...think of it!
very place puts toys of desperation
more motive, into every brain
looks so many fathoms to the sea
hears it roar beneath.
and I were walking the bridge the day it happened.
We had a beautiful
afternoon -- clear, breezy, plenty of sunshine, bright blue sky --
though the traffic thrashed loudly. It was a Sunday, and so we'd expected
traffic, and all the pedestrians didn't seem unusual either, at first.
Knots of them congregated here and there at the rail, mostly on the
western or panoramic side of the bridge, the side that faces the ocean.
They pointed and hollered at the sights and at each other, as most
strollers on the bridge were wont to do; for the bridge is an exhilarating
place, with its soaring height and the constant bluster of salt wind
was unusual -- so it seemed to us -- was the range of interest or
concern common to every face we were able to see, and, as we looked
over the rail, the really extraordinary number of people already caught
in the forcefield beyond. Among the latter many were yelling and gesturing
at the people still on the sidewalk, as if daring or enticing them
to jump. Some were squirming around, practicing their backstrokes
midair, and some lay still, in a meditative pose, or cupped a roach
against the wind, suspended and quiet.
diverge a bit here, as some of you may not be from around these parts.
A little over one year ago this particular bridge was a favorite good
place to go if you were looking to kill yourself. Its central span
arcs 254 feet above the sea's level, at which, because the bridge
crosses the entrance to the bay at its most narrow stretch, there
is always a powerful current, sometimes as swift as ten knots, going
one way or another with the tides through this natural venturi. Many
bodies of jumpers were never recovered and, up until last year, out
of some seven hundred recorded attempts only twelve people had survived
-- whether west, toward the ocean and into the sunset, or east, toward
the bay and into a view that commands half the city -- if a body didn't
have a heart attack on the way down the impact at sea level was almost
certain to do the job; failing these one could be swept out to sea
and drowned, or die of exposure in the chill waters. Sharks, too,
were known to lurk below. In any case, a suicide attempt from this
bridge virtually contracted to be beautiful and deadly, a sure combination.
time there had been editorial campaigns, meetings and committees about
doing something to prevent these precipitous exits, but the taxpayer's
good money being short, and other problems more pressing within the
municipality, and the lack of any effective preventive technique hobbled
and bogged down any real progress toward airbrushing this stain off
the reputation of the city's most famous landmark. The thrust of such
prophylactic thinking some took to imply that any time Joe Blow so
much as looked at the bridge, all other factors being equal, he must
be nearly overwhelmed by an urge to kill himself. These people would
have it that such malefic urges must occasionally torque at the breast
of the most established citizen, as well as the least, and that such
urges are an actual furniture of good citizenship. This eccentric
opinion, unexpectedly amplified, moved those sensitive organs of citizenship,
the newspapers, to reflect noisily that the citizen might prefer to
be insured against the possible or at least facile realization of
his own self-destructive impulsions.
indicated that this beleaguered citizen, if not himself untimely deceased,
may have lost to the bridge someone intrinsic to his social circle,
a person handy, for example, at conversation, which, though thought
to be excruciatingly dull while its perpetrator was quick among his
peers, has since by virtue of its absence been noticed as somehow
essential to the arrangement of chairs at dinner. Such a host and
the citizenry in general might like to be relieved of this sort of
nuisance by the knowledge that when they do happen to rest their eyes
upon the bridge, they will see it hung all bristling vigilant with
nets, pincers, inner tubes, inflatable vests, lifeguards, searchlights,
hooks, pikes, concertina wire, rubber sacks, plastic shields, helipads,
&c., in order that unseasonable defection might be reasonably inhibited.
manifested itself only in the most ephemeral ways, as speculation
printed and broadcast, editorials, political gambits, research-grant
hustles and social maze theory, until two entirely unrelated events
rendered it simultaneously germane and academic. The first was the
unfortunate suicide committed by a young woman whose senseless body,
plunging from the bridge at nearly ninety miles per hour, crashed
through the foredeck and hull of a small boat as it sailed out from
under the looming structure. The boat sank in an appalling three minutes,
and constituted a significant loss to its captain who, alone on board
at the time, was rescued by a passing fishing vessel. His cargo, however,
was not saved. This ironic chattel consisted of little wooden replicas
of the famous bridge itself, manufactured in various sizes, by hand,
in cottages up and down the coast, regularly collected and shipped
by the captain to the city for distribution and sale as souvenirs.
