Austin Blaze is a writer from Northern California. His novel-in-progress received the Helen Zell Writers’ Program Thesis Award in Fiction at the University of Michigan, where he earned his MFA. He lives outside Detroit with his wife and daughter.
RE: THE LOONY NET
Subject: Re: The Loony Net
Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018 2:13:39 AM PST
From: Nick Whitner
To: Leonard Barry
Dear Mr. Barry,
Thank you for reaching out. It is so refreshing to hear from a concerned constituent with such enthusiasm for public policy.
I should start by saying that I am not your elected official. I proudly represent District 8—which comprises Glen Park, Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, Mission Dolores, Dolores Heights, Corona Heights, Eureka Valley, the Duboce Triangle, parts of Twin Peaks, and of course the Castro, where I live—on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Your hometown of Tracy is located more than 50 miles outside my district and, being its own municipality, has its own local government, which is entirely distinct from the City of San Francisco. You can find your city council members at cityoftracy.org/government/city-council/meet-the-city-council-members. Your congresswoman, Elizabeth Cook, represents California’s 10th in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you would like to get in touch with her office, I encourage you to visit cook.house.gov/contact.
Though I was not elected to serve your interests in local, state, or federal government, I would be happy to clarify a few details regarding the Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent System (SDS), which you so elegantly referred to as the Loony Net. An initial funding plan for the SDS was approved by the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors more than four years ago, in June of 2014. Construction of the SDS began in April of last year. As for your budgetary concerns, this $211 million effort was made possible by $74 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), $70 million from the California Department of Transportation (better known as Caltrans), $60 million from Golden Gate Bridge District revenue, $7 million from the State of California Mental Health Funds (via Prop 63), and $400,000 from individual and foundation donors.
Assuming you do not earn more than $1 million per year and do not pay Golden Gate Bridge tolls, the only portion of this budget to which you might personally contribute is the $144 million in federal funds allocated through Caltrans and the MTC. And since your main concern for this project (which, again, is intended to directly prevent the tragically preventable self-inflicted deaths of people with hopes, dreams, families, friends, pets, etc.) is its impact on your personal finances, I have taken it upon myself to calculate your individual contribution. Considering you referred to yourself more than once as an average, hard-working American, I went ahead and assumed an annual household income of $71,805—the median figure for Californians in 2017. Without any additional dependents or deductions, your married-filing-jointly (please give Janet my best) federal tax burden comes to $9,838.25. With an estimated 2018 federal budget of $3.7927 trillion, your federal taxes fund around 0.000000259% of all federal spending. If we apply that same percentage to the $144 million in federal funding for the Golden Gate Bridge SDS, your personal contribution amounts to—I hope you’re sitting down—just over 37 cents. Roughly one penny for each person who leaps from our state’s beautiful and iconic bridge, through the fog, to their permanent and irreversible death each year.
“But,” you might be thinking, “how do we know the SDS will in fact save the lives of jumpers and/or prevent them from jumping in the first place?” In a word, research. A 1978 study from Richard H. Seiden, PhD, MPH found that 90% of those who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge did not die by suicide, or other violent means, at a later date. More recently, in 2002, a Harvard School of Public Health review of nearly 100 long-term survival studies reached the same conclusion. If these findings hold true after completion of the SDS, 27 people per year will survive their attempted suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge. That is to say nothing of the individuals who, we can only hope, will be deterred by its very presence.
