[it’s a long one]
so, the office. i don’t like to brag but i spent my adult life in dorm rooms and a cold farmhouse so let me brag for a bit. it’s not a corner office but it faces two parks with a gorgeous canopy of trees that are beginning to turn all types of colors for fall. these parks used to be segregated for men and women back in the 40s. not entirely sure why, but at least it wasn’t segregated by color. now they serve as a little respite for people who don’t mind eating their jimmy johns sandwiches around homeless and destitute people.
the office is important for a lot of reasons. up until this point in my life, i considered myself an outcast. the “troubled genius” artist type of bullshit; i was smart, everyone else was dumb, and i was constantly exhausted by it. i’d go home and complain about it on my livejournal, because the internet was the only place where people understood me. as i got older, i realized that’s because the internet is 95% full of young white males who felt the exact same way. rather than being attracted to this seeming brotherhood of geniuses, i felt frustrated by the homogenization and decided to step back from social media. getting this job at the firm, even as a paralegal, solidified my status as a “smart guy” in a different context, one without the chains of being troubled or being an artist. here, results were tangible; do your work and another person was saved. artists talk constantly about their art changing lives, but i’ve found that it mostly doesn’t. people miss the mark all the time, especially now, when art is more about the artist than it is about the connection between people. no one reads harry potter and is changed by it, other than deciding they’re in house gryffendor and buying a ridiculous scarf. no one reads harry potter and decides to build low income housing for the homeless. no one reads 50 shades of gray and decides to teach proper sex education in our high schools. actors perform plays to enrich their own selves. artists paint out their own demons. i write chapbooks about goats. everything has turned inward, and up until i started working at this firm, i was looking inward, too.
i’m stalling a little bit. my office faces another skyscraper, an insurance building. well, technically it’s off to the right a bit from my window, but it still takes up a considerable amount of view space. parks off to the left, building to the right. a week into my new office view i witnessed a young woman fall to her death.
so that’s kind of where this starts.
i didn’t know this woman or her family or anything like that. she wasn’t some supermodel, gracefully falling from the sky and landing on a car like that iconic photo from the 50s. she was a cleaning lady, she didn’t even work in the building, somehow she got in, took the elevator to the top floor, probably walked up some stairs, got past security, somehow got the door open, ran out to the edge of the building, and fell. my desk faces the window, as opposed to most of the attorneys, whose desks face toward the door, with the window behind them. i didn’t know any better. the attorney before me left me a pair of binoculars that i could use to check out the wildlife outside. or at least, that’s what he wanted me to think he used them for. there was a hawk that had built a nest somewhere nearby, and he would often shirk his duties and watch the hawk with his binoculars instead. this particular afternoon, i was using the binoculars to spy on people in the building across from me. nobody was doing anything illegal or sexy, but i still watched them because they’re people doing specific activities and i find that pretty fascinating.
i had the binoculars up against my face and was leaned over my desk specifically looking at people on the ground, and then i lowered them and as i looked up i saw the woman fall, and i watched her slam into the pavement so hard that she kind of exploded a bit. i have to be honest–i’ve lived a fairly good, fairly cushy life. i complain about being a farmhand but it was mostly fun and relaxing. my parents are good people, i surround myself with friends and family that cares about me … so this was the worst thing i had ever seen, bar none. she fell within a foot of a gentleman who was walking and would have tripped over her corpse, but was spry enough to sort of leap over her instead. there were about ten or so people on the sidewalk walking and luckily none of them were hit by this poor woman smashing into the ground at near terminal velocity. i couldn’t keep my eyes off it. i know that’s morbid to say but i guess i’m kind of morbid. she had fallen face first and it was just insane to see her hair, held up in a tight bun, with her face splayed around it in a flesh halo. everyone on the sidewalk was silent and just stopped in their tracks. nobody screamed. nobody ran off. they just stood there, like when you wake up after a nightmare and can’t move because you’re certain something is in the dark, ready to grab you. if you move, you’re dead. the people outside were like, “if we move, we acknowledge time, we acknowledge the dead woman in front of us.”
this was maybe three or four seconds. then people started moving. people were crying. men were shielding women, couples with children just down the street were abruptly turning the other way. i watched as a homeless man from the park grabbed the blue tarpaulin he had spent how many weeks sleeping under and brought to her body, laying it over her gently. he then looked up toward the roof of the building. everyone did, almost at once, as though the rapture was about to happen, as though the heavens opened up and god’s great big hand was coming down to pick this poor woman’s mangled body up off the concrete. this all happened within ten, twenty seconds.