The accident set these little bridges adrift by the hundreds. Whole
and in pieces, left to the whims of the sea, they littered the beaches,
inlets, piers, and marinas of the coast for months, as to all who
might come by them grim, miniature reminders of the infamous utility
of the giant original. This incident provoked much discussion, of
the order that something -- anything -- be done about the bridge's
ominous potential for death.
incident was the perfection and commercialization of a patented gravity
forcefield. Within a year of its introduction, and less than six months
after the dispersion of the little wooden bridges, the city government
caused to be installed a forcefield network which controlled the entire
length of the bridge. Along each side of the span this marvel extended
a sort of tube of weightlessness designed to catch and hold in suspension
any individual or thing should might happen into its scope, until
such time as the authorities might arrive to fish out the wayward
article. Though in any case an effective deterrent, the collateral
notion seemed to be that a potential suicide suspended in the invisible
grasp of this device would be severely embarrassed by his public display,
more or less as if he'd been clapped into the stocks in the town square
with a large capital 'S' painted on his forehead, and thus inhibited
from renewing his attempt to end his life in so public a fashion.
Accordingly, in a fit of legislated avuncularity, no penalty, beyond
mandatory psychiatric council, was proscribed for a person chagrined
in this manner.
From the very
first day of construction and installation until well beyond the last,
pickets who represented themselves as members of the 'Right to Die
Coalition' conducted peaceful demonstrations on or about the bridge.
Their case was that suicide is a private act, over which no entity
outside the individual can exercise judgment; that one should be as
responsible to one's own person in a self-destructive mode as in a
constructive one; that this particular bridge was as good a site at
which to perpetrate this right as any other and, in fact, being far
more effective than most, was admirably suited for it; and, furthermore,
to legislate public suicide out of the public eye was merely to sweep
yet another fact of life under some sort of moral rug.
The nearly daily
scenes of organized protest were marred only occasionally. A young
man, haranguing workmen not to aid in depriving the world of one of
its most useful manmade creations, was carried away by the emotion
of his appeal and made what the newspapers impatiently dubbed a salto
da fe -- a leap of faith. As might have been expected two or three
people, each apparently acting on the assumption, perhaps cherishing
the hope, that he might be the last on record as having done so, flung
themselves from the bridge during the final hours of construction.
In the weeks
following the completion of "Project: Wait!", much detritus collected
in the two fields, for they were extremely sensitive, and just as
indiscreet. The trash usually found along a freeway or sidewalk now
floated alongside the bridge as well; this included the obvious beer
cans, muffler clamps, and hubcaps -- but the devices were so effective
as to disallow the whimsical escape of so much as a cigarette butt,
not to mention loose stones, newspapers, condoms, and rain, so that
this famous bridge with its famous forcefields became more famous
for its asteroid belts of refuse. At first the bridge authorities,
publicly announcing that they were working on the problem, quietly
turned off the fields once a week in the middle of the night at maximum
ebb, thereby plummeting the trash into the bay and sweeping it out
to sea. But environmentalists and a couple of suicides soon got wind
of this rather efficient practice and forced an injunction against
it. Subsequently a special cleanup crew with unique machinery and
techniques was designed and put into service.
As soon as
the effect on roadside detritus achieved notice, individual humans
began to experimentally, then playfully, throw themselves into the
forcefields and squirm around in them, gleefully avoiding the especially
contrived retrieval devices that cast after these less than hapless
and not particularly despondent victims. These people made the additional
discovery that one could actually 'swim' a full circle -- vertically,
or in any other direction -- like a looping airplane. Reports varied
but one likened the experience to writhing in a large volume of transparent
gelatin, excepting, of course, the degree of fluidity and the magnificent
view. Firsthand testimonies were duly monkeyed in the tabloids (CREEPS
DOMINATE FIELDS was one headline I remember) with the predictable
results that the authorities spent more and more time and money skimming
the adventurous out of the forcefields. These policing efforts were
soon overwhelmed and, finally, so popular had 'getting jumped' become,
everybody but the newspapers realized that, although throwing oneself
with abandon off the bridge into its forcefields may be vulgar, it
certainly did no one any harm. Thus it came about that of any given
sunny Sunday, as the bridge teemed with automobiles full of onlookers,
any number of people might be found wriggling or sunbathing along
either side of the entire length of it, with a population bias on
the western or 'sunset' side. And the police more or less looked the
other way. To have spent an hour or so 'jumped' or 'suspended' on
Sunday afternoon became a socially acceptable pastime, especially
among the young, whose avant guard jumped while drunk or stoned. Certain
lengths of the span soon became popular hangouts for the besotted,
while other stretches were more popular with the stoned. It became
not uncommon for a jumpee to find himself floating in company with
a suspended quantity of vomit, or among a slowly dispersing nebula
of stems and seeds.
into just such a Sunday scene that Baby and I had walked.
gotten, nor had I intended to get, into this fad yet, but the time
must have seemed right to Baby. She stopped walking before we'd gotten
that looks like fun, she said, leaning over the rail.
