Last year I drove past a street person who was walking up and down one of the I-5 on-ramps here in Olympia. He was yelling at people on the street below and screaming at cars as they sped past him. I edged closer to other side of ramp so I wouldn’t hit him as I drove by. As I pulled onto the freeway I thought, “Man, I gotta call that guy in. He’s going to wander in front a car and get hit.”
But then I thought, “Nah, I have this ancient flip phone that I gotta dig out of my pocket. It doesn’t have voice-activated calling. I’ll probably get a ticket for driving and talking. I’ll let the guy behind me call. He’s probably got a smart phone he can use without even taking it out of his pants.”
I always assume people with iPhones can do anything just by yelling at their crotch. So I drive off to Costco or Target or wherever I was going and forgot about the guy on the bridge.
Thirty minutes later I’m driving home and the whole freeway is backed up. I make a quick exit just before I get to the backup and as I’m driving down the access road along the side of the freeway I see what’s causing the traffic jam. It’s the guy I drove past earlier. He’s on the edge of the overpass threatening to jump. Police are there trying to talk him down. Paramedics are on the freeway below getting ready in case he jumps. Dozens of people are standing on another bridge a hundred feet away watching all of it unfold.
At this point I’m overwhelmed with guilt. I may not have put him there on that bridge but I drove past him when he needed help and in some ways that feels even worse. So I pull over in a secluded part of the access road and watch the police try to talk him down. I know if he jumps that it’s going to stay with me forever.
Every few minutes the guy turns away from the police and faces the empty space between his feet and the ground below. He waves his arms as though he’s about to step off and then a cop says something that catches his attention and he turns back around. This is how it goes. Back and forth. Over and over.
I’m scared that if he jumps it will trigger memories of my own struggle with suicide years ago. I can’t go through that again. I know I should leave for my own well being but I don’t. I’m praying that he doesn’t step off that ledge but if he does I need to pay for it. I had a chance to help him and I didn’t.
As I’m watching the guy on the bridge a pickup truck pulls over and parks behind my car. A couple jumps out and joins me on the side of the road. I suddenly get very nervous. I know what people say when they’re stuck in traffic because of a suicide attempt. They get nasty. I’ve heard all the stories where people say the most horrible things.
“Quit stalling and do it.”
“Why can’t these idiots do it at home?”
This couple standing next to me were walking cliches of everything I didn’t want to see at this moment. Giant pickup. Duel muffler pipes sticking up behind the cab. Probably had a picture of Calvin on the tailgate peeing on something. May or may not have had a confederate flag in the back window.
The woman was thin with stringy hair. She jumped out of the truck almost before it stopped so she could catch the action. The guy was tall and broad and looked like Thor if Thor listened to Kid Rock and Lynard Skynard.
The lady walked up to the fence where I was standing and I started muttering to myself, “Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.” I was looking at the guy on the overpass but all my attention was on the woman next to me. I thought, “Lady, I cannot handle it if you say what I think you’re going to say.”
As she curled her fingers around the chain link fence she whispered, “Please don’t jump. You don’t have to do this.” Then the man walked up and put his hands on her shoulders and said, “He’ll be ok, honey. He’ll be ok.”
That’s when I had to leave. In the past hour I had driven past a man who needed help and judged two decent human beings based purely on their looks. What good was I doing anyone here? I needed to go home and think about what led me to do those things.
I found out later the police had talked the guy down and he was taken to the hospital. At least I didn’t have to live with the consequences of what could have happened. But that moment with that couple on the side of the road has stuck with me. Somewhere in Thurston county there’s a couple in a pickup rocking out to Freebird who showed me there are good people everywhere and that the world is not as cold as I think it is.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for at this month’s show Thursday, February 25, 7pm at Roy Street Coffee and Tea.
Tell us about about a time when someone said or did something that changed the way you see things. I have a feeling that if we look back at the turning points in our lives we’ll find that it was the little things, said or unsaid, done or not done, that sent us down a different path.
The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
Remember to practice out loud, make sure it’s under 8 minutes and that’s it’s clean enough to tell in a coffee shop (that means you have to cut out the F, S, D, and R bombs. I’m probably missing a few letters but you know what I mean.)
I hope to see you there!