by half a minute i had walked out of my office and in to the one next to me, where tom, an attorney who looks and acts like a tv attorney, was sitting. his desk faces the door and he was on his phone, holding it landscape style and likely playing some game on it. he glanced up and waved me in with his hand. i asked him if he had seen the woman fall and he said he hadn’t. i looked out his window just to make sure i wasn’t daydreaming: the tarp was still there and the gawker vultures had begun to circle. the homeless man suddenly became her body’s protector, as he sat on the end of the tarp to make sure it didn’t flare up in the breeze, revealing her corpse to others. the way he sat, cross-legged on the blue tarp, his hands folded together in his lap, made the whole thing look almost religious. tom looked out with me. “i just see that homeless guy and a tarp,” he said, and went back to playing his phone game. i didn’t make any effort to correct him, because i guess i didn’t care enough to try.
i left tom’s office and wandered down the hallway waiting for someone to acknowledge what had just happened. but no one did. no one had seen it, though when i told people what happened, some were eager to stare at the scene from their windows, while others went about their business as though they wished to remain blissfully aware. i really couldn’t understand it. a woman was depressed enough to take the time to jump off a building, and no one in my building really seemed to care. doesn’t that justify her suicide in a way?
i ended up going outside right as the emergency vehicles arrived. police showed up quickly, as the courthouse was just a block away; lots of sheriff’s clad in green were huddled around the tarp, some of them shooing away onlookers. one was talking to the homeless man, and both men were calm, and it looked like the sheriff was okay with him sitting on the tarp. when i stepped out is about when the ambulance arrived. one of the sheriffs lifted the tarp and recoiled a bit. they all seemed to understand that this was already over and the only thing left was paperwork. the emts milled about with the sheriffs and discussed the scene for a bit before politely asking the homeless guy to move his tarp so they could get the body. it was like a surreal changing of the guard, and for a brief moment she was revealed, this time surrounded by a thick pool of blood. there was probably twenty or so people with me across the street, all watching intently as this ceremonial gift-wrapping of a dead woman into a body bag. eventually a sheriff asked us to leave, and i rode the elevator up to my floor with two other people who were outside, and we were all silent, just staring at ourselves in the metallic reflection in the elevator doors.
nobody in the office even noticed that i left.
two days after this woman’s suicide we had a staff meeting where our boss, the owner of the firm, a small, friendly man who works too hard and repeats the punchline of a joke until it’s dead, tried to console us but ended up basically making fun of the whole incident. it was very strange. he started off nervous and then blurted something about how he would jump off a building if he was a janitor too, and the whole room soured. fortunately the meeting was scheduled before this woman jumped, so the boss just started going through his notes after that moment. he’s not a bad man but he definitely doesn’t know how to win over a crowd.
i watched my coworkers during the meeting. no one seemed fazed. if anything they looked bored. they registered a bit of disgust when the boss told his ribald joke but no one looked concerned for this poor woman’s life. maybe i was reading too much into it, or projecting my own feelings onto them. hell, i probably looked like i didn’t care either. it was just a really surreal moment, and my first time dealing with willful death. my grandparents were dead and my father has been close, but never have i witnessed anyone willing to take their own life. made me wonder about work, about working fulltime, spending all of my day in an office. i mean what did this woman do? clean people’s shit. not literally, but maybe. people make messes and she cleans them. and since people know that there are people hired to clean messes, they make messes and don’t clean them themselves. now we’ve created a market for making messes. this is this woman’s livelihood, it’s how she feeds her kids and puts a roof over her head. her job is dictated by a lack of care; once people start caring enough to clean their own messes, her job is done. and people don’t care about her. this is a byproduct. people don’t care about the people who clean up the messes. so this woman comes in every day, cleans up our literal and figurative shit, makes was less money than she should for it, goes home, takes care of her kids, goes to sleep, does it all again tomorrow. she is at the lowest rung in the american caste system. and i think this is fine and good as long as somebody cares about you, but perhaps she didn’t think anyone did. how would you know unless someone made a conscious effort?
i thought about this all day. i didn’t get any work done. what was the point? a woman had taken her own life and now i have to file forms? she was only one out of seven billion but she still was something, a collection of atoms surging with electricity and chemical reactions, creating life. or the sensation of life at least. she lived, she breathed, she decided that her living and her breathing wasn’t worth it anymore. that conscious decision puts us above so many other animals who live and live and live until something eats them or they die of starvation or old age. these animals never think, “why am i here?” even the smart ones don’t think that. even the self-aware ones don’t think that. humans are the only beings we know of who are conscious of our place in the world, the only beings who understand that we are more than just a body and more than just a mind. so it’s fascinating when someone decides they don’t want to be one anymore. at least to me.
so. there was a time before i saw this woman plunge to her death, and now there is the time after. it’s like 9/11, only more personal, more visceral, as i was living in idaho when the planes it. but there she was, right out my window, a woman i may have bumped into on the street, or ignored as she cleaned up messes, or casually said hello to. now she was dead, the victim of her own mind.
