Two weekends ago I finally got in a 16-miler that I’d failed to do the previous two weeks. (Missed the first week because of illness and didn’t finish on my second try because the weather was just so completely bad.) I was rusty, I took a handful of catch-my-breath breaks, but I got through it.
There was one prolonged break, but it wasn’t for any of the usual reasons. 12.5 miles in, I came across a guy who was threatening to jump off of the North Avenue foot bridge into the Lake Shore Drive traffic below.
The wind had picked up quite a bit as the sun dipped. The gusts were harsh as I started the climb up the east end of the foot bridge. I had to tuck my chin into my collar and pull my cap far down on my head to keep from losing it. My field of vision was limited to the patch of concrete at my feet. I didn’t see the jumper, or the woman who was trying to coax him back to the safe side of the railing, until I was passing them.
The guy was dressed in blue jeans and basketball shoes. He wore a silvery athletic jacket of some kind, like a windbreaker, with a team or product name on the back. He had on a ball cap and a bookbag type backpack. He was African-American, but light skinned, and his face was covered with the kind of freckles that you sometimes see on light-skinned black men.
He also had one leg on the foot bridge and the other on the opposite side of the rail, hanging out over Lake Shore Drive.
The woman who was talking to him was a runner. She was dressed in her black running clothes, a jacket and ¾ pants. Her long, dark hair was pulled up in a pony tail, and she was on the petite side – much smaller than the guy, who was 6’+ and maybe 210 lbs or more.
The truth of the situation didn’t sink in at first, because both of them were so calm. He wasn’t ranting. They weren’t arguing. There was no air of immediacy. They could have been any pair of tourists taking in the lake and the Chicago winter for the first time. My very first thought was that the guy was just posing for a crazy photo over Lake Shore Drive.
Ten paces past the pair of them, as the facts sunk in, I slowed to a crawl, reached up to turn off my iPod and tried to take a copious look around behind me – but without looking like I was trying to look.
I was relieved to see that the woman had already talked him all the way back onto the bridge and they were starting to move toward me down to the west side of the overpass. I kept walking that way myself while struggling to listen backwards at them to keep tabs on how things were going. What state of mind was the guy in? Was he drunk? Was he high? He didn’t seem violent, but what if that changed suddenly? He was so much bigger than she was; at least twice her body mass. If it came to any kind of physical altercation, she would really be at a disadvantage. Left on her own, verbal persuasion would be her only real defense.
All these thoughts and variables were running through my brain in the time it took me to stroll the 50 feet down to the hairpin turn near the end of the foot bridge. From there it was easy for me to look back up the ramp at them. He was behind her, but they were both still walking toward me, and by the time I got to the ground they were in the hairpin. I invented some business with my shoes and tried to hide under the ramp where I might hear what was going on.
After another 30 seconds, hearing nothing and seeing neither of them descend to the ground behind me, I peered back around the corner. He had apparently changed his mind. She was alone in the hairpin and he was walking with purpose back up to the middle of the bridge.
Damn. I’d thought she had him.
He had climbed completely over the rail and was standing on the outside of the little fence, his back to the drop, his heels dangling out over traffic.
In a moment, she resigned herself to it, and followed him back again. I did the same, but stopped when I got back to the hairpin. I was concerned about how much I should interfere. This woman had clearly established some connection, some influence over him. It’s possible that he wouldn’t react as well to me, a guy, trying to get in his business. What if it turned into a small crowd of lakefront joggers trying to cajole him into abandoning his little perch? Would he disapprove of our attentions?
At the same time, I didn’t feel like I could just leave. One of the two of them, the man or the woman, might still need some help in this little drama, and even if I was not the most ideal person to give that help, I was there, so me was what they got.
At this point, I saw another bystander 30 yards from the base of the footbridge. He was wearing a bright orange jacket, he was looking up at our would-be jumper, and he was on his cell phone. So, 911 was being alerted. And sure enough, when I looked back over to the east side of the bridge, a squad car had just parked along the lakefront bike path and a beat cop was walking up the bridge from the other side.
This is cynical of me, but there’s no reason for me to believe that a rank and file police officer assigned to patrol for mischief on the lakefront is any more equipped to talk a man off a ledge than I am (or, for that matter, this woman, who had, it seemed, been having a little luck with it already), but the blue boy did carry a gun, so I just waited in the hairpin where I was.
The woman, however, was completely undeterred, and now was talking as much to the cop as to the man on the ledge. The wind was blowing too strongly for me to hear their voices, but the sound of sirens was unmistakable. They were emerging from the innards of the city off to the southwest.
First a second squad car arrived, then a fire truck, then an ambulance, then another fire truck, then a third, now two more squad cars and another. A couple were over on the bike path near the foot of the bridge. Others had come up Lakeshore Drive from North Avenue and points below.
Less than five minutes after I noted the orange jacketed man on his cell phone, a half dozen city vehicles had shut down Lake Shore Drive – but only on the northbound lanes. Meanwhile, traffic was still whizzing by underneath in the southbound lanes, and that’s what the guy was actually standing over.
A handful of cops had made their way up onto the bridge. The woman was still with them, in the middle of things, and talking much more at the cops than at the man on the ledge. I don’t really think he wanted to jump, at least, not at this point, but there was still the very real possibility that he could simply fall. The drop itself wasn’t far enough to kill him (badly break his legs maybe), but dropping down into busy highway traffic would turn him to pulp for sure. The drivers below would also be at risk. Who knows what kind of car pile up might be caused?
Minutes passed and all those emergency vehicles just sat there passively in the northbound lanes, until, finally, one of the fire chiefs got his brain around it and sent a single police car up Lakeshore to Fullerton so it could come back down in the southern lanes and block the traffic there, too.
I did hear one thing from the middle of the scene. One cop in particular seems to have taken the lead and is talking at the guy, and the guy states forcefully back at him, “I’m NOT drunk!” A couple other runners trying to cross the bridge had stopped to watch the show, but after this outburst, the cops waved at them to move further off.
Finally, the situation seemed to crack a little, and the guy swings one leg back over the rail, and then, after a few more moments, comes the other. I half expected to see a rush of uniformed bodies swarm around him to be sure he didn’t go back over again, but instead just 2 of the cops pace over to him and restrain his arms. It has, more, the air of a brokered deal. I imagine he takes a charge of disturbing the peace or something similar and spends a night or two in jail, but I have no way to know for sure. It was, luckily, a bit anticlimactic.
A few days later, the next time I turned on my iPod, I realized what I was listening to as I first ran back up the bridge and into this scene, was a radio interview with Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker, who in 1974 (illegally) strung a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center and spent an hour rope walking between the buildings, 110 stories in the air.
Once the cops had subdued our jumper, the woman who’d been there and remained from the start gave herself leave. She was heading toward the hairpin where I was still standing. “I thought you had him that first time,” I said to her.
“Yeah. He got scared when he saw the police coming, so he went back up.”
Kind of ironic. Not really the cops’ fault. And maybe he wasn’t really scared. Maybe he just wasn’t ready to throw it in and pass up the chance for more attention and a bigger hubbub on his behalf. Or maybe, in his delusion, he just felt like his strongest negotiating position was on the wrong side of the railing in the middle of the bridge. Who knows?
“Good for you for staying with him,” I told her, and she shrugged a little. Then she rounded the corner on the hairpin where she could finally get a good look at all the trucks, the flashing lights, and backed-up traffic on the Drive.
“Quite a ruckus, huh?” she said matter-of-factly as she passed by me. At the bottom of the ramp, she settled back into her jog, and headed home in the deepening night.
There was nothing else to do but follow her lead.