Take It to the Bridge
Falling from the sky is amazing! It captures our imagination like nothing else. Take, for example, this strange case from the natural world -- by this I mean the world of animals and so on. We are simply stunned when thousands of birds suddenly, inexplicably, commit suicide by falling from the sky, as once happened in some old city in Europe. The birds dove earthward and hit the concrete one after the other with rapid splats. So remarkable was this event that it was shown to the whole world via television, and billions were darkly moved by the sight of these little deaths. On the other hand, we are almost indifferent when big, sad whales beach themselves on our coasts and patiently wait for death to come. This act seems personal and none of our business. In a way, we even understand these whales: They are just tired of the endless and depthless sea (who wouldn't be -- it's so dark down there), and now they want to die on the beach, so leave them alone. We never, however, understand something that falls from the sky.
The jumper (the official term from The Codebook of Federal Security Agencies), whether bird or human, is in essence a lofty figure -- a failed movie star, a baseball player who never made it out of the minor leagues, or a rock musician without a record deal -- and all that is left for them is this final but very public act. That is why this form of suicide is ultimately a performance and the jumper a star (albeit a fallen one).
Here in Seattle, the main stage for such performances is the Aurora Bridge. True, people jump from downtown buildings (like the miserable man who leapt from the top of the Nordstrom parking garage last year) and other structures, but these are not center-stage events. The real place to jump (or perform) is the Aurora Bridge. In fact, one of the earliest jumpers was an entertainer, a stuntman named Ray Woods. In 1935, he jumped off the Aurora Bridge and survived without a scratch. (Two years later, however, Woods jumped from the more formidable Golden Gate Bridge and broke his back.)
Granted, many jumps from the bridge are made on a whim, meaning that someone walking or driving on the bridge suddenly thinks, "What the hell," stops the car, and impulsively cartwheels over the ledge, as one West Seattle man did in 1974. In these cases, people are drawn to the emptiness, to the nothingness that beckons from the great beyond -- they have to "embrace the abyss," as Sartre put it. The French philosopher and novelist also noted that this is an existential anxiety that burdens anyone who happens to cross a bridge or stand on a high structure. The less philosophical Officer Lone of the Seattle Police Department's Harbor Patrol put it this way: "They jump because the bridge is there," implying that if it weren't for the bridge, the thought of committing suicide would never enter these otherwise psychologically sound minds.
Who knows -- maybe in a way he's right. But a quick look at 10 or so police reports of jumps shows that the theme of performance runs deep. In 1971, a 30-year-old man, who had just gone through a messy divorce and was having problems with his second marriage, decided enough was enough and drove out to the middle of the bridge and prepared to jump. A passing police officer spotted the jumper, got out of his squad car, and started talking to him. The cop got close to the jumper and offered him a cigarette. The jumper looked at the cigarette and said, "I have seen that cigarette ploy on TV dramas!" Then he jumped. In July, 1980, a woman named Connie went to a small tavern in Queen Anne, and became so displeased with a band that was performing that night (the once popular Jr. Cadillac), she drove to the bridge and had her own little show -- she jumped to her death. And in April, 1990, a Harbor Patrol unit found the body of a jumper floating next to his violin case.
First named the George Washington Bridge when it was completed in 1932, the Aurora Bridge is 2,956 feet in length, and at mid-span, rises 175 feet above Lake Union. It is by definition a cantilever bridge, meaning it is "composed of anchored trusses, cantilevered out from the piers and connected by a shorter, suspended span," my handy Collier's Encyclopedia tells me. Though our cantilever bridge does enjoy some status in the Pacific Northwest (it was once the largest highway project in the region), it does not claim much else in the glamorous world of civil-engineering feats. So it has been the 200 or so people who've jumped from the bridge who have made this basic structure what it is today. It is they who inspired the numerous names the bridge goes by -- "Suicide Span," "Jumper's Bridge," "Fremont Falls" -- and transformed it into a local symbol, or a figure of speech that can be used to stress or dramatize an idea. For example, when trying to determine why dentists (who deal with the mouth) were more prone to suicides than proctologists (who deal with the ass), one Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter used the Aurora Bridge in this way: "If there is a psychological effect from looking into people's mouths every day, and being generally feared, as the suicide studies indicate, then one would think that proctologists would be lined up on both sides of the Aurora Bridge."
