Trigger warning: Suicide.
It was a beautiful Friday morning. I had gone to a Creative Mornings talk at Seattle Center and was headed to the University of Washington to do some grading and hold office hours. I had a clever idea: instead of walking a mile to downtown Seattle and catching an express bus to the University District, I would walk a few blocks and catch a 32 that would take a more scenic route via Queen Anne and Fremont. It was a risky move, because the 32 came much less frequently, but I had plenty of time and was feeling adventurous.
I started walking. Although I was on a major road, there was very little traffic. I could only see two other pedestrians, both about a block ahead of me on either side of the road.
A loud crack shattered the quiet. Suddenly, a block or so ahead of me, there was a man lying in the road, less than 10 feet from one of the other pedestrians. He wasn’t moving.
I couldn’t figure out where he’d come from. Had he been hit by a car? If so, where had he been before that? Why hadn’t I seen him? He wasn’t moving. Was he ok?
I started walking towards him, to figure out what had just happened and whether or not I could help. The man near him pulled out his phone and called 911. The other pedestrian ran across the street to the prone body. A car pulled over and three people rushed out. One of them started to perform CPR and the other two assisted her.
As I got closer, I could see from across the street that CPR wasn’t going to change anything. I was faintly impressed that she was trying anyway.
Other cars started to pull over and block off the lane that the man was lying in. By the time I made it over, there was a crowd of 10-15 people assessing the situation. I could only hear snippets of what people were saying.
From the woman doing CPR: “No pulse…”
From the man on the phone: “He almost hit me!” (Had the man fallen? Or jumped?)
An ambulance pulled up and the crew jumped out. It was clear that I wasn’t going to be of any use. I left.
I ran into an elderly Asian woman, headed to the grocery store. She reminded me a bit of my grandmother. I told her that she didn’t want to walk down that street. She’d heard the noise, wanted to know if someone had been shot. I didn’t know what to say, so I just reiterated that she should take a different route. “You don’t want to see that.”
As I walked up to the bus stop, I pulled out my phone and texted a close friend. I still wasn’t sure what had actually happened, but I was starting to suspect that the man had committed suicide by jumping off a nearby structure.
(I later confirmed this by checking publicly available dispatch reports and local news articles. I don’t know why knowing mattered so much to me, but it did.)
Unsurprisingly, I missed my bus. Dazed, I got on a different bus headed towards downtown. The people around me were going about their lives, business as usual. It occurred to me that they probably had no idea that someone had just died less than half a mile away. That they would probably never find out. I didn’t know how handle the fact that these people would never care about something that had sent me reeling.
I couldn’t get the sound he made hitting the ground out of my head.
As much as I wanted to talk to someone, I was wary of upsetting people or grossing them out. I discussed it with a few close friends, handwaving away the details. I didn’t tell them about how neatly he was dressed or the way his body flopped as the woman from the car performed chest compressions or how I knew that he’d hit his head.
To one of my housemates, I simply said that I’d “had a weird day” and that I didn’t want to ruin his day with the details. To the other two, I said nothing.
The man died. I don’t know who he was or why he did it, but I know that he wasn’t there by accident. And even then, although it was a lost cause, people stopped and tried to help.
It seems like a weird takeaway, but it was an unexpectedly reassuring experience. The street had been empty save for myself and two other pedestrians. In the time it took me to walk a block and cross a 4-lane road, there were enough people trying to help that there was nothing for me to do, and city emergency response vehicles were only a few minutes behind them. I can only assume that people would react the same way if something bad happened to me.