Sunday, May 07, 2006

You'll never look at the Bridge the same way again

(NOTE: For decades now, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Golden Gate Bridge District have held numerous debates about whether or not to install a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. And in 2006, they're having such debates again, in earnest. I can not hear about this debate without recalling a fare, described below, that I had nearly 20 years ago. )

AROUND MIDNIGHT on a Saturday night someone at the Golden Gate Bridge calls for a taxi, and the dispatcher assigns me the order. When I arrive, my headlights illuminate a short, fit-looking man stepping from the shadows near the flagpole. He looks about 35 years old, has thick dark toussled hair, and is game-show-host-handsome. He gives an address in Bernal Heights, five miles away.

“Car break down?” I ask.


“Miss the last bus?”


“Mind if I ask what brings you out here at midnight?”

It takes him a while to respond, but it’s worth the wait -- not just a one-word but a five-word answer: “I come here for inspiration.”

Inspiration from the Bridge! -- I know all about this... My favorite solution for writer’s block is to bicycle to mid-bridge and from just five feet away stare into the eyes of hundreds of commuters flashing past at 50 mph -- and then pedal back home and get to work.

“Are you a writer?” I ask.

Slowly: “I’m a painter.”

I know nothing about painting, but the litmus test for all creatives is the same: “Do you make your living at it?”

This answer arrives perceptibly quicker: “For about ten years now.”

“Congratulations,” I say. I’ve got about $100 in my bank account.

A long silence follows, and then finally he just gives it up: “OK. I’ll tell you. The bridge has a crew of workers that paints the bridge all year long. It takes them about a year and a half to go from one end to the other, and then they start all over again. There’s a big steel platform on wheels attached to the bottom side of the bridge. It’s about the size of a railroad car. They roll it along so that it’s always beneath whatever section they’re painting. There is a huge net underneath in case a tool falls -- or a worker.

“Every other year or so I find myself unable to paint, and I can feel a trip to the bridge coming on. On a Saturday afternoon I leave home and start walking. On the way I stop and have a nice dinner, a glass of the best wine in the house. When I get to the bridge, I go out to whatever part of the bridge has the platform underneath it, and the net, and I climb over the side and down under the bridge to the platform. I crawl up as high as I can and cling like a bat to the superstructure under the roadway, and hang there with my back to the water...”

I interrupt him: “Man! Right below the traffic?”

“Tires are pounding away just a couple feet above me. When I’m ready, I let go. It’s a twenty-foot drop, or maybe more. I lie there in the net letting my mind re-set. I watch the ships heading for Japan all lit up, the searchlight from Alcatraz, the moon over Berkeley. Then I climb out. Sometimes I walk back home, sometimes I call a cab.”

“And it always works?”

“Never fails. I always get my inspiration. Sometimes I get it even before the net catches me -- tonight was good -- but sometimes it doesn’t come for a couple of days. But, no, it never fails.”

We don’t speak again for many, many blocks. “Wouldn’t you hate it,” I finally ask, “if they put up a suicide barrier?”

He laughs. “I think I just might have to kill myself.”


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