Careful readers will notice I haven't had lunch lately.
Not that I'm on a starvation diet. My ''Lunch with Cliff'' series has just been on hold. For the last three weeks, I've been taking the bulk of my midday meals at the Hamilton County Courthouse with 312 of my fellow citizens serving jury duty.
So to get back into the lunchtime groove, I'll cheat a bit and compress my jury duty lunches into one edition of ''Lunch with Cliff.'' This one's for all of you down at the courthouse.
Based on my lunchtime encounters, I learned Hamilton County jurors take two things very seriously: civic duty and Andy Griffith. CP:Andy Griffith
They may grumble about having to serve. ''Never thought I'd say this. But I'd rather be at work,'' yawned Doug. I'm using only first names to protect the innocent. Some may still be serving on jury duty.
They may complain about the pay.
''The county's giving Mike Brown $400 million for a new stadium,'' grumped Walt. ''But jurors only get $7.50 a day.''
But all the griping aside, everyone I met was very serious about doing his or her civic best.
''It's a pain,'' Jeff said. ''And some of the magazines they give us to read between trials are old.'' He held up a copy of Road & Track, hot off the press in 1979. ''But as American citizens, we have to do this. A jury trial beats being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and thrown in jail without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom, like they do in some countries.''
Between bites of a cheese sandwich she brown-bagged from home, Marty announced: ''I couldn't sleep last night knowing I'm coming down here to sit in judgment of someone. This is serious stuff.''
''When your name's called to be on a jury,'' said Sarah, between sips of tea, ''your heart starts pounding. The responsibility's awesome.''
Jury commissioner Fritz Meyer and his staff - Stephanie Welt, Diane Myers and Lynn Markgraff - do their best to make up for the shortcomings by treating everyone with kindness and respect.
First off, they're friendly throughout the day. They know some people don't like the inconvenience of jury duty. So they remind us that the right to a trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of a free society. They repeatedly thank everyone for giving time to keep that cornerstone in place.
Announcements in the jury pool's waiting rooms always include the words please and thank you. Prospective juries are addressed - without fail - by the words ''Ladies and gentlemen.''
''They have manners,'' said Ann as she shared carrot sticks with Judy.
''They treat you with respect,'' Judy added. ''It's like when the jury walks into the courtroom and the bailiff says, 'All rise!' They make you feel like a king.''
Jurors also have the power to decide what's on the waiting rooms' TVs.
During my days in the pool, the jurors laughed at Judge Judy and The People's Court, and walked out on Jerry Springer.
''Being in the same room with that creep,'' said Carla, as she headed for a quiet corner, ''amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.'' But the people's choice was clearly The Andy Griffith Show. When that familiar whistling theme came on, the room filled with jurors and courthouse employees taking a late lunch.
It tickled me to see so many different people gathered in one room to watch and laugh - above all to laugh - at the ageless 35-year-old antics of Andy and his skinny deputy, Barney.
For a few minutes, everyone forgot where they were. The serious concerns of the day were set aside so everybody could go to a simpler time and a more peaceful place.
In Mayberry, the sheriff didn't wear a gun, and his deputy kept his one bullet in his pocket. Crime wasn't an issue. There was no need for anyone to serve on a jury.
Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.