Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I'll start this with an article in the East Bay Times on Saturday, July 8:

Man hangs himself from Lake Merritt bridge in apparent suicide, police say

It's a very short article.  It didn't appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, my usual paper.  This is the significant sentence:  "Witnesses said a woman ran up and down the bridge screaming for someone to stop him before he jumped."

Four days later, at my gym after a water aerobics class, I found myself sharing a hot tub with the woman who ran up and down the bridge screaming.  

For the purpose of this story, I'll call her Ethel, which isn't her name.  She's an older African American woman who works in San Francisco and exercises regularly at the Oakland gym, and one of her exercise habits is a daily walk around Lake Merritt, a course of a little over 3 miles. We chat regularly in the locker room.  After climbing into the tub, she told me flatly that she'd seen a man kill himself on Friday evening.  I asked her to repeat herself a couple of times, partly because the jacuzzi makes a fair amount of noise and partly because I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly.

Ethel's story was simple if appalling - on her regular walk around the lake, she found a man standing on the bridge as she came up to it.  As she looked at him, she realized he had a wire rope around his neck, and the rope was padlocked to the bridge.  She said a lot of people were staring at him - kids with skateboards, and residents of a homeless camp in the area.  Nobody seemed to be trying to talk him down, and no one seemed to have called the police.  She yelled at people to help him but they all just stood there.  She tried briefly to talk him down herself but he didn't respond, so she pulled out her phone and called 911, but she said she had trouble telling the dispatcher where this was.  In any case she said it was "7 or 8 minutes" before the emergency technicians got there, and by that time the man had jumped off the bridge and was hanging under it.  Everyone was staring at him.  She said the man was young, thin, blond, and didn't "look homeless."

What she told me in the hot tub wasn't anything like this organized and sequential; Ethel was still a very upset woman, despite the fact that she'd spent much of the weekend talking to a Kaiser therapist about what she'd seen.  (I was very glad to hear she did that.)  In fact, she said she hadn't gone into work that day, and had been "numb" until that evening (Tuesday), when she got into the water aerobics class and did about the last 20 minutes.  The exercise seemed to help her pull herself together, and she said she was better now; but she still looked very distressed to me.  I sat and listened to her - I figured she still needed to talk it out, and listening is something I do well.  I hope cautiously that she's pulling out of what must have been a terrible shock, but I'm afraid she'll see that man hanging there every time she walks around the lake.

There isn't really a point to this story; but it shocked me to my core, and I merely heard about it at second hand.  I wanted to write it out to give it some distance.  I'm also dismayed by the length of time it took the emergency people to get there - but Oakland is one of the few towns where, if you call 911 from a cell phone, the call doesn't go to local dispatch - it goes to the California Highway Patrol in Martinez, and they have to sort out what the call is for and transfer it back to Oakland.  She just said, "I called 911", so that may explain some of the delay.  I didn't think to ask her if she remembered exactly what she had dialed, and it doesn't matter at this point.  Yes, she should have remembered to call the local emergency number; but I defy you to think calmly when you're looking at a potential suicide and wondering when he'll jump off the bridge.

I'm trying to think of a wise and helpful remark to wrap this account up with, and I'm failing completely.  But it happened, and it's a shame, and it had the side effect of damaging a woman I know.  One would wish no such thing would ever happen again, but it will.

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