I actually wrote this about a year ago in my personal blog, about something that happened on my way home from my old job.
I guess if I had to pick a day to die in San Francisco, today would have been a pretty good one.
It started with helicopters, just as it always does at the Discovery Museum. Normally, the sound of passing aircraft doesn’t elicit a response from me, but this time the motors sounded close. I figured it was just a low-flying plane; not much cause for concern. Outside the doors of the Playhouse, I could see Brian and Matt standing in the middle of the plaza, talking into their radios and looking upward.
Liz came in moments later. “You hear that?” she said as the thud-thud-thud of the helicopters stagnated above us. “Come with me,” she said. I had been out the last time this happened. We have a big field next to the museum; the nearest open area to the bridge. If someone survives, the Coast Guard lands in the field until an ambulance can get there. Sometimes they wait there as a precaution.
“Yeah, I should mention that this happens sometimes,” she said to Zoe and Justine, two new-ish girls who hadn’t yet been present for a ‘situation on the bridge’. It happens with stunning regularity, and, due to our waterfront location, we almost always end up inadvertently affected by it when it does happen.
We went to the front gate to see what stage of crisis they were in. A small CHP helicopter was parked near the edge of the grass, with a handful of emergency personnel standing near the head of it; waiting. Making smalltalk until they were needed. It was 4:15 and nearing the end of my shift, so twenty minutes later I was in my car and headed for the bridge.
Traffic didn’t seem awful until the on-ramp. Cars for miles, just short of a standstill. But at least they were moving, and moving faster than the cars on the northbound side, which weren’t moving at all. It was a tough merge, but we were still more go than stop. It didn’t seem to indicate anything more traumatic than maybe a fender-bender.
I kept an eye out. Besides the traffic, and besides the fact that it was 72 and sunny, it looked like an average Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. Joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers ambled by. Everyone had their windows down; Top 40 songs wafted over the rumble of engines. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. On one side, the city on the edge of the world, and on the other, just the Pacific and the great, gaping horizon.
Just when I had assumed it was another mysterious traffic jam without rhyme or with very little reason, I caught the caution tape out of the corner of my left eye. It was surprising. It was pretty far down; near the toll booths — most people aim for the center.
I knew it was tacky of me and I knew it was going to hurt, but I looked anyway.
I made a quick glance and caught it all. The long-haired cop presiding over the scene, flanked by his colleagues in harnesses ready to make a quick dive if necessary. All of them an equal distance apart from one another, hands on hips, looking down. Their motorcycles leaning lazily against the railing just outside the tape.
And at their ankles, a dirty-looking man in a red windbreaker on the other side of the bars, looking down and clinging to the side of the bridge. A clear, sharp city skyline behind him.
“Oh my God,” I breathed without even really thinking about it. I got what I asked for, so I turned to face my windshield and drive away.
And just like that, the traffic was gone. In one quick motion all the rubberneckers in front of me were sliding through the toll booths and on their way home.
There was a flush of adrenaline, and my limbs went a little weak. I lifted my foot to the gas. It felt heavy.
And the whole way home, a statistic floated in front of me:
They always pick the San Francisco side.
Update: According to my stats, this entry is getting a lot of interest. For all who are interested, there is a fantastic New Yorker piece from a couple years back that gives some background to this little vignette: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/13/031013fa_fact