Chapter 14 -
The infamous San Francisco afternoon wind can create chaos for those walking the Sidewalk. There is the poor soul whose hat blows off, which is followed by a quarter-mile chase down the sidewalk, each time reaching for the hat as it blows another ten feet away. Finally, he reaches the hat, only to have it rise up and shoot into traffic. Or the tourist who will discreetly toss their half-drunk cup of coffee over the rail and have it swirl back up and drench the person next to them. Many times, I have witnessed men repeatedly pulling down the shirt that keeps billowing up from the wind to expose a portly vacation belly, or a girl frantically fighting with the dress that wants to blow up over her head.
The Bridge’s unpredictable wind has a mind of its own and is not always kind. Once, I witnessed the wind do the unthinkable. A young lady was fulfilling the last wish of a loved one by throwing their ashes from the Bridge. The girl dumped a bag full of ashes over the outer rail, only to have the entire contents of the bag blow back up, covering herself and the dozen onlookers beside her with ash.
Nine million visitors from all over the world walk the Bridge every year. This makes for a lot of interesting people doing a lot of interesting things, and witnessing so many entertaining distractions on the East Sidewalk, made it nearly impossible to spot someone who might be contemplating a jump.
Bridge security had strict rules concerning conduct on the pedestrian sidewalk, but people can be just as unpredictable as the wind. Odd characters have always found ways onto the sidewalk to risk peril for attention. I witnessed a political protest during the running of the Olympic Torch across the Bridge in April 2008, when protesters ascended the South Tower from the sidewalk and unraveled a huge “Free Tibet” banner. I have also seen a man on a ten-foot-tall unicycle, a clown on stilts, and a woman doing backflips from one tower to the other.
I even had a man speed past me on a high wheeler bike from the 1800s, ringing a little bell. The bike had an enormous front wheel, a tiny rear wheel, and a seat above the front wheel that was raised over five feet off the ground. Each turn of the pedals sent the big front wheel around once, so the bike traveled a long distance with a single turn of the wheel. The rider had no means of turning the bike, no control over his speed, and could not stop the bike if he had to. He just buzzed down the sidewalk, loving all the attention he received, not caring that a single mishap or a big gust of wind could topple him over the outer rail to his death.
Luckily, most tourists on the sidewalk are not there for attention and keep a much lower profile. Many are amateur photographers, arranging poses with a backdrop of the bay; maybe a selfie glamour shot, a silly picture, or a photo taken with a Bridge worker. Others pedal their rental bikes up and down the sidewalk, trying to stay upright as they weave their way through the sidewalk traffic. These are examples of busy tourists, obviously not suicide threats.
Some tourists love to take in the whole Bridge experience, stopping every few feet to catch all angles of the inspired view. They may look out over the rail for hours at the beauty the Bridge offers, soaking up as much scenery as they can.
This is where good judgment on our part must come into play. Many jumpers waste no time in jumping, as I mentioned, but there are those who contemplate their intended leap for hours, whether due to fear, doubt, second thoughts, or maybe just because they are reflecting on their last precious moments on Earth.
It's hard to separate these types of “pre-jump” suspects from those just thoroughly enjoying the beautiful view. Politely approaching the person and strike up a casual conversation to further evaluate the situation at hand was always a good way to confront this dilemma. As my next story will show you, even this can make for a difficult call.
One encounter I had with a potential jumper will never leave my thoughts. Although it happened over a dozen years ago, I remember it as though it had occurred yesterday.It was getting near time for our morning break. We had spent the morning working in the cells located at the bottom of the South Tower. After our elevator ride up to roadway level, I exited the tower onto the sidewalk along with two other painters. We headed to our paint scooter, that is parked beside the tower for our ride back to the painters’ break room.
This particular morning’s weather, foggy and overcast with a howling wind, drew my attention to a young man at the outer rail looking extremely anxious, wearing only jeans and a beige short-sleeved t-shirt. The chilly wind, wet sidewalk, and moisture running down every inch of the surrounding steel did not seem to be the environment a somewhat disoriented sleeveless man should hang out in. This alone did not cause me too much concern, since tourists are often caught underdressed because they misjudged the fickle weather that San Francisco can offer up at any time of year.
Still, as far as I could see, the young man looked to be the only person on the entire East Sidewalk, and I asked my fellow workers to give me a couple of minutes to talk with the man. As I got closer, I could see that he appeared to be in his early twenties, unkempt, shivering from the cold, and nervous. He walked toward me as I approached him and seemed as though he wanted to engage in conversation.
