Note: This started out as a timed exercise to write a brief story—thus the title—and turned into a longer look at the events of that night.
It was a tough night to start a Graveyard shift. Tonight was my wife’s birthday and a big one at that; the Double-nickel: 55 years. We had gone out to dinner after the Lioness got home from work and now I was headed out to start work—7 nights of the dreaded graveyard shift. It was ‘Out of the blue and into the black’, to quote Neil Young.
I arrived at work, relieved my Swing shift co-worker and began making my rounds, checking on various parts of the mechanical plant that keep the buildings running at the Golden Gate Bridge Plaza.
When I arrived at the Security Office, the on-duty Sergeant said, “We are having a problem with the North Bike gate. The contractor called us and said that a piece of it is loose and needs to be secured. They ty-rapped it as a temporary fix.”
“Fuck me,” I thought, “this is going to mean two trips to the North end.”
“Can we take a look at it on camera? Maybe I will be able to see what I need to take with me to fix it and do it in one trip?”
Sergeant Steve walked over to the array of security camera monitors, sat down at the controller and selected the monitor with the North Bike Gate camera. This camera was a ‘fixed’ camera — it did not move around or change focus (pan-tilt-zoom) — we had a single, unchanging view of the gate in question.
I noticed that one of the cross-braces on the sliding gate was out of position on the lower corner of the gate. At this point a contractor in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle arrived at the gate and pushed the alert button for the Sgt. to open the gate.
“Do me a favor, Steve. Would you get on the intercom and ask that guy if he would please point out the piece of the gate that is broken and tied off? I want to double-check myself here.”
Sure enough the man pointed to the lower corner of the gate where I thought the brace was out of place. “OK, tell him thanks for me and let him through.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall, it was 00:15, just after midnight (we use 24-hour Military time at the bridge). Zero Dark OMG, I had prep work to do before I started my work in the Plaza lanes and now this has to be taken care of. Poor, pitiful me, waaaah!
I laughed at myself, why was I feeling like this? It was a beautiful, clear July night and I had the privilege of being out on the Golden Gate Bridge after-hours. Attitude adjustment over.
“Steve, I am going to get some tools and material and see if I can fix this gate. It may take two trips if I don’t bring everything I need the first time. Here’s the bottom line: If I can’t fix it, I will make sure that is secured and safe. If I do repair the gate I will use our shop’s digital camera to take a photo and email it to the Ironworkers so that they can double-check whatever I do out there tonight when they get to work this morning. Sound like a plan?”
Sgt. Steve yawned. “Yes, do whatever you have to do. If you need to leave to get more stuff we can post a guard if the gate is open.”
“You guys are the best. I’ll be on the portable (radio) if you need me for the next hour or so.” I left the Sgt’s Office to gather up what I thought I needed for the repair. I was actually looking forward to getting out into the cool night air and enjoying the view of San Francisco from the bridge sidewalk.
We use three-wheeled Cushman Utility Scooters to carry people and supplies out to the Bridge proper and I stocked one with tools and material. I am from the school that when you are working two miles from your supplies it only makes sense to take what you think you may need, plus a few extra for dropsies. You can always re-stock what you don’t use, but it is a time-consumer to drive round-trip for one more of anything. I think of the people in the International Space Station at times like this — “we are just waiting on a lock nut so that we can finish up here…”
All stocked up, I departed the Powerhouse and drove through the Underpass, turned North up the ramp and pushed the alert button at the South Bike gate. The Sgt’s opened the gate for me and I gave them the standard hand wave to acknowledge their help.
The color of the night sky was navy blue, bordering on black. I could see the stars above and The City beyond. The waters of San Francisco Bay looked like Naugahyde in the moonlight. I wished that my wife was along with me to share the magnificent views that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The night was memorable already and I was only 90 minutes into my shift.
As I drove north at 15 mph (the top speed for our scooters) I divided my time between enjoying the view to my right (East) and looking ahead (North) for the occasional bicyclist. During the Summer the sidewalks close at 9 PM and only people on bicycles are allowed on the sidewalk. I had been at the Bridge long enough at this time to perfect the Head Swivel — look ahead, check the outside rear view mirror, look to the side, look ahead, check the outside rear view mirror, look to the side, repeat endlessly.
A driver does not want focus on any one position because many of the bicyclists can pedal faster than the top speed of the scooters and they will come up from behind, overtake and pass him. On a night like this, clear and no fog, I could look a long way down the sidewalk for bikers, scan the belvederes (those little ‘pull-outs’ that you find along the sidewalk) for anyone who has stopped for a look. This gave me time to enjoy the view out the side of my scooter. I slowed down to weave my way through the contractor’s construction zone at the South Pylons and proceeded North, alone and in charge.
By the time I cleared the North Tower I shifted my focus to the bike gate ahead of me, hoping that I brought the right stuff to fix it in one trip. I took one last quick look over my shoulder at San Francisco, lights glowing in the night, and marveled at how dark the night had become.
I turned my head North again and suddenly, out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a flash of white, head-high, close to me. I stomped on the brakes and screeched to a halt, leaning out, looking back at…?
