IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Talked a Stranger Out of Committing Suicide

About 20 feet ahead and to my right, there was a figure standing atop the railing separating the pedestrian footbridge from the subway tracks.
Publish date:
September 23, 2014
suicide, strangers, connection

That mid-November morning began unremarkably. I went for a long walk, the same walk I took every day. The loop took me from my apartment to the Williamsburg Bridge, over it into the Lower East Side, and then back again, an exact replica of the trip in reverse.

That day, like most days, I was half listening to a podcast -– an interview with a famous comedian –- and making long mental lists of assorted minor worries. If he hadn’t made a sudden motion, I would probably have been too buried in my own thoughts to notice him.

But a few more steps and I saw him clearly. About 20 feet ahead and to my right, there was a figure standing atop the railing separating the pedestrian footbridge from the subway tracks. He was holding onto one of the metal girders, shakily lowering himself onto the ledge that overlooks the J/M/Z trains whizzing past. In one surreal moment, the totality of the image fully registered: He was planning to jump in front of a train. He was going to kill himself.

Characters in movies encounter suicidal jumpers so often that the appearance of one is a bad omen –- a sign the screenwriter ran out of new ideas. In real life, it had never occurred to me that I might ever find myself helping a stranger decide not to die. I’m sure that people who are properly trained to deal with these situations have a long list of precise protocols. I am not one of those people.

In hindsight, I have lots of ideas about what I ideally should have said or done. But in real life, my instincts kicked in before I’d even noticed. I was mid-sentence when I realized I was already speaking to him. “Are you okay?” I heard myself shout up to him. “I can help you, okay? Please come down here. Please don’t jump.”

He noticed I was holding my phone in my hand, and it freaked him out. “Don’t call anybody,” he shouted down to me. “I’ll jump. Don’t touch me! Don’t call anybody!” I guess he meant cops or an ambulance. I dropped my phone into my bag and said that I wouldn’t. It seemed, even in the moment, a terrible concession to make, considering it meant not calling someone who was actually qualified to handle this.

I had no idea how mentally unstable he might be or how much of a danger he was to others. Thinking the more voices convincing him to come down, the better, I quickly scanned the footpath, but there was no one else around. In just a few minutes, I knew a train would be coming. There was only so much time.

So we stood like that for what was probably only a minute or two, but felt much longer -- me reaching my hand up to him and babbling about why he shouldn’t do this, and him mutely crying. He said something about no one caring. “I promise, I care,” I said, and then unsure of what else to say, repeated it a few times. “Please don’t jump. Please.”

And then, almost suddenly, he came down. There was no magic life-affirming thing I said, the way people do in movies or on TV; no swelling strings as we locked eyes and found eternity in each other’s souls. I’m not sure what happened, to be honest. At some point he leaned over, took my hand and dropped to the footpath. He was still crying, but he was safe. I was relieved -– for all the reasons you’d imagine and, if I’m being honest, selfish ones, too. I’d felt sickened by the idea of watching someone die, of never being able to un-see it.

His name was Jose. He’d been fired from his job a few days before. After spending most of the last night in a bar, he’d been kicked out of his apartment in the wee hours of that morning by his fed-up wife. He had stepkids he loved. He said he was tired -- sick of his life and sick of himself. By now, a few scattered pedestrians were walking past us, trying not to stare as we stood there talking, him visibly crying and me mostly listening.

He asked me to talk to his wife on his phone and I did, explaining the whole situation and asking if I he could come home. She sounded like she was crying when she told me he could. We walked back over the bridge into Williamsburg and I bought him a cup of hot tea at a cafe, sat outside on a bench and told him all the reasons he couldn’t kill himself. We talked about his kids, how the day was unseasonably warm, whether or not he was hungry. Then I gave him my number and email and told him to reach out to me if he ever again felt like no one cared.

A few weeks later, he called. He was seeing a counselor, he said, he and his wife were getting along better, he had stopped drinking. He talked about that day on the bridge and called me his “angel,” even though from my un-religious point of view, it was less fate than circumstance and timing. I said as many encouraging words as I could think of and, before we hung up, reminded him he should touch base with me whenever he wanted.

And for the next three years, he did. I’d get random texts wishing me happy holidays or just saying that he hoped I was was well. I’d send notes, maybe twice a year, letting him know he was in my thoughts. Last December, around the holidays, he sent a short text saying, “Merry Christmas! From Jose.” The exchanges were always simple and short, but always nice to send and receive.

And then a few days ago, I randomly thought of him and texted to say I hoped he was doing great. I was surprised to find out the number wasn’t his anymore. I hadn’t considered we’d ever fall out of touch. And I didn’t expect the wistfulness I felt in response.

I’m not sure what meeting Jose meant, or that it has to mean anything at all. There are many other experiences that have felt, in the long-term, far more life-altering. And yet. The sudden realization that I’d lost the tenuous thread connecting us -- two complete strangers who found themselves in a deeply emotional, intimate situation one day four years ago -- feels unexpectedly sad, somehow. I immediately worried whether he was okay or not, but part of this just feels like the cycle of things. People move, lives change, cell phones are replaced.

When I remember this story, it is without cheesy platitudes (“It may seem like I saved Jose, but really, it was him who saved me.”) I’m not even sure how much I had to do with his decision not to step off the ledge -– was I, say, 20 percent responsible? Fifty percent? More? I think it’s impossible for either of us to fully know.

But recalling that day does make me realize that we’re all so much more endlessly capable of being kind and empathic and helpful to other people –- to complete strangers –- than we sometimes see ourselves as being. Though the enormity of the terrible current events that fill our news feeds can make us feel insignificant and unable, or even incapable, of having an impact on the world, sometimes opportunities arise in the moments when we least expect it. And it’s in those moments that we surprise ourselves. In the best of ways.