars Station. This is a part of town where they have been converting enormous former warehouses into hip residential enclaves. Lots of cool people are moving here. Nearly everyone who gets off at this stop is busy fiddling with an iPhone, if that helps you get the picture. There are restaurants where the proprietors will happily take your fifty bucks and reward you with a designer plate sporting a single asparagus spear and three little chunks of tofu.
Next up is the Convention Center Station. If that name is not explanatory enough, this is where the Dallas Convention Center is located. If the Auto Show or the Gun Show or the Knife Show is in town, this place is swarming with humanity, many of whom make really bad decisions during presidential elections. If not, then tumbleweeds are blowing through the station.
Now that we’re finally in downtown proper, the stations are one right after the other. There’s barely enough time for the train to build up any speed, and then suddenly we hit the brakes again and everybody falls to the floor. This is where lazy people start showing just how useless they really are. They will actually wait fifteen minutes for a train that will take them a mere two blocks over. Walk it people, get some exercise, and help the world lower insurance premiums.
We finally get to my station, and I spill out the doors in a squirt of people like an over-stressed toothpaste tube just blew a seam. I stand there gulping in the slightly-cleaner urban air while I get my bearings. Once I realize where I need to go, I brush past the outstretched hands of bums who are singing to themselves and apparently doing something very personal with the other hand. Life is beautiful, yes?
Turns out that the “hoofing it” part of my journey is a piece of cake. It’s just a few short blocks to the municipal courthouse. I get there way before my report time, so I decide to relax outside the building before joining the stream of people currently tottering up the courthouse steps. Once you get inside and go through security, it may be hours before you see daylight again.
So, I’m just standing there, taking note of the various flavors of humanity surrounding me. There’s another patch of panhandlers at one corner pretending that they are innocently waiting for a bus. On the other corner we have someone digging through a trashcan with a level of excited discovery that is slightly alarming.
Funneling between these two points and up the grand stairs are two sets of people. Those who are here to do their civic duty by passing judgment on their fellow man, coupled with those very fellow men who have apparently done something to get their ass in trouble. The two camps subtly glare at each other with unease. It’s clear that everyone in this judicial parade has no desire to be anywhere near this building.
This is just not a happy place, and these are not happy people.
Suddenly, some woman comes thundering around one side of the building, screaming expletives at the top of her lungs. She races down the sidewalk, her angry voice echoing around the square. The sad crowd on the stairs turns to watch her progress as the boisterous woman rounds the other side of the building and disappears, still yelling. Obviously, she’s not impressed with something, but there’s only so much time in the day. The stair crowd, completely jaded, turns back around without comment and continues marching into the building. (“Workers in a human chain…”)
Then I notice one of those historical markers on my side of the stairs. It starts off with some pleasantries about the architectural importance of the building, mentions that at one point this was police headquarters, and ends with “oh, by the way, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of this very structure.”
Something tells me I’m not going to enjoy my visit at this establishment. Perhaps I should follow the lead of the screaming woman headed for parts unknown? Then I pull out my wrinkled jury summons and think, no, best to do this. Because when people stop doing the right thing, we end up with segregated cemeteries and unmarked lives.
I shuffle forward in the line…
Click here to read the next installment…
Originally published in “The Sound and the Fury” on 03/16/10. Considerable changes made, nudging my own journey into new places.
Extra bonus points to the folks who caught the two additional movie-quote references. They are somewhat buried, but still…
Story behind the photo: A close-up shot on the back panel of the bar we have in the back den. We’re all the same, with slight variations in color…
Categories: My Life