Monday, September 10, 2012

The Gold Standard

I witnessed my first suicide a few weeks after arriving at the Mission.   Above the main building, curving across G street to slope westward down the weed-choked hill where quite a few homeless nestle and burrow at night, the gray concrete highway overpass rests on its thick pillars like a grungy imitation of an ancient monument or temple.  The access stairway, steep as a hike up a ziggurat, stands wrapped in chainlink fencing and upward-spiraling coils of barbed wire. 

We spotted the man standing balanced on the freeway railing high overhead right after breakfast.   His back was to us and his arms were outstretched, pointing east and west.  Before anyone could shout or speculate about how he'd gotten up there, he tipped backward and fell.   His long green coat fluttered.  He hit the ground prone with arms still extended after a neat 90 degree turn. 

The sound of his body's impact was one of the strangest, most unexpected things ever to reach my ears.   In retrospect, I suppose I was unconsciously primed in the 3 seconds or so it took him to fall for a kind of wet smacking sound combined with a muffled thump.  That's how a body should sound, right?  We're bags of blood surrounding solid bones.

 !SMACK!THUMP! or !THUMP!SMACK!   Wet and heavy.

This is wrong, at least in this instance.  Instead, the impact sounded exactly the way a wooden pallet--the kind you see on loading docks or in discount warehouses--sounds when dropped from a significant height. CRACK!CLATTER!   That's it--precisely:  the !CRACK!CLATTER! or !CLATTER!CRACK! of a flat, squarish, slatted wooden contrivance used for stacking mechandise impacting concrete.  Maybe something of the !WHAP! about it.  But nothing human.

That's what I thought at the moment.  I don't remember any of the reactions from people around me.  I had to catch a bus.  Lots of blue-shirted Disciples surrounded the fallen man.  Guests flipped open cell phones.   An ambulance arrived as I set out.

 It didn't occur to me until the next day, when a rumor made the rounds that the man, whom no one knew and was not a Mission guest, had lived for 12 hours in the hospital before dying, that I had never heard a wooden pallet hit the ground after dropping 50 or so feet.   Never.  Sure of it.  So that made my surprise at the falling body's sound some kind of internally-generated and unjustified leap, an inference based on a cartoony mental map of reality.

Well, one thing to avoid here is some kind of juvenile solipsistic/philosophical riff ala The Matrix (a piece of cliche'd, doltish claptrap), but the body's impact immediately set off an inescapable obssession with wooden pallets and what sound they actually make in the real world .  

Don't tell me that's naive.  There is a real world and things make pretty much the same sound for human beings built on the same body plans everywhere unless their nervous systems are drug-addled or miswired.  And people who say solipsism (the insane belief that only you and your perceptions are real) is a more parsimonious view of reality than the inferential world revealed by science are the naive ones.   Solipsists have the added workload of explaining how the self-generated phenomena in their self-generated world keep generating novel behavior and revealing new layers and depths apart from any conscious effort on the solipsist's part.    Really.  Think about it. 

In my reality, pallets were suddenly everywhere and I couldn't stop noticing them on loading docks, in piles behind markets and in alleys.   In a corner of my favorite vacant lot--favorite because it's a fenced-in and barbed-wire-protected expanse of cracked asphalt enclosing nothing but tall brown weeds sprouting through jagged cracks--I spotted a six foot stack of pallets I'd never before noticed and wondered if they'd been deposited overnight.   These pallets were tantalizing but inaccessible.   Could I get my own pallet somewhere for testing?

And for that matter what kind of sound do falling bodies make when they hit concrete? I could wait for another suicide but that was unlikely.   I wanted desperately to ask someone in the breakfast line or changing room if they remembered the overpass suicide and what they heard when the body hit.  Because that's the Gold Standard, I kept telling myself--independent varification.  The empirical motherlode.  The Gold Standard.  I repeated this phrase to myself over and over whenever despair at finding out got the better of me.

(It's against my rules and a certain implicit street ettiquette to ask direct questions.  The data has to present itself in just the right way.  This is what happens when you're walking the streets and riding buses all day and you used to teach college "critical thinking" classes and babbled at students who couldn't have cared less about the need for "epistemological clarity" and "cleaning your reality filters,"  and you have no audience except other crazies batting at the air and screeching, "I'm not a doormat, you goddamed Stalinist bastards!  Give me my glasses back and I'll clarify everything for you once and for all!")

Well, I have no way of stretching the suspense out any longer.  One morning in breakfast line, just when I'd given up and hadn't actually thought about the problem for a while, I heard a conversation that went like this:

"Man, I just want to kill somebody!"

"Go to the clinic, dude, you're depressed."

"Depressed?  I just want to kill one of these stupid motherfuckers I live with!"

"Naw, you're angry at yourself, that's what depression is.  Get some medicine!  It's free!"

"Maybe I'll jump off the overpass.  Maybe I'll take a few people with me!  Hah! Hah! Hah! Haaaaaaahhh!"

"Were you here when that pendejo jumped off the overpass?"


"His body sounded like it was made of wood."


"When it hit the ground it sounded like wood."

"So what?  It was his skeleton!"

"No, you don't understand--"

"No you don't understand--I know what a body sounds like."

"I was there!  It sounded just like in Food Maxx when I used to work there!"

"Food Maxx?"

I held my breath.  Please, I thought. Please.

"Like a pallet."

"What the fuck . . .?"