A Short Story by Me
The cars were packed onto the Queensboro Bridge so tightly you couldn’t get a sheet of paper between the bumpers. People had long given up the fight to keep overheated engines going in the jam and sat on hoods and even roofs, trying to catch a breeze off the river. Somewhere an ice cream truck had been playing the same tinkling music for six hours, the slightly off-key, infuriatingly upbeat melody winding on and on as the miserable afternoon slide towards darkness.
Emile sat in the open hatchback of the yellow cab he’d had the misfortune of flagging down outside the Village Voice offices to take him back to the apartment he shared in Greenpoint with some strangers he’d met on Craigslist. He’d read on one of his scifi websites that today, July 12th, was Mahattanhenge, when the path of the sun lined up precisely with the east-west streets of Manhattan. This phenomenon occurred two nights a year in midsummer, today and yesterday, but yesterday had been overcast, so Emile had decided to put off his weekly trek to the city so he could see the solar event first-hand and maybe slip in a few Druid jokes while he flirted with the receptionist at the Voice.
Now, after being stuck on the Queensboro Bridge for six hours, he deeply regretted his commitment to geekery.
“Any news?” he called up to his driver, who had been lying across the backseat with his cap over his eyes since he’d shut off his meter an hour and a half into the event.
“Motherfucker still won’t jump,” the driver growled, not even bothering to lift the baseball cap from his face. He was pissed because Emile had tried to give him precise turn-by-turn directions to Greenpoint that included taking the Williamsburg Bridge instead of the Queensboro, and he—believing that his 22 years driving the mean streets made him a bit more qualified to navigate than some faggoty hipster with a box full of Voice t-shirts—he just had to insist on taking the bridge with the jumper. As his Navy father always said, You gotta be hard, pronouncing it “hawd,” You gotta be hawd cuz life is hawd, Jacky. Gonna toughen you up.
“This toughening you up, kid?” Jacky muttered, but Emile wasn’t listening. He was busy watching the sun through the windshield of the semi behind him and thinking how goofy those big trucks looked when they weren’t pulling any containers. Like great bit Tonka toys, Emile thought, or a midget on a big motorcycle. The driver of the semi-semi had gone away about two hours ago, yelling that he was going to pop that sumbitch ice cream truck driver right in the balls, or bawls, and then come right back with a box full of popsicles and a look that just dared some asshole to ask him what happened and why was that goddamn music still playing. Emile had had grape; Jacky the Cabby had pineapple. They didn’t ask any questions.
It was still just the sun, Emile thought, nervously chewing on his popsicle stick and sucking the last traces of syrup out of the wood. Sure, it’s cool and everything that it’s lined up with the streets, but it’s nothing special, not like the Northern Lights or that ice city they build up in China every year. Maybe if you put up some kind of mirror or crystal on the East River at 57th Street, some kind of kinetic sculpture that only works during Manhattanhenge, that would be interesting. But this is just the sun.
“So who gives a good gat-damn?” he said aloud without realizing it.
“That’s what I say!” Jacky burst out, bolting upright and sliding down to the softening pavement beside the cab.
“Just JUMP ya bastud!” he screamed passionately. “No one gives a good gaddamn about you anyway!”
A few people gave him the sideways New York glance to gauge his danger level, but no one took up the cry. Even after six hours in the heat, there was still an almost sacred barrier between the people’s anger and the jumper on the north edge of the Queensboro Bridge. Even in New York, the city of getthefuckouttamyway, no one was going to hurry a suicider teetering on the edge of watery oblivion. Not of respect or anything arcane like that, Emile decided, but because no one wanted to take the responsibility and be that guy, the one who’d given the figurative final push so he could get home in time to catch the Yankees game on ESPN.
Suddenly feeling this social pressure, Jacky slunk back into the cab and put his cap over his eyes again. Emile turned back to the sun so that when it finally did happen, he wouldn’t have to see the tiny speck of a human body tumbling into the drink.
Although, he reflected further, drumming his fingers on the box of t-shirts he’d be handing out at the Prospect Park concert the next day, it’s not like the guy would actually die. Six hours was plenty of time for New York’s finest to block off traffic and get negotiators, squad cars, ambulances, helicopters, and even boats on the scene. Emile could hear them all now, the idling of boat motors, the drone of ‘copters, the occasional squawk of a bullhorn. No doubt there’s a safety net beneath him and men in white coats with tranquilizers beside him, or her, let’s face it, this is just the sort of hysterical stunt some crazy chick who was too ashamed to just go to the Planned Parenthood and get a goddamned abortion would pull.
I’m not normally that guy, Emile defended himself to himself. It could be a hysterical male or a hysterical female, who am I to say? I’m just some poor guy trying to get home myself, I didn’t ask to be put in other person’s soap opera of a life. But there I am, six fucking hours on this bridge, and I’m tired and sweating and I’ve got to piss and there’s a splinter on the inside of my lip that just won’t go away, so by Christ, whoever you are, either cook or get out of the kitchen. Jump or fall back, for the love of God, jump or fall back!
His conscience stabbed at him, though with less force than it had during the fourth hour, and for less force than it had during the first. He tried again to imagine who it was, who would be depressed and desperate enough to end it all, and to feel pity for them.
But, he thought, I’ve also got to picture someone rude enough to hold thousands of people hostage in the baking sun and think about it for an hour or six before actually jumping.