What these jumpers have done to the bridge is to re-purpose it, meaning that instead of just operating as a part of the highway system that links two land masses, the bridge is now something that can be used to end a life with a bang or splash. This re-purposing is important because if it hadn't occurred, the bridge would have remained anonymous; we would never have taken notice of it nor paused for a meditative moment when crossing it. A similar thing happened with an apartment building in Tokyo called the Takashima-Daira Apartment Complex. In 1977, this building became famous only when a family of three jumped from the roof to their deaths. Soon afterward, the apartment building became known as the best place to commit suicide in all of Tokyo. In his controversial book, The Complete Manual to Suicide (1994), suicide advocate Wataru Tsurumi writes, "At one point, someone jumped from the building every three days. In 1981, the complex installed iron fences around the roof and set up a suicide hotline, which drastically reduced the number of suicide attempts there. However, if you want to jump from this spot, it can still be done. Building number 3-11-1 is easy to enter and has low fences. It's fourteen floors high and surrounded by hard concrete; a fall is lethal. To get there, take the Mito-line to the Shin-Takashima-Daira station. Turn left toward 4-Chome. The building you want is the one facing the railroad track." Indeed, if I were to go to Tokyo at this very moment, this is the only building I'd know how to find. Such is the power of the jumper.
A prime example of the significance of re-purposing is the monstrous span that carries I-5 over Lake Washington: Despite being a larger, more impressive structure than the Aurora Bridge, with an excellent view of the city, as a bridge it goes almost unnoticed by drivers who transverse its curved length. To our eyes and mind it is no different from the highway it sustains. In fact, who even knows its name? (I discovered that it's called the Lake Washington Ship Canal Bridge, but only after making several calls to the Seattle Public Library's information center.)
The problem is that the I-5 bridge has not awoken from the sleep of its primary function, which is to lead traffic from one side of town to the other. The German philosopher Heidegger once wrote that the essence of a tool (like a hammer) is only noticed when it is broken. If a hammer works, then it is nothing more than an extension of your hand, but if it breaks, you notice its "hammerness." This is close to what I mean by re-purposing; the added and unexpected uses of the Aurora Bridge (e.g., the way it has been used to express political and environmental concerns, as in 1997 when Greenpeace protesters hung from it by huge ropes and prevented two American fishing trawlers from heading to the Bering Sea) knocked it out of the slumber of its primary function, and it is now wide-awake, alert, alive. Indeed, like Heidegger's hammer, re-purposing brings out the "bridgeness" of the Aurora Bridge. Early in its existence, the Space Needle was quick to prevent this re-purposing from happening. After the first successful jump, a suicide net was placed around it to catch jumpers and frustrate their designs. As a result, the Space Needle has never been knocked out of the sleep of use; that is why we never notice it, or think about it. It is there, but no one sees its "space-needleness."
"Wet or dry, the physics of an Aurora Bridge jump are unforgiving," a reporter once wrote for The Lake Union Review (a now-defunct monthly supplement to The Seattle Press). "A 160-pound person covers the 180 feet in 2.2 seconds. Depending upon the configuration of the body during the fall, final speed is about 55 m.p.h. Force at impact is about 28,000 foot-pounds, equivalent in energy to being blasted by 20 30-30 Winchester rifles from a distance of 180 feet." This is how fast it happens: You jump and all that is left between you and eternity is two to three seconds. There is barely enough time to think before you the hit the water. But jumpers don't always hit the water. Some aim for and hit the street. Or the parking lot that belongs to the California-based software company Adobe, who moved under the bridge in 1998. These kinds of suicides are called "dry jumps," and they account for 20 percent of all leaps (about eight per year) from the bridge.
Last year, I found a report of a dry jump in the police files. It was very unsettling. A man fell hard onto Adobe's parking lot, on the very spot where, two months later, the Fremont Friday-night outdoor movie series screened One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Officer K. Jones, who is no longer with the force, wrote, "The victim sustained trauma to his entire body, including severe head injury. I observed the victim motionless lying face down in the north parking lot of Adobe Systems Inc. The parking lot underneath the Aurora Bridge. Blood was coming from his head. I felt no pulse on the right wrist." The officer's voice is clearly shaken; the spectacle is too much for words. How can one describe such an incident? It is unbelievable, fantastic.
