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June 25, 2010

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If I have a phobia it is—no lie—the fear of being hit by, or even just seeing, a suicide jumper as I'm passing under Aurora Bridge. Maybe it's not totally irrational—after the Golden Gate, Aurora is the #2 jumping off point in the US. So much so there is a plan to erect a costly suicide preventer cage to enclose the walkway. Because of the bridge's landmark status, the enclosure must be aesthetically harmonious, so the project has been chronically delayed.

But today I was not going under, I was walking across, taking my time, making movies, photographing rooftops. Far up ahead a woman stood immobile at the railing, staring out. Every time I see someone like that I worry. Call me crazy, but a body plummeting from the bridge is the last thing I want to see. I'm always relieved when they take out a camera to photograph the stunning view because suicides don't take snapshots.

I wondered how best I might pass her. Should I ask if she were alright? I took my time and lingered for fear I might startle and precipitate a leap. (The shadow of that thought was a little voice telling me I was being paranoid.) Far below, on the Adobe campus, a temporary baseball diamond was marked and two men played fast-pitch whiffleball. I watched four quick pitches--the batter missed them all.

Now that I was closer I saw she was young, neatly groomed, and well-dressed. Maybe she was just watching the whiffleball, too, another cubicle employee enjoying a taste of freedom on a Friday afternoon. Just then a small SUV with its hazards on stopped in the right lane, abruptly halting traffic which stacked up behind it. A frumpy woman jumped out, short, stocky, with the butch look and demeanor of a macho lesbian. I imagined this to be the woman's friend, either picking her up or trying to smooth things over in some personal drama which the two had decided to make public in the way lovers will argue in a restaurant. She hopped the sidewalk railing and quick-stepped to the would-be jumper. I followed not too far behind just as the interventionist made contact and I heard her say just one word: "Jessica?"

They both turned to look at me as I passed. Jessica—who'd already seen me previously—with unconcern and glassy-eyed passivity. The plainclothes cop or whatever she was gave me a quick "what are you doing here?" look of surprise. I just kept moving on, knowing it wasn't my business. Did I do the right thing?

Down below I saw a zodiac police boat parked and waiting. I looked back just as a cop car arrived with flashing lights and two dudes in uniform got out and hopped the railing to join the two women. They were leading the jumper away from the railing but it surprised me they weren't holding on to her. That's when she made her last desperate move. They threw her down, face to sidewalk, too roughly, I thought, cuffed her and held her down too long, then sat her up against the railing. What should I have done? On the one hand I thought I should bear witness in some way, interpose myself as citizen supervisor, in another I wanted to respect the privacy of the distraught woman. I could have stood closer by and filmed and photographed, but why? Just to sensationalize someone's sorry plight?

It was a terrible thing to see but at least it had a relatively happy ending—for the time being, at least.

Ultimately, I suspect it was just a bid for attention. How could I tell? She was wearing her eyeglasses. Let me explain: When I was a student at Cornell, the high bridges over the two gorges there were notorious for suicides and there was even a local term for the deed: gorging out.

From a poem I wrote back then:

                               Above: the green perforated span, wide enough
       for two lanes of traffic, Doppler whine a subdued scream over
       the steel lattice. 125 ft. up, people throw themselves off,
       recently one survived casting himself down one 11 o'clock Fall
       night. Some months before, 87 years old, took off his glasses and
       jacket, and hung off the rail. Let go. Students on the way home
       from class watched aghast 4:30 in the afternoon. And the boy,
       that gravity survivor, left his jacket and wallet on the walkway as well.