It was a risk for me to text while driving on the Bay Bridge but I needed to let someone know about the strange thing I’d just seen: a woman walking East on the bridge, on the tiny strip of concrete not intended for pedestrian use. She hadn’t appeared frantic but as I drove further East I got increasingly anxious for her. She’d soon enter the Yerba Buena tunnel, and the sidewalk would ultimately recede, putting her right next to the speeding cars. When my sister called the California Highway Patrol on my behalf, they said the walker was news to them. It occurred to me that thousands of other drivers must have seen her before I did. This was late Saturday afternoon.
On Monday morning when I woke up, I was still thinking about the walker. I put a call into the Oakland CHP office. They reminded me that most of the bridge is located in San Francisco County, so I reached out to the folks at the South of Market office. A CHP employee–I’ll call her Ms. Carter–was happy to speak to me but she was unwilling to provide information on any bridge pedestrian unless I was a family member. Fair enough. I still wanted more information so I asked hypothetical questions about what happens to bridge-walkers once they’re picked up by CHP. Signs on the on-ramps seem to prohibit walking, but Ms. Carter said there is no set policy, and that if someone’s car breaks down on the bridge, the CHP gives them a ride, free-of-charge.
It was a busy weekend in San Francisco. I initially assumed that the woman was a tourist and hadn’t known the danger of crossing the bridge by foot. (Maybe she’d confused it for the Golden Gate?). When I saw her, she was still close to the Financial District, and I didn’t see a broken-down car. She could have been short on cash, simply trying to get home to Treasure Island or the East Bay. And there’s always the possibility that she was being political. Perhaps the Occupy Movement is not dead. This is my bridge and I’m going to walk across it!
Though I knew Ms. Carter at the CHP wasn’t going to give me any details on the walker–I wasn’t sure she’d even heard of her–she did tip me off to something that hadn’t occurred to me; she said the woman could have been trying to kill herself. I was shocked; I thought people only jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, which rises much higher over the Bay.
“If I’m not mistaken,” the CHP official went on to tell me, “about as many people jump off the Bay Bridge as the Golden Gate.” I really don’t think this is true, and if it is, I have yet to corroborate it.
On Sunday, my obsession with the bridge walker could have been seen as voyeuristic. But now it seems to have grown into a larger public safety question. I’ve heard that when the new eastern span opens up, we’ll be able to walk and ride bikes on it. Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, though, visitors to the new span will have to park their cars very far away, making suicide attempts less likely. And there’s the suggestion that the Bay Bridge doesn’t have the same draw as the Golden Gate, the allure of jumping into the ocean. This is all conjecture, though. We will have to wait until the new span opens up to determine whether people–Bay Area residents and visitors alike–will want to harm themselves on it. It will be interesting to see whether AB 755 passes in the State Senate. Even if it does, my guess is that suicide barriers can’t be made retroactive.
I will be thinking about the bridge walker for some time. Had my sister not called the CHP, it’s not clear how or when the woman would have been discovered. Unlike the Golden Gate, no one patrols the Bay Bridge looking for the vulnerable, talking some 80 people out of suicide every year. Let’s hope such a thing is never needed.
It has been ten days since I saw the bridge walker. Yesterday, it was announced that the Bay Bridge wouldn’t open Labor Day weekend as planned but will be delayed several months due to some broken bolts.
(Note, though, that they may try to press forward with the original plan.)
Not long ago, someone asked me what I obsess about, and how it relates to my writing. These days, I am very interested in how we respond to danger and loss, and how related stories play out in public spaces.
Mookie's Food Odyssey is often a place for me to obsess about food, but as someone trying to write fiction I must obsess about people as well.
Thank you for reading my non-food post!