Observing his soaking wet t-shirt, I said, “Looks like a real crappy day for sightseeing.”
“I’m not sightseeing,” he replied. “I’m waiting for my girlfriend to come by on her bike. She works in the city, and will come by here any minute.”
I looked around, seeing no sign of anybody coming, and doubted the possibility of anyone being out on a bicycle in this type of weather. “Dude, you are gonna freeze,” I said. “Why don’t you wait for her at the gift center, or the café, or someplace out of this rotten weather?”
He reached into his pocket then and pulled out a diamond ring. “When she comes by, I’m going to get down on one knee, hold this ring up, and propose to her right here at this tower.”
I had to admit, that sounded romantic. Giving him a genuine nod of approval, I smiled and said, “That is really cool.”
I began reasoning things in my head. Had he already proposed to her somewhere else, and she’d refused, leaving him depressed enough to contemplate a jump? Maybe no girl existed at all, and he was playing me so I would leave him alone? Or perhaps she was real and actually going to come riding up at any moment, and this young man’s gesture would prove to be the most romantic moment of both their lives? I did not know what to believe.
What I knew was that if I reported this man to Bridge Security, his appearance and demeanor would definitely prompt them to come out here to question him, and perhaps they would be interrogating him at the moment the girl arrived on her bike, thus turning the romantic moment into an awkward, embarrassing thing for them.
Once again, I scanned the sidewalk just in case she was out there, but still no sign of anyone coming through the gloomy darkness. Closing my eyes, I contemplated my options one last time, then stretched out my hand, grasped his tightly, and gave the man a genuine smile. “Well, good luck. I know she’ll say yes.”
“Thank you, thank you. I sure hope so,” he replied, smiling.
I jumped in the scooter where my co-workers were still waiting, and we headed in for break. Who was I to stand in the way of true love? Our break ended about thirty minutes later, and the weather seemed much more pleasant upon our return to the South Tower. The fog that had clung to the Bridge had lifted, dissipating in the morning's warmth. I wondered how Mr. Romantic was doing and actually smiled at the thought of his success. But when I made the turn from the plaza onto the sidewalk, I saw the Northbound Number One lane blocked off, and a Bridge patrol car at the tower.
My hopes that I might have been part of something special were immediately destroyed and replaced by a sense of intimate pain. A pit formed in my stomach, taking control and crying out for me to realize that some great misfortune was about to happen.
It was obvious that there was a problem at the tower, but the fear of what I would hear kept me from turning on the portable Bridge radio. The Bridge Patrol officer was on the sidewalk directly in front of the South Tower, looking down over the outer rail. After parking the scooter, I looked around but saw no sign of anybody other than the officer. My bad feeling was getting worse. I headed toward the officer.
“Jumper?” I asked somberly.
“Yeah, a driver reported on their cell phone that they saw a man go over the rail about a half hour ago,” answered the officer.
My heart sank as I approached the rail and reluctantly guided my glance downward to what I had hoped not to see. There he was, floating face down in the moat, his beige t-shirt clinging to his lifeless body. It was the young man. I closed my eyes and fought back tears.
The officer could see that I was upset. “Did you know this man?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t, but I think I was the last one to talk to him,” I managed to say. “Was there any report of another person with him before or after the jump?”
“I haven’t heard. Why, was there someone else here with him?”
“No, just curious, thanks,” I said.
I will never know whether he proposed and she denied him, or if there was ever any girl at all. It does not really matter anyway, because the bottom line is that I feel like I let a man die that day. Had I not favored curiosity over prudence, I could have prevented his death by reporting him and having him removed from the Bridge. I made the mistake of ignoring the obvious signs for the sake of my faith that the good in this situation would prevail.
It took me a while to come to grips with what happened that day. I felt angry at myself, frustrated with him, sad over the entire ordeal. I still think of him sometimes and wonder what I could have done differently. I have stopped condemning myself over the incident, though, and I realize now that I never could have known for sure what went on in the young man’s head that day. No matter his reason for jumping, if there could have been any upside to this tragic event, I had given the young man a genuine smile and a warm handshake before he left this world.
I am now retired from the Golden Gate Bridge Paint Department, but people still ask me, “Wow, you worked on the Golden Gate Bridge? Have you ever seen a person jump?”
I tell them, “Yes, and I pray nobody else ever has to see it again!”