Man Jumping Off a Bridge
Around midnight on August 19, 2006, one of my first nights in New York City, 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 became the wee hours, 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. Halfway across, 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 but left 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 stand 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 stay away. The officer retreated, then returned, and the cycle began again.
I had my camera, and a telephoto lens. I’d been wandering the streets every night, taking photographs and trying to make sense of my new home. I wanted to see what was excluded from the popular mythology of “The Big Apple” and “If you can make it here…”.
Now, 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. On the walkway, three people had accumulated next to me. We turned to each other. There was something in the air, something we all knew, but none of us could say much of anything.
(scroll right for photos:)
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.