For whom the bridge tolls

THE BROADER PICTURE

THE AUTHORITIES refused to issue any scorecard, for fear of prompting an unseemly race or sweepstake; after all, San Francisco takes pride in its sophistication. But word slipped out none the less: Golden Gate Bridge was about to rack up its 1,000th official suicide. And no one could stop people counting. The published tally had stood at 997 when the announcements stopped at the beginning of June. There were two more suicides that month; a third just over a fortnight ago. No one knows if 25-year-old Eric Atkinson realised the macabre contribution he was making to San Francisco's history.

There's no suggestion that, before 1937 - when the Bridge was opened - San Franciscans trudged steadfastly into the cold currents of the Bay to destroy themselves. Not that suicide was unknown in the city; promising so much, the San Francisco of Gold Rush days had always had a corner on drastic disappointment. But the steepness of the city was opportunity enough. Any dismayed person could see the effectiveness of just going out of the window. San Francisco was also rich in guns, blades and all the regular poisons; it even had earthquakes and beautiful people, phenomena closely linked to self-destruction. To have gone into the bay would have seemed far-fetched, impractical and unduly arduous.

Then came the Bridge. The Golden Gate was actually the shorter of two bridges erected in the Thirties to link San Francisco with Oakland in the east and Marin to the north. But the Golden Gate was more beautiful and more dramatic than the Bay Bridge. Running approximately north-south, it is the frontier between America and the Pacific. Its brick colour, endlessly being repainted, picks up sunset and sunrise with the canny positioning of a star who knows where the lights are. The cantilever span is a bold emblem of the poetry of man's engineering, making assertive connections.

It is a bridge for traffic below - the fleets of the Second World War, the ships of trade and the city's spiffy yachts - and traffic above: there are six lanes for motor traffic, and sidewalks for pedestrians. Every day, no matter how strong the wind or how thick the fog, people walk the Bridge, for it offers some of the best views of the city and the bay. And it has just a modest railing that stops at waist level, so that promenaders may enjoy the view with the least interruption. But there has been an unforeseen consequence: any able-bodied person can go over the side in a trice. No one thinks it has really been only a thousand. There are confirmed suicides, bodies recovered, and people who simply disappeared.

The waters beneath the Bridge are not tranquil. Powerful currents surge through the Bay as the force of the Pacific bottlenecks. As the tides change, so bodies can go straight out to sea where there is a clear, 6,000- mile route to Tokyo (to say nothing of whims and passions in the water that could carry a corpse up to Alaska, or all the way south to tropic seas). It has to be added that the drop from the Bridge has sometimes been enough to shatter bodies. So there are unsolved vanishings in the Bay Area that add to the Bridge's dark romance.

San Franciscans are pretty cool about the thousand. They have declined to raise the barrier or make the jump more difficult. They admire the Bridge for its lovely arrogance and for the way red steel harnesses the wild land. The odd availability of death is treated every bit as comically as the irony that builds civilisation on one of the Earth's most impatient and profound geological faults. San Franciscans like to look at the bridge, and sometimes they wonder if that dot isn't going over. Why not? For nearly every known suicide from the bridge has gone over the eastern parapet - the side that faces the audience. !

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