But let us put taxes and statistics aside for a moment. It behooves us to remember that this is not merely some abstract policy debate or hypothetical philosophical disagreement. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Though I’m resorting to the first-person plural in a ham-fisted and possibly condescending attempt at civility, I personally need no reminder. Because I very nearly lost a family member to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had gone missing and, given his history of mental illness, I thought it prudent to rule out one horrifying possibility. It was one of those wet, gloomy days all too common in San Francisco. (I admit, I don’t know whether the Bay Area’s notorious fog ever makes its way as far inland as Tracy. If not, I humbly request you use your imagination.) My partner drove as I monitored the railing from the passenger seat. There weren’t many people on the bridge that day, because of the weather. A couple of tourists taking photos from the safety of their umbrellas. And then, through the streaky windshield, I saw a figure standing alone at the railing, soaked to the bone. We pulled over and I leapt from the still-moving vehicle, my partner shouting, commuters honking. My nephew turned around, and when he saw me, he lunged toward the barrier. By the time I reached him, got my hand around his belt, he was straddling the railing, straining with every fiber of his being to throw himself into the water. Fortunately, with my partner’s assistance, I was able to pull him back onto the sidewalk. I pinned him down, my hands on his wrists, my knees on either side of his chest. I consoled him as he continued to struggle. He pleaded with me to let him jump, begging me to just get back into my car and drive away. “It’s best for everyone,” he tried to assure me. But he did not die that day. He survived this attempt. He got the help he needed. Last I heard, he was engaged to be married.
Now, the rest of my email was going to go something like this: Let’s say you were on the bridge that day, stuck in traffic, trying to get home to your family, and you happened to see us struggling on the sidewalk. In that moment, would you have voluntarily paid 1.24 cents to save my nephew’s life? Then I was going to ask—I’m sure you could see this coming—what if it was your family member on the bridge, Mr. Barry? Would you still resent the grand total 37.32 cents you were forced to contribute to the SDS project? Or would you tell that person—my nephew or your cousin or whomever—“Sorry, pal. You should have made better life choices. I worked hard for these pennies. Get your head out of your ass and solve your own fucking problems.” Would you really be that cruel? And I guess, technically, I did just ask you those things. But the point I’m trying to make is, as effective as that rhetorical charade may be, I shouldn’t have to ask you those things. Because we as human beings, capable of empathy and critical thinking, should be able to see beyond our nuclear families and our petty tribal divisions.
I’m not sure which radio station, website, podcast, TV show, or email chain beamed this issue into your consciousness in order to flip an invisible switch in your amygdala, flooding your brain with chemicals that cause you to experience fear, anger, and anxiety. But I need you to understand that whoever gave you this information—and I say this out of candor, not malice—could not care less about you. In fact, the more misfortune you suffer, the more you and people like you are left behind, the more effectively they can convince you to blame someone or something else (say, a $211 million suicide-prevention initiative) for your diminished status in society. By sending you to the frontlines of their culture wars, pitting you against other working people, they can more successfully dismantle the middle class for their own financial gain. Personally, I find this business model to be both morally objectionable and actively detrimental to the health of our social and political systems. And as seriously as I doubt you will take my words to heart—research has demonstrated pretty conclusively that, when people’s deeply held beliefs are revealed to be false, they are much more likely to double down than they are to change their mind—I genuinely hope you take solace in the fact that your 37 cents will help save the lives of roughly 30 Californians each year.
Based on the overall tone of your email, I can tell you have a cynical view of politics and government. And as an elected official, I’ll be frank. You’re not wrong to feel that way. When people ask me what it’s like to work in politics, my answer is that, more often than not, it is wildly disappointing. And when they inevitably ask, in light of this information, why I continue on this career path, I give them one word: hope. I have to hope that inch by inch, bill by bill, law by law, I can help create a more just society for my constituents. Which brings us back to the bridge. Constructed during the darkest days of the Great Depression, this marvel of engineering was, upon its completion, the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. It is often cited as a manifestation of perseverance, determination, and American ingenuity. To me, it has always represented the possibility of a better future. And as citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet, it seems to me that the least we can do is pool our pennies to ensure that this beautiful structure remains a symbol of hope rather than hopelessness. To affirm its presence as a means by which to traverse troubled waters, not succumb to them.
Because what are we, Mr. Barry, without hope? What happens when that guiding light—however distant, however faint—finally goes dark? Where does that leave us? I pray, for both of our sakes, we never find out.
With warmest regards,
Supervisor, District 8