It was true
that under ordinary circumstances Baby would try anything, during
which experiments I generally held her purse. We stood there, and
as I tried to decipher the consternation evident on the features of
all the faces around us -- after all, I was thinking, if they don't
like it, why don't they just move on? -- Baby tugged at my sleeve
and said, C'mon, Honey, let's do it too, let's get jumped.
Don't be ridiculous,
I said. What's in it for me?
she said, and handed me her purse.
I held it and
watched, still wondering about the appalled yet curiously fascinated
expressions up and down the sidewalk, as she lifted a long leg up
and straddled the wide rail. Once astride it, she hesitated. She could
have been a little scared. After all, it certainly must have looked
to Baby exactly as if she were about to kill herself. It looked that
way to me. There were a bunch of happy looking people and a lot of
trash floating out there, beyond the rail, but, even so, they looked
very insubstantial against all that thin air and the tiny sailboats,
far below. Baby looked sideways at me, and I couldn't resist a smile,
as if to say, Yeah, so? and she frowned and pouted, then stood up
on the railing, defiant; and holding her nose with one hand and pointing
up with the other she executed a kind of timid hop, backwards, over
the side. She fell about eight feet, decelerating all the way, then
oscillated, coming back up a couple of feet, then down a few inches,
up an inch. And there she hovered, as if dangled from a spring or
rubber strap whose coefficient perfectly understood her mass; giggling
she shouted, come on! It is fun! and she waved at me, as if she'd
just run into a line of surf that looked inviting but might have been
thought too cold for immersion. In spite of myself, I gave a little
wave in return.
there, two hundred fifty feet above the glinting ocean, but not far
from a disheveled, vacant-looking fellow who, observing Baby's classy
entrance, rolled, wiggled, swam and serpentined his way over to her,
where he struck up a conversation. He must have been an old hand at
getting jumped. The traffic was loud enough to prevent my overhearing
their remarks, but as I stood there squinting, a very excited young
woman came rushing down the sidewalk with one arm crooked under a
clipboard. She word a 'Right to Die' armband just above her left elbow,
its insignia a skeleton with one raised, clenched fist.
A great day, she effused, stopping next to me to make a mark on her
papers. We've nearly made the quota.
myself to her and inquired, What quota?
nearly gotten it, she said, and held the clipboard under my nose.
I could see that its papers were covered with figures and calculations,
but they were meaningless to me. One number, written in digits larger
than the rest, was circled heavily in red pencil.
Gotten what, I asked.
What's this seven five nine?
That's how many we
need, she bubbled. Seven hundred, fifty-nine. And we're only a very
Oh, said I. Is this
a petition? You mean you really don't know? It's... Well. Now that
you mention it, it is a sort of petition.... Her voice, already closely
contested by the noises of wind and traffic, was suddenly lost in
a great roar that went up from the crowd milling about the rail further
up the sidewalk, at the center of the span. These and some of the
people already suspended began to chant the number seven five nine,
seven five nine, seven five nine.
I heard the girl say. She pushed past me and pointed. He must be the
one. We've done it!
gaze with my own I saw a man standing alone on the railing. He bowed
deeply to the crowd beneath him, who cheered him loudly. After several
fancy adieus on his part, consisting of additional bows, florid salutations
performed with the hands, the blowing of kisses, and even a curtsy,
I'd begun to understand, and shoved the girl with the clipboard away
from the guardrail. The young man with Baby had his arm tentatively
about her shoulders, and smiled as if beatified. Baby's eyes, round
and tense, caught mine. As another, louder cheer went up, her eyes
smiled and she laughed outright at the consternation undoubtedly blatant
on my own features. A third time the crowd cheered, and the man on
the rail jumped. He fell as Baby had before him, and though his oscillations
were more pronounced -- he went down perhaps eight or ten yards, rebounded
upwards two or three yards, went down again a couple of feet -- his
additional weight did not destroy the forcefield. The people suspended
in its grip bobbed gently, like gulls on a swell. I made my decision.
Glancing up the length of the bridge as I vaulted the railing I saw
that many of the bystanders, perhaps out of premeditation, perhaps
spontaneously, had come to the same conclusion as myself. As we cleared
the last bit of structure I could see that the void was full of falling
bodies, enough so that as Baby and I embraced, as I looked into her
eyes -- those lovely, mischievous eyes that did not retreat from the
gaze of my own, oh, so foreverly -- my fall was hardly interrupted.
Our combined mass buckled the entire field on that side of the bridge
and Baby and I, and nearly eight hundred others, minus the thirteen
of us, survivors predicted by the harsh statistics of experience,
fell towards our deaths.
victory, of sorts.