that day, after work, instead of riding the bus home, i took a walk across the burnside bridge, which i thought would relax me, but instead only made me more despondent, as i had to pass a long line of homeless and/or destitute people waiting outside the soup kitchen. i see this nearly every day on the bus ride home, and i always watch them. i’m amazed at the diversity. portland is a white town and getting whiter every day, but these lines are always full of white, black, hispanic, asian, everything. more men than women but there were women there, too. i guess if there’s one thing that really brings people together, it’s being broke.
that day i had to walk by them, walk by their ratty clothes while i’m in a white dress shirt, black slacks, and new black shoes i recently bought at the nordstrom rack. it was warm enough to not need a coat, either, so i was just out there in the open. across the street were a series of little tarpaulin shelters and people laying out cardboard and sleeping bags, as the nights were getting shorter and it looked to be sunset soon. my mind was fixated on the dead woman but i was also aware of all these people in line, and the people across the street, all living, breathing human beings, some a little worse for wear but some just looking like they had a misstep in their lives that brought the whole house of cards crashing down. that is life for a lot of people, i realized: a delicate house of cards, or for some people, a jenga set, where they keep removing parts to build a bigger tower, building and building but losing their foundation, until they come crumbling down.
needless to say, i was feeling melancholic, and it didn’t help that all of these homeless people were talking about the woman too. a lot of them were calling her a coward, which i found surprising, but i guess it makes sense. some of these people in this soup line have been inches away from death themselves, and they kept going, and their lives are much more destitute than that woman’s. one man said “what gives her the right to kill herself? she ain’t got a bad life.” was that true? was her life better than this man’s, a little squirrely looking man with a rat tail, clad in a hoodie and an overcoat despite the warmish temperatures? how would we ever know, without disrupting the lives of her family who were likely circling the wagons at this point.
i walked over the bridge in silence. one thing i love about this city is the diversity of people you’ll see within a block. rich, homeless, people on bikes, people on skateboards, old, young, certifiably mentally insane, weird guys wrapped up in blankets, punks, gutterpunks, furries. middle aged men who cut in front of you in line for the bus because they think they deserve a seat. a trio of haggard women with baby strollers either going to or coming back from rehab. hippies, yuppies, stupid libertarians in between. all these people live here and all of them are fine with each other. we all have enough room to live, unlike new york city, and everyone just wants to be left alone.
once i got to the other end of the bridge, i kept walking east. i ended up stopping into b-side, which used to be a divey bar for punk kids but is now more of a trendy dive bar for people pretending to be punk kids. the bartenders don’t seem to care that i am dressed in my office clothes. i ask for a shot and a pint of pabst and stare at the eccentric art on the walls and the stickers plastered everywhere. punk kids love stickers and buttons and patches. the patio out back is great and i’ve had some fun times back there with my friends, back when i didn’t have an office day job and had disposable income. i used to go out a lot more but that stuff kind of bores me. a lot of things bore me lately. i think i’m depressed. i don’t know how you figure that out–i guess a psychiatrist asks you some questions and you give him the right answers, leading you down a plinko board to the grand prize: prozac. the last two years have been rough. but anyway.
while i was at the bar this drunk guy, obviously a regular and a day drinker, started up a conversation with me. “look at you with your fancy clothes,” he said. he was probably 35, dressed like he was a 19 year old punk, with ripped up jeans, converse shoes, a ramones t-shirt, and a denim jacket with a panoply of patches with various bands on them. he smelled like cheap whiskey and cigarettes and his teeth were kind of a nightmare. i can’t stop staring at teeth if they’re fucked up, it’s just a bad habit of mine, partially because my teeth are so bad–they look fine but my molars are all fucked up because i let my wisdom teeth come in and they broke teeth in front, plus i eat more sugar than i should.
i told this guy i just got out of the office. he asked me where i work, and when i told him, of course he asks if i saw the girl. i said i did, and he just flat out asked me, “could you do it? could you kill yourself like that?”
now if this was any other day i would humor this guy but also politely tell him to fuck off. but that day i was really thinking about it. it seemed like this cleaning lady really lucked into her suicide, as i had read online that she sort of tricked the security guard into opening the door to the roof. god, imagine being on the roof of a skyscraper. how amazing that would be, so high up, you can see the whole city, but you don’t care because all you want is to die. she went up the stairs and hid or something, and the guard opened the door to the roof to see if anyone got out there, and she just ran past him and onto the roof and then off the roof. at least, that’s what the guard said. my writer’s brain conjured up some scenario wherein she plead with the guard to let him open the door so she could kill herself. i wondered–i still wonder–what one could argue to make that happen. i think the guard’s story is true, but ultimately more boring, and kind more sad, than the scenario i cooked up in my head.
but it takes some planning. you have to know how to get up there. you have to ride an elevator. you have to get the guard to open the door. imagine that part: she planned all of this to happen only to find the door to the roof locked. what does she do now? go back down? return to her life? find a tall building with an unlocked door to the roof? so many variables. so i thought about it for a moment and said, “no, i don’t think i could.”
“me neither,” the guy replied. “takes some fucking guts.”