I've been traveling out to California for over a decade for work. In all that time I'd rarely visited any of the sights. In fact my first venture outside work and the hotel was last September for a hike up to Mission Peak.
So as I was getting off the plane at SFO a few weeks back I thought, 'I should go see the Golden Gate Bridge'. Seems harmless enough right? Not so much...
I got there after 8pm just as the sun was supposed to be setting. The clouds made that a bit of a moot point. Even so, the view was spectacular.
A nice couple pointed out some dolphins playing in the water between the bridge and Alcatraz. We got to chatting and when they learned this was my first time visiting the bridge they got all excited. "You have to walk across it some time!" they insisted. I figured there was no time like the present, so I headed out on foot.
The bridge is about a mile and a half one way, so I figured if I pushed it I could be back in 45 minutes. It would be a brisk walk, but seeing as it was getting on towards 9pm, and I was still on EST, it felt like midnight. At some point I was going to have to get some sleep.
It got darker and windier the further I went. You could see the clouds being blown across the bridge by the wind coming off the Pacific. The air tasted salty. I ran into a bunch of bikers, some people on foot, and even a couple trying to capture themselves in a romantic moment on camera.
This was the south tower up close. It was getting dark by the time I got there. Looking out to the right, the view of the bay seemed an infinite void. I stood right up against the fence and looked out towards Alcatraz. The white caps of the water below were barley visible and everything else was a dark blue emptiness.
I was having a blast, and after a few minutes contemplating the exciting nothingness of that inky void, I headed off to finish my trip across the bridge.
Unbeknownst to me, but knownst to the government of California, many people lean out over that same spot. Oddly enough, instead of feeling exhilaration, they pitch themselves over the side and hit the water 4 seconds later traveling at 75 miles per hour.
For the record, this was me under the south tower. I think I look relatively happy.
It turns out they have cameras and sensors out there and a few minutes after I peered out into the inky abyss a cop came along and picked me up. He was extremely friendly and explained that the bridge closed at 9pm and that I should have seen the sign. In retrospect, the friendliness was probably because he thought I was planning to jump off the bridge.
So this is what the back of the Golden Gate Bridge paddy wagon looks like from the inside! It's quite smelly.
In the end I didn't make it across the bridge. Instead, with the most innocent of intentions, I unwittingly made myself look like the profile of a typical jumper at the most popular suicide location in the world. And that is how you get picked up by the cops on the Golden Gate bridge. QED.
Thoughts on Suicide
I recently learned the story of Tony Nicklinson (@TonyNicklinson), a man with Locked-in syndrome who desperately wanted the right to die on his own terms, but didn't have the physical means to make it happen. I simply can not understand the callousness of people that would deny him the right to die peacefully. Our culture has such a strong fear of death that we are willing to give up quality of life and even force others to embrace suffering rather than let them control their own death.
A person should have the right to kill themselves as long as they do it in such a way that it doesn't physically hurt someone else. Tony wasn't hurting anyone.
As I was driving back to my hotel that night in San Francisco, I couldn't help but think about the issue of suicide. My initial reaction to being picked up by the cops was that it was overkill (no pun intended) to go through all that trouble to keep someone from jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. If someone really wants to kill themselves, I thought, the method isn't the problem. The moment the Golden Gate bridge stops being the most popular site for suicides, someplace else will automatically take it's place. Somehow my brain pieced together that attempting to remove one method of suicide by closing a bridge to foot traffic is like trying to stop people from binge eating donuts by taking away chocolate donuts from everyone. The people that are going to binge eat donuts will find a new location that serves powdered donuts. This last part of the argument in my head probably had something to do with jet lag and hunger, but the point stands.
After reading through a few suicide prevention websites it seems that there is an unscientific consensus among those groups that suicide jumpers are impulsive. Jumpers typically leave less than 45 minutes of time between when they decide to jump and when they do. The sites goes on to state that suicide survivors often think the attempt was a bad idea. From this they extrapolate that putting nets on bridges would actually reduce suicides. It seems likely that properly installed nets would reduce suicides on the Golden Gate bridge, but it's not clear to me it would prevent impulsive suicides.
There's clearly some gray area here and the idea of trying to prevent impulsive suicides seems like a noble enough goal. Even so I can't shake the feeling that nets aren't the answer. Something must be really wrong with society if people are pitching themselves off bridges.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we're talking about putting up nets to "help people" while being perfectly willing to let people like Tony Nicklinson suffer the way we did. Instead of putting efforts into building nets, maybe we should put that effort into improving the way people live and even die.
One simple way to do that is to sign Tony's petition seeking a change in the right to die laws.
If there is one thing I learned from Tony's story it's to get on living while the living is good. So instead of getting embroiled in debates over bridge closing times and net installations I'm going to focus on living. The plan is to enjoy life, try to be nice to the people around me, and make sure next time I leave myself plenty of time to make the full trip across the Golden Gate bridge and back. The view really is magnificent.