So I'm riding my bike home from Dave's house on 20th Street about 11:30 last Saturday night, heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge, and suddenly there are sirens all around me. They seem to be going toward the bridge, too. I turn onto Centre Street and traffic's backed up and I see some flashing lights turning onto the bridge and I think there's been a car accident. The emergency vehicles are struggling to get through traffic. I pass them and ride up the pedestrian/bike walkway, up above the roadway, curious to see what kind of accident has happened. There's a police helicopter up in the air, shining its light on the bridge. But there's no accident, the road is clear. The helicopter is training its light farther up, and so I look up and there's a guy up there, way the fuck up there, about three-quarters of the way up the cable, say 100 or 150 feet above the road, let alone the river, on the outside, south cable, the nearest cable to Manhattan. He's up there by himself, way by himself. He's smoking a cigarette and kind of gesturing and the helicopter is swooping around the bridge, really loud, close enough for me to get a bit of the rotor wash. He's leaning off the big cable and holding onto the little guy wire. He is not calm, he is crazy, and probably drunk. He is agitated, and he thinks he wants to kill himself.
I know this because he keeps leaning out off the cable. He steps out from the main cable and onto a foot-level guy wire, maybe an inch or two thick. He loops his arms behind him, so he's kind of crucified up there, hanging out as far as he can, 300 feet above the East River. He flicks his cigarette away, or it falls from his hand, and it comes floating gently down right at me, taking forever, eventually sailing just a few feet over my head. Then he leans out with just one hand holding on to the guy wire. That's all that's holding him. This is literally his grip on life. The wind is swaying the cables, too. He leans and leans and looks, and looks some more.
I should mention that my camera is out, and I am taking some pictures. My heart is going so hard, my head is rocking back and forth with its beat. I feel like throwing up. I wonder if I can take the picture, you know, the picture, if it happens. A small crowd is gathering, bicyclists and pedestrians and young lovers and several distinct sets of tourists, one Arab, one Japanese, one Latin American. I call Dave on my phone and tell him what's happening, but can barely get the words out. And then the guy steps out on the little bouncing cable again, and I say, gotta go. More cops have shown up, but all they're doing is directing traffic. About twenty minutes have gone by since I got there. Finally, four emergency-services cops start scaling the cable, slowly and carefully, harnessed and strapped to the guy wires. Other cops are climbing the cable on the other side of the tower. The jumper continues his business, lights another cigarette. For a second I can see the flame of his lighter, as small and brilliant as a star in the sky. At one point he is just standing and twisting on the main cable but not holding on to the guy wires. He could fall. I hold my breath.
I was on that main cable once, years ago well, that cable's twin on the inside of the bridge, next to the walkway. Bevin and I were walking across the bridge on something like a pre-first-date and the little gate that would let you climb all the way to the top was open, so we hopped up on the cable and headed up. She was wearing schoolboy sandals and we were both a little drunk. It was scary as all hell; we didn't make it ten feet up.
The cops get a bit closer, and the other ones are climbing over the tower and down the cable, toward him. They get within about thirty feet and he kind of freaks out. Just like in the movies. He leans out again, hanging on with that one hand, his left hand. And still he can't let go. It's so fucked up, he has gotten so far and he can't let go. I don't want him to jump, God I don't, but it's so hard to watch him not jump. It's just one more failure in his life.
By this time the bridge is closed down in both directions and the ambulances have moved away (I don't know why), and everything is much quieter. I can hear a few snippets of the cops' voices. They're talking to him about his mother. I wish I could have heard more. Is she dead? Is he worried about how she'll react to all of this? The cops back up a bit when he freaks, but keep talking. He's been up there at least forty minutes now.
And then he stops. He turns to the cops on the cable just beneath him and just starts walking toward them. The first one he meets wants only to harness him in as quick as possible, but the jumper wants more, he reaches out his hand and for a second or so nothing happens, and then another cop realizes what he wants and he reaches out and grabs his hand and arm and presses as much love and concern into it as is possible at such a height, in such a situation. We applaud, and a few seconds later more applause wafts over from the South Street Seaport. I squat down and want to cry, but don't.