Apr 15, 2012

212 Feet

The latest “successful” George Washington Bridge jumper took his life on April 1st. Before that, it was March 7th. And that seems about right. Or as right as something so wrong can seem. See, Port Authority Police do not make a habit of releasing statistics on George Washington Bridge suicides in an effort to deter copycats. But, based on existing news coverage, journalists say the GWB averages about one jumper per month.

They also say locals choose the GWB for their suicides as the structure itself serves as the iconic, inescapable backdrop for their emotionally draining lives.

I understand how someone can grow to hate it here. How being up so high can become a source of anxiety and even panic. How the feeling of being “on top” can impose a particular type of intolerable pressure; it is a long way down in so many respects.

Mid-span, the clearance to the Hudson River from the GWB is 212 feet. That’s about four seconds of 75 mph free-fall before impact. Four seconds before their bones shatter in a way so violent that the crushing of spirit that brought them to this place, physically and mentally, seems like a tumble in the fluff cycle.

Sure, I climb up there and look down thinking: “What if?” I thought about what would have happened if there was no fence when I slipped in the wet leaves while alone on the Long Path last New Year’s Eve. Would you have thought I did it on purpose? Where would that bottle of champagne be today? Surely, not in the apartment with the view.

But what about the out-of-town jumpers? What brings them here? There have been several articles written on “suicide tourism” a phenomenon built upon the hypothesis that folks seek out grand landmarks from which to jump to their deaths in order to make a bold statement about their lives. These architectural masterpieces represent the triumph of human accomplishment on one hand while simultaneously serving as a reminder of failure to those whose final break occurs in the cities they symbolize. Cities, like New York, that offer the dichotomy of isolation and inclusion. You may be lonely, but you’re never alone. There is always someone watching--though there is no guarantee they are paying attention, let alone care.

I (and countless thousands of others) was feet from my own window when that fellow jumped two weeks ago. I didn't see a thing, but my blindness was not for lack of heart.

Ginsberg wrote of the monstrosity of the high rises: “eyes are a thousand blind windows.” But we know buildings are not inherently evil. Ginsberg was high as fuck when he penned “Howl.” Everything is scary when you are detached from reality. Come closer to the window. We can't always see you, but we're here. We aren’t monsters.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always taken comfort in the view. For a reason I can’t quite articulate, I feel like I can’t fall. If I jumped, I imagine I could just take flight. And if I tired and began to descend, the arms of the entire city would catch me. Millions of hands to make for a soft landing and to provide a gentle push to get me back to where I belonged. Like launching a bird. You always said I was a little bird.

Nonetheless, I feel for the jumpers. I know what it’s like to have your dreams disappear, to not be able to visualize what’s next. I even know what it's like to have your life flash before your eyes. And I know what it’s like to be propelled by some kind of irrepressible impulse. All you can do is recognize it as a need to succeed. To accomplish something. Anything.

Perhaps that's why reading the term “successful suicide” today took me aback. I suppose success really does mean different things to different people. The jumper’s destiny is sealed a mere four seconds after stepping over the rail. Success, for them, is defined as an ending. A quick and certain ending that is 99.9% unfuckupable.

However, success defined as a beginning puts the reins of destiny into hands far less predictable than the grim grip of gravity. It’s still a free-fall of sorts--but one that takes place far, far slower than 75 mph. And it's a journey that can all shatter in far, far less than 4 seconds.

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