I put the scooter in reverse and backed up about 30 feet. Standing in the corner of a Belvedere, I could see a tall, thin figure dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie. The person’s back was to me, their arms wrapped tightly around their body and they were totally ignoring my presence.
What to do? I looked around, North and South to see if anyone else was out there with us. Nada, we were alone. “Hello?” No response.
I repeated the question again, only louder this time, “Hello? Hey, Good Morning to you.”
The dark figure quickly turned their head in my direction and I could see that it was a young Asian woman. I felt a bit better, I wasn’t dealing with a testosterone-fueled youth. She turned her head back to look over the rail and I felt even more uneasy. “Ma’m? Hello, Ma’m?”
She turned around and put her back against the Bridge rail, arms still wrapped tightly around her chest. I looked at her face and into her eyes and saw something that I had never seen before: The Abyss. This young lady had the Thousand-yard stare combined with a drop-jawed, wide-eyed buggy look. She started to tremble and shake. “It’s OK, you are alright. You look cold, would you like to wear my jacket and warm up?”
I had no idea what to do in a situation like this. I had seen the Thousand-yard stare before and I had driven a few folks off the Bridge prior to this, but this was a new league for me. I remembered something that a CHP officer once told me when I asked him about dealing with potential suicides. He told me that it is important to treat the people with respect; that they are a fellow human being who made a bad decision and, as a result, are having the worst day of their life.
“Ma’m, pedestrians are not allowed out on the Bridge after 9 PM, the sidewalks are for bicyclists only.” More trembling, wider eyes, the lady started to bend forward at the waist. “You are not in trouble here, it’s OK. I can give you a ride to your car, which end of the bridge are you parked?”
No response, this wasn’t good. “How did you get out here?”
“GGGGate.” She pointed in the direction of the North Gate.
“They opened the gate for you, or did you go onto the roadway and around it?”
I realized that it didn’t matter how she got onto the sidewalk, the important thing was to remove her. “Did you drive here? Can I take you to your car?”
She shook her head no, a reasonable response to a stranger at night. “I’ll tell you what I can do. I am going to call some friends of mine in the Security Office and they will take you to your car. Does that sound OK?”
No response except a growing sense that she could not believe that I found her on the bridge. I picked up the microphone to my radio and brought it close to my face, “Portable K to Sgt’s Office.”
“Go ahead, Portable K.”
“I am on the East sidewalk at light pole xx with a young lady who needs a ride to her car. I am unable to ascertain where she parked it.” That would send an unspoken message to the Sgts.
“10-4, we copy. Are you able to stay with her until an officer arrives?”
“10-4, it is no trouble.” I looked at her and smiled. “We will be waiting for you. Portable K, clear.”
Within minutes two patrol cars pulled into the Buffer lane on the Bridge and Sgts Steve and Bob got out of the cars, looked both ways and climbed onto the sidewalk. They were all smiles, “Good Morning, how are you today?”
I stepped away to allow them to do their jobs uninterrupted. After a few minutes, Sgt Bob came over to tell me that her car was in the Vista Point parking lot (behind the gate I was about to repair) and that something was off in her story.
They requested additional units from CHP to meet them in the Vista parking lot. As they put the young lady into the patrol car I felt a mixture of relief and wonder. I could see the disbelief in her face, her body language told me that this was her one shot and that she blew it.
I went to work on the broken gate and ended up going back for more material. I was finished and picking up my tools when Sgt. Bob came over to talk to me. 45 minutes had passed since he showed up to help and when he got up to me he extended his right hand, “Thanks for calling this in.”
We shook hands. “You’re welcome, something didn’t feel right.”
“We found a 20 page suicide note on the front seat of her car, complete with plans for her funeral.”
“Today is her 20th birthday and she felt like she let her family down. She got a couple of Bs on her college report card and it messed up her straight A average. She would have jumped if you had not found her out here.”
“I don’t know what to say, it was a total accident that I was even here. I thought about waiting to do this after I did my lane maintenance tonight. I could have missed her by being lazy.”
“Hey, a save is a save is a save. Take’em anyway that you can and say, ‘Thank you, God’.”
“Bob, tonight is also my wife’s birthday.”
“Wow. Let’s hope this lady, and your wife, have many more after tonight.”
“What will happen to her?”
“She will be put under observation for 72 hours at Marin General and then they will take it from there depending on what they find.”
Very rarely do we know what happens to people who are injured on the Bridge, or get stopped before they take their own life. It might make the newspapers, usually it doesn’t.
I thought about my wife and our life together, we had been married for 35 years at this point. I thought about what our lives were like on this day back when my wife turned twenty—we were married for just over 3 months. If she had done something like this, back then, we would have missed out on this wonderful life that we have had together. I watched the flashing lights of the CHP cruisers as they headed North to Marin General with the young birthday girl. I hoped that she would find the courage to continue her life in spite of its setbacks.
You are not alone
If I have learned anything from this experience it is that I just need to show up and do whatever is in front of me. I realize that even though I may have a plan, sometimes there is a much bigger plan that will take priority, and that is just the way it is.
No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.