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Helen Ubinas: In this town, even jury duty is special

IT'S NOT LIKE I was expecting a ticker-tape parade or something in my first week. But a summons for jury duty? My first ever - and only four days after starting this new gig?

IT'S NOT LIKE I was expecting a ticker-tape parade or something in my first week. But a summons for jury duty? My first ever - and only four days after starting this new gig?

What are you trying to do, Philly, get a girl fired?

Luckily my editors, who aren't all that attached yet, were cool. Maybe I'd get a column out of it, one grumbled.

Hey, I was game. I'm open to whatever Philly has. An invite to hang with longshoremen? There. A growing list of people "you just gotta meet." Bring them on.

A stream of "only in Philadelphia" phone calls, including one from a reader who claimed he's "never, ever" gotten a call back from a black (Hispanic?) reporter. Ring. Ring. Hola!

But all that was on hold while I reported to the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street.

Considering the horror show I expected, the jury-assembly room was the Ritz. Large room, lots of chairs. All kinds of books and magazines. A clean bathroom.

The days of free coffee and doughnuts are over. But even on that front, the downright delightful - that's right, delightful - court employees were helpful. Don't bother kicking in an extra 50 cents for a medium vending-machine coffee, a staffer advised - the small has about the same amount for a buck. Philadelphians, I'm learning, are nothing if not practical.

After filling out the juror questionnaire, we were assigned to a tipstaff - the oddest name for what has to be the most thankless job of dealing with citizens with near-terminal cases of stank face.

It explained why my guy - who staffers joked was near retirement and should be treated gently - wasn't exactly the ha-ha type.

"Line up in the order of your juror numbers," instructed Curtis Carson III.

"What number are you, sir?" he asked a man at the end of the line.

"Eleven?" mumbled the older gentleman, who suddenly resembled a chastened preschooler rushing to find his place in line.

Determined not to be called out by drill-sergeant Carson, I double-checked my number - seven - and whispered to the man in front of me. "You are number six, right?"

Inside Courtroom 612, we proved to be an even bigger disappointment to the methodically efficient Carson. "I knew I should have taken a vacation day," Carson quipped. Cue nervous laughter.

And then came the question: Would serving on the jury pose a hardship - an extreme hardship, Carson emphasized - to anyone in the room?

Anyone? A roomful of hands shot up, mine included.

If Carson acknowledged them, I missed it over the hardened gaze of a 32-year courthouse veteran who had his fill of excuses from the more than 470,000 subpoenaed jurors just this year.

Carson wanted us to know a few things. His father was a civil-rights advocate, and a Philadelphia judge. Hands lowered to about chest level.

Next to military service, he continued, there's no higher duty than serving on a jury. More hands down.

He wasn't done. He understood, he said, too sweetly, that getting chosen might be upsetting. But that's why he kept a box of tissues out back. And, no, tears weren't a "get out of jury duty free" card.

Only a dude with muscles as big as his head kept his hand up.

I was confident he and the lawyers would shove me out the door when they learned I was a reporter. I was wrong. They were equally unmoved when I told them my husband was in insurance - a fact I was sure would spring me from a civil case between a woman and the doctor who treated her after a car accident.

Seriously, I thought, what's it take to get excused from jury duty around here?

I never found out. After a lost afternoon of mentally planning an episode of "Extreme City Hall Makeover" and guessing the occupations of my fellow jurors - mechanic, nurse, dancer of some sort - we were free. The case was settled, and we could collect our check for our day's service.

"Still nine dollars!?" one guy nearly spat. "They could at least raise it to $13."

Fat chance. Apparently it's been 9 bucks forever.

But, hey - as I tweeted after I was dismissed - it's at least enough to buy a reader with a good story to share a cheesesteak. That offer, by the way, still stands.