Where I live there is a bridge. I cross it twice each day on the #5 bus into downtown and back home again. While there is water below, most of the bridge is over land. I’m not sure how unusual that is.
It’s an old bridge and the lanes are narrow…only 11 feet wide, which leaves on average about 2.5 feet between cars. There are three of these extra-lean lanes going each way with no barrier between them, standing 167 feet in the air. On a clear day, it requires full attention. When it’s dark and rainy, a frequent condition here in Seattle, it can make a responsible driver grip the steering wheel a bit and lean forward, too. Given all that, not usual for a bridge of its age.
Over the course of its 79-year life, it’s had a name change…more than one if you count the unofficial ones. In its early days, it marked the beginning of the open spaces north of the city, but now it only spans some open space between otherwise densely populated neighborhoods. A common story in a growing city, so still not unusual.
What is unusual about this particular bridge is that more people jump from this bridge than from all other bridges in the country, except the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the equivalent of jumping from a 15-story building, so most of the jumpers die. The first one, a 32-year-old shoe salesman jumped before the bridge was actually completed.
I’ve been walking out on the bridge lately because it has my attention. It’s not uncommon for people to walk along the pedestrian walkway. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been out there without crossing paths with at least a couple of people. Lately, however, there’s an eeriness to being out there. This is why.
An 8’9” fence was recently completed to make it more difficult to jump from the bridge. The news and the neighborhood blogs have been full of comments on the controversial project…most of it having to do with the $4.6 million expense. Not a surprise that the people who live and work below the bridge have been unwilling witnesses to the many landings that fail to hit the water. They have a different perspective from those who only drive back and forth, but who also have a view…or used to have a view. And, of course, there are the broken-hearted people that jumpers have left behind. They have their own “what ifs.”
Our local newspaper has a policy of not reporting the story when someone jumps from the bridge. Even so, it hasn’t been a secret from anyone that at least 230 people have jumped and died since 1932. In fact, now that the fence is there, it’s a daily reminder even without the various bouquets of memorial flowers and photographs in protective plastic sleeves that are now wired to the fence.
For all the time I’ve spent thinking about this, I still can’t come down squarely on any view except a vague uneasiness about the bridge. The questions and opinions and the bridge itself seem to have curled up on a soft old dusty pillow in a not-quite-out-of-the-way alcove in my head, waiting patiently for a few more minutes of attention. There is a sense of the bridge now as a memorial, a bittersweet reminder that life is not about certainty, and the hopeful possibility that a daily commute can offer a meaningful and lasting touchstone. Maybe that’s the most unusual part.