Without really realizing what he was doing, Emile crawled slowly out of the back of the cab and starting walking towards through the stalled cars and sweating people.
If it’s that little punk girl I saw on Astor Place, he decided, that sixteen year old who was high off her gourd and wanted me to buy her ice cream, then I’ll let it go. She was just a babe, poor thing, and so high, and so dirty, her ratty blonde hair tangling to unintentional dreadlocks because she’d been sleeping rough in a rough city.
The ice cream music jangled fiercely, burning in his mind like a soldering iron and causing his normally peaceful-vibe thoughts to link up in new and rageful patterns.
And if it’s some white hippie with dreadlocks, he decided, quickening his pace, then I’m going to do something. Some hippie with delusions-of-Rastafarianism-dreadlocks like an unmown lawn dying in the sun, all sad and lonely because his asshole neighbor stole his pot plants while he was out at Coney Island eating a mango on a stick he bought from some Mexican woman and her kid, then fuck him.
Emile had reached the outermost ring of police cars and paused. He was afraid again, afraid of the tumbling fall, the collective gasp of all of the people watching, the responsibility—afraid of being that guy.
If it’s an immigrant, I won’t, he decided. Especially a woman, some poor old Chinese woman with feet like hooves from walking barefoot in the fields when she was a girl and maybe getting tortured in the streets during the Cultural Revolution, brought over by her grandkids to a country where she didn’t speak the language and couldn’t eat the food and where everyone was just waiting for her to die so they could turn her room into an art studio—no, then I won’t.
But if it’s a young woman, a girl really, with soft hands and shining hair and half a carat of diamonds in her Sweet Sixteen birthday ring, one of those girls who can cry without scrunching her face and getting snot down the front of her shirt—if it’s someone who looks good crying and turns around every now and again so the news cameras can get a good look at her perfect skin glistening with tears in the sunlight, then I will.
Emile looked up. He stood on his tiptoes and craned his neck, trying to see over the shoulders of the cops, who paid him no mind, hot and angry as they must no doubt be in their heavy uniforms hung with guns and truncheons and tasers.
If it’s an old person, I won’t, he decided. If it’s a teenager I won’t. If it’s a black person, I won’t. If it’s a businessman, I won’t.
But if it’s that guy who held the subway door for five fucking minutes so his girlfriend could buy a new Metrocard, I will. If it’s that old Filipino guy on the second floor who always lets his dog shit by the mailboxes and doesn’t clean it up, then I will. If it’s some punk with a pierced lip, then I will, because people like that shouldn’t need an audience for destruction, it’s all about destruction for destruction's sake, but if it’s the little punk girl who wanted ice cream, then I won’t.
He slipped underneath the wooden riot barrier. No one stopped him.
There’s so many people that piss me off, he thought, walking forward like a man going to the gallows. Everyone’s got a right to live, but don’t we all also have a right to die if our lives are shitty enough? And don’t we have an obligation, a responsibility, to get the fuck out of the way if our lives aren’t doing anyone a damn bit of good and we know it? Is that person up there on the railing, are his problems or her life more important than the rest of us trapped out here?
He reached the inner ring of policemen now, and they weren’t looking at him, but at the jumper on the railing. Emile could see him now—it was a man, which was good, that made it easier—and it was just some guy, middle aged, not yet bald but balding, sitting on the railing and looking out over the river like he was on some kind of picnic, enjoying the fucking view, for Chrissakes.
I’ll bet you’re pleased with yourself, Emile thought, pausing to take it all in. Here you are, you’re getting more attention that you’ve ever got in your whole life, and you’re getting it on my time, on these people’s time, and what if there’s some woman here with a little baby who’s already shit in all his diapers and she’s got nowhere to clean him? What if there’s some diabetic who needs to get home for her insulin? What if there’s some bomb going off in Pakistan that’s going to send us tumbling down into World War III and the people at home in front of their T.V.s won’t hear about it for three days because all of the news will be focused on you and your pathetic sob story?
Does that make you feel better?
No one was looking at him. It was so easy to dart between a cop and an ambulance, such a short distance to cross that empty circle the jumper’s threats had created around him, and just a matter of gravity and a quick, hard shove.
The pushed screamed as he tumbled down to the drink.
I knew he wasn’t serious, Emile had time to think. If he was, he would have fallen in silence.
The ring of cops closed around Emile like a mouth, nearly pushing him off the bridge for his troubles. Crushed up against the railing, his head forced down so he was facing the glimmering surface of the East River, Emile saw that there were indeed safety nets, and firemen and Coast Guards and a water ambulance, because even in New York City, he reflected, a single life has a certain sacredness that must be upheld.
Emile heard no applause. He hadn’t expected any, this wasn’t a concert or anything, and he hadn’t done anything applause-worthy—haven’t I? a tiny voice inside asked—and he began to feel a bit depressed, especially when the handcuffs tightened on his wrists. It has to be this way, he told himself. They have to keep up appearances so everyone doesn’t think it’s all right to go shoving poor suicidal idiots off bridges, no matter how much they deserve it.
He’d never been inside of a police car before. It was remarkably comfortable. The seats were specially built for passengers with hands bound behind their backs.
Emile looked up. The driver on the other side of the mesh screen smiled at him.
“Good for you.”
With a soft whoosh, the air conditioner kicked in. Emile was facing the sun, but the polarized glass kept the glare out of his eyes and he felt curiously cool and light. We’re exactly aligned, he realized, the sun and the bridge and me.