Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Happy Hour

Yesterday afternoon the bridge out of town was closed for over three hours during evening rush hour for a woman deliberating a midspan jump off the ledge. Before traffic was diverted in both directions, one friend of mine spotted her sitting on the wall, legs dangling over; another witnessed her standing, arms outstretched and wobbling as she balanced herself on her precarious perch.

I know the reason the bridge was ultimately closed down completely is that some passersby encourage jumpers to do the deed, to follow through, to jump already. I suppose those kinds of glib remarks are easy to make from the safety of a speeding car.

I've always claimed to be willing to wait in traffic if someone's life is on the line. I'm not convinced that I can credibly declare that where I am heading or what I am needing to do or even My Rights As An Individual trump someone else's mortality. If being delayed or being diverted helps someone be helped, I can ungrit my teeth and manage my frustration. Of course, if traffic is caused by mere rubbernecking (i.e.,Look! There are some minorly crunched cars on the shoulder that we're all slowing down to look at!), well, I get pissed. Unnecessary traffic slowing irritates me.

Completely closing the bridge over the bay, the main thoroughfare into and out of the city in which my husband and I both grew up and work, is pretty unprecedented. And while the two of us were stuck on one side of the bridge for hours, both our daughters were on the other. Yesterday I had to enlist the help of my sister-in-law to pick up Little One, or she would have been stranded at preschool until way past closing.

Nevertheless, I marveled at the procedural accommodations made for this woman who contemplated her fate atop the bridge. I imagine the personnel--the individuals--who spent three hours with her yesterday afternoon and evening, ultimately saving her life. While they were there, doing what they do, negotiating, surrounding her, using extra care and research-based techniques to talk her down, the sun set, probably gloriously, as it did as I crossed the bridge on my way home this evening.

But they focused their attention on one life, one woman, one fellow human and her suffering. They must not have given up nor turned their backs nor shown their frustration at her obstinacy or ambivalence, or I suspect the outcome could have been different. Thousands of people were inconvenienced, but there was no apology, no public acknowledgment of the sacrifice made for our suicidal compadre. It was as if the unspoken statement from the authorities was, "This is what we do. And while we do it, you will wait."

I don't know why, but I find that comforting. I suppose it's possible that I could die quietly on the streets of a downtown American city if I looked like a homeless person sleeping in a doorway, but if I were to consider taking my own life from atop our city's bridge, people would take that seriously. They would stop the world for me. And try to make eye contact. And give me three hours of their undivided attention.

Is it at all a wonder that someone might want that kind of acknowledgement? Or desire proof that people care, whether or not that caring is what they're paid to do?

Ten years ago I was inspired to write a poem after I drove past an empty car on the bridge and heard later the driver had jumped:

Happy Hour

I drove over the bridge at 3:15 yesterday afternoon.
Squinting through the windshield, I marveled at the day. A huge white sail disappeared beneath the blue expanse,
and I imagined the cars in my lane teeming toward happy hour.

Then I passed your red compact car
abandoned at the edge,
a Sisyphean backpack of troubles left on the front seat.
You had just leapt, dropped, flown
from the ledge
and that realization changed the scene around me
like the opening and closing of a shutter.
I saw a sailor gasping in wonder at your plummeting body,
self left behind.
I saw harsh sunlight,
white knuckles on the steering wheel,
and too much traffic.

I saw your car,
the carcass of a wildebeest
who stumbled and fell
in the heady migration
of people
getting on with their lives.

1 comment:

JJ&K said...

The suicides make me sad. The cavalier, and sometimes cruel, attitudes toward those at that edge make me sadder. I liked your poem.