Some psychologists, such as Karl Young-Mays, a Freudian, suggest that at the root of every jump is the hidden hope that God will intercede -- that in mid-fall, angels will appear to catch the jumper. This idea goes way back: According to the Bible, Jesus was tempted by Satan to jump off a high cliff, while he was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. If Jesus was who he said he was, reasoned Satan, God would save him. On the Aurora Bridge, the theory applies well to the class of jumper who aims for the water, because historically there is a one in 10 chance of survival; there is actually a chance for a "miracle." "Why me?" a survivor named Lauren Jameson, who jumped in 1975, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1996. "Why me that walked away unscathed? That's when I started believing in God." The person who aims for the concrete, on the other hand, is not playing a game with God, but sending a messy message to vulnerable humankind, giving us, the living, a big middle finger -- a loud "fuck you" in the form of a horribly bloody body.
Those who aim for the water and miraculously survive are never the same again. Physically, the survivors sustain permanent damage after their falls; they suffer from chronic back pain, digestive problems, breathing difficulties, even blindness in some cases. Mentally, however, it is said that they have a "new zeal for living," as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put it in their '96 article "Life After the Fall." These survivors suddenly feel "better psychologically," says a study in the academic journal Suicide and Life (Summer 1998); they see the brighter side of things, and want to enjoy this "brief crack of light between the two eternities of darkness," as Nabokov once put it. "I cherish my life today," says one survivor in "Life After the Fall." "It changed my perspective on life," says another. "I've lived a whole lifetime since then and I think I have a good handle on things [now]," says yet another. One person, a Mr. John Dittmann, who jumped in 1979, opted for the joy of life on the way down: "At that point," he says, "I decided I didn't want to die."
FAME! LIGHT UP THE SKY WITH MY NAME
Though jumps make up only about 10 percent of the 200 or so suicide deaths in King County per year (guns are the most popular "suicide injury method" -- they account for nearly 50 percent), they are definitely the most democratic, the most glamorous, and the most memorable way to go. Who's forgotten that man who jumped to his death from a downtown skyscraper during rush hour in the winter of 1993? His final words, before throwing a fire hydrant out the window and following it, were, "I have had enough of this place." Can I recall one thing Jimmy Carter ever said? No, not in a million years.
A jump is so powerful an event that the Seattle Police Department will no longer release the total number of Aurora Bridge jumpers, hoping the lack of a number will lessen the bridge's glamour. Our city's policy is opposite that of San Francisco, which has kept a record of every jump from the Golden Gate Bridge -- a bridge that is "to suicide what Niagara Falls is to honeymoons," as the writer Geo Stone put it in his 1999 book, Suicide and Attempted Suicide. The city of San Francisco not only keeps a record of every jump from the Golden Gate, but in July 1996, publicly announced the 1,000th jump (that's California for you). In fact, back in 1971 when the 499th official jumper was reported, a TV crew set up a camera to catch the 500th jumper. Geo Stone writes, "The first fourteen for the role (one wearing a T Shirt bearing the number 500) were all stopped or talked out of jumping, but number fifteen, 26-year-old Steven Houg, evaded rescuers and leaped to his death. The cameras missed it."
Like shooting up a McDonald's in Iowa or a high school in Texas, the jump is a way for the little man/woman to become famous for a fast second; and that is why we dislike jumpers. They are like flashers in a dark ally, who expose their sordid souls to the world busily passing by. They want us to see their horror, to be an audience to their pain. One pissed-off cop (SPD Sergeant Miller) expressed the mood of many citizens when he recommended that instead of placing phones linked to crisis centers on the bridge (an idea that has been considered for many years), the city should place a diving board there, just to let the jumpers know how much the public dislikes their pathetic performances. Let's admit it: We hate jumpers! We hate them because we see in their final act something of a Silas Cool -- the man who shot city bus driver Mark McLaughlin, then himself, causing a double-long bus to "dry jump" over the side of the Aurora Bridge in 1998. They seem to want to drag us down with them. They use and mock us by taking advantage of our basic impulses, our weakness for big entertainment. We don't want them to jump; we want them to live and suffer like everybody else. But if they do jump, they know we have no choice -- we have to stop and watch their amazing fall.