Man Jumping Off a Bridge

Around midnight on August 19, 2006, I left my Harlem sublet and walked a hundred blocks south, past the Upper West Side, Central Park, midtown, and the East Village. As the hours passed, the buzz of the city faded to a low hum. At Delancey Street I turned left and trudged up the steep incline of the Williamsburg Bridge, towards Brooklyn. I had a camera, a tripod, and a long lens. I’d been wandering the streets every night, taking photographs and trying to make sense of the city. I wanted to see everything that didn't fit into the popular mythology of “The Big Apple,” “If you can make it here…” etc.

Halfway across the bridge, as far as possible from the dry shores of either borough, something was happening. On the two-lane outer roadway, which was a different part of the bridge from where pedestrians walked, was a pedestrian. He was a light-skinned black man with a mop of trimmed dreadlocks and a vaguely athletic build, shoeless, shirtless, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. He was in the road but traffic had been stopped near the base of the bridge behind a police barrier. As I arrived he hoisted himself onto the outer railing and sat there, his back to the water, legs dangled casually above the asphalt.

Surrounding him at a radius of thirty feet were a dozen police officers. They stood or leaned against their cars, arms folded or hands on hips. One of them approached the man, leaving a few steps between them. Across that distance the two shouted and gestured. The officer pointed to the ground, where the man could come and end this crazy thing. The man pointed at the cops to his left and right, spit flying from his lips as he warned them to keep away. The officer retreated, then returned, and the cycle began again.

On one side, wearing badges, radios, guns, and standard issue leather shoes was the law. On the other side was a man at his wits’ end, sitting on the border of this world and some place no laws could touch. Suddenly, he crossed himself and his eyes went blank. They were open but unseeing as he leaned backwards and let gravity fling feet over head, body over railing into freefall towards the river. From my vantage point, he simply vanished.

There was a terrible thud as he struck a lower section of the bridge. Then, silence. The officers got back in their cars, waved accumulated traffic through the Brooklyn-bound lanes, and things on the road went back to normal.

I turned to the few pedestrians who had accumulated next to me on the walkway. There were a handful of us, and nobody knew what to say. A man, we assumed, had lost his life, and now we were more aware of ours. It was uncomfortable--the existential aspect of it, the racial aspect of it (all the cops had been white, and so were we), and the fact that we were now spectators to the event. Or witnesses. Which was it? There seemed to be a difference, and the explanation of our particular discomfort, I think, lies therein.

Wisely or not, I posted the photographs on my website.

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These photos are discussed in "Williamsburg Bridge," a short story by John Edgar Wideman originally published in Harper's and included in Best American Short Stories 2015.