In fifth grade I was sent home from school three times for wearing inappropriate clothing. The first time I was wearing a kilt that was three inches above my knees instead of the two mandated by the school dress code. The second time I wore a sewing experiment: a green dress shaped like a triangle with a hole in the top for my head. Mrs. Mulnex, my homeroom teacher, pointed out that there was no stitchwork in the hem or the arm holes or around the neck. Therefore, she concluded, my dress was not really a dress. The third time I wore navy blue slacks, which, according to Mrs. Mulnex, looked suspiciously like jeans.
Each time I was sent home, my mother arrived, fresh from the dairy farm, dressed in her L. L. Bean boots and a long tan raincoat, the aroma of cow manure wafting down the school hallway before her. On the way home, she asked why it was so hard for me to dress according to the rules while I stared out the window at the alfalfa fields, the grazing heifers and horses, thinking, Thank God I’m out of school. At the dinner table my father lectured me on the importance of appearance. He explained why he always wore expensive, tailored suits, button down shirts, and cufflinks.
But you just look pretentious, I said.
Pretensions are all we are, he answered. You dress the part, you are the part. Some day you will understand.
I am remembering his words today as I think of a twenty three year old African American man, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and chains who was seated before me and 11 other jurors at the Mahoning County Courthouse this morning.
To my left and right were white men and women from the suburbs of Youngstown, all dressed in what they call “casual business attire,” in accordance with the instructions that came in the mail with our jury summons. While the men wore khakis or business suits, the women were dressed in dresses or slacks and jackets. I had picked out my one clean pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and blue sneakers. I figured that was casual business attire for a poet.
I noted that the bailiff was dressed in a silver glittery shirt that made her look like a disco ball. The young, pretty prosecutor, who tossed her long brown hair back whenever she spoke, appeared appropriately conservative in her black Calvin Klein suit and heels. The lawyer for the defendant wore a brown suit with a white silk hanky stuffed in his breast pocket. He spent twenty minutes explaining why he stuffs a hanky in his breast pocket. Apparently his father always stuffed a hanky in his breast pocket, and it makes him feel close to his father to have a hanky in his breast pocket, just like his father’s hanky. And some of his hankies were his father’s hankies. Whenever I asked him a question, he pulled out the hanky and put it back in again.
I thought of how I often touch my mother’s ring, a ring with an Aladdin’s lamp engraved on it. When I touch the lamp, I think of the wishes we all have. I could see the wish of the defendant clearly in his eyes. Get me out of here!
The lawyer for the defendant began by explaining the defendant’s outfit. The defendant, as you see, is dressed in an orange jumpsuit and chains, he said. Can you think of this man as innocent, despite the fact that he’s dressed in an orange jumpsuit and chains? He’s only dressed in an orange jumpsuit because he couldn’t make bail. Does this prison garb affect your judgment of this man’s guilt or innocence?
Duh-twang, I thought, remembering that expression from my childhood. (Does anyone still say duh-twang?) If the lawyer was so worried about the orange jumpsuit, why couldn’t he let the defendant dress in casual business attire? Without shackles? Is this really a bail issue?
As you know he was indicted two years ago, the attorney continued. But only indicted. He was not proven guilty.
Two years ago? I asked. Has he been in prison in an orange jumpsuit, awaiting trial for two years, simply because he could not afford bail? Do those two years count toward a potential sentence?
The lawyer pulled his hanky out of his jacket and did not tuck it back in again as he questioned me, Can you NOT ask that question? It’s not relevant. I would like you not to ask that.
Why? I asked.
For the same reason that your mother used when she told you to do the dishes. And you asked her why. The answer: because she told you so. Can you accept that? He wiped his forehead with his hanky.
I wondered if he would ask the same question of the businessman seated behind me in a gray suit, or if he saw me as a recalcitrant girl, unwilling to perform her household chores. Did my blue jeans and plaid flannel shirt make me appear like a misbehaving child?
But the dishes weren’t a moral issue, I said.
But I am asking you. Can you NOT think about that? the lawyer asked, taking out his handkerchief, folding it, and tucking it back in again.
I can SAY I am not thinking about it, I smiled, trying to sound agreeable.
Saying it is not good enough.
I can TRY not to think about it, I said. But this is a logic problem. If I try not to think about something, I think about it.
The lawyer turned away and proceeded to discuss the case, a case concerning a young black man arrested by cops while driving through Poland, Ohio, a white suburb of Youngstown. Tomorrow, he told us, the cops would arrive in their police uniforms to testify against this black man in his orange jumpsuit and chains.
You won’t be influenced by the cops’ uniforms, will you? the lawyer for the defense asked. I wondered if the cops could be made to wear orange jumpsuits, too. Or maybe they could all wear neutral colors, perhaps gray sweat suits.
Have any of you ever been stopped by the cops in Poland, Ohio? the lawyer for the defense continued.
Yes, I said, remembering the day. I was dressed in a suit with a pink jacket and white skirt, a hand-me-down gift from a friend who insisted I wear it home. The suit would have qualified as the appropriate casual business attire I should have been wearing in court.
What happened after the cop pulled you over? the lawyer asked.
I was not given a ticket, I said. I talked my way out of it. I’m white, female, and middle-aged. And I was wearing a skirt. Race, gender, and age can work in my favor. Unlike the defendant. He’s a black male youth from the inner city of Youngstown. I didn’t add that skirts can make a difference, too.
The prosecutor stood up then, rocked for a minute on her shiny black heels, and tossed her hair to one side. You, she said, nodding at me, are dismissed from this jury.
I walked out of the courtroom, my head bowed, my sneakers squeaking on the wood floor, feeling as if Mrs. Mulnex had sent me out in the hall to wait for my mother.
Nin Andrews is the author of six poetry chapbooks and six full-length collections, most recently The Last Orgasm (Etruscan Press, 2020). The other works are titled Why God is a Woman, The Book of Orgasms, Why They Grow Wings, and Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet Henri Michaux, Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry, 2004). Her poems have appeared in four editions of The Best American Poetry as well as Ploughshares, AGNI, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2022)