I walk to work and back every day, to North Seattle College. It’s a two-mile round-trip. Today, on my way home, as I approached the overpass at NE 92nd Street and I-5, I noticed someone there pacing back and forth. At first, I couldn’t tell whether the person was male or female. Soon enough I determined that she was female, but from that distance, her short blond buzzcut and her gender-neutral clothing made me pause.
Eventually she stopped pacing. She tossed what looked like a bright pink cigarette lighter onto the ground, leaned against the railing of the overpass, and stared down into the river of cars below.
A few years ago, a teenage girl committed suicide by jumping into traffic from an overpass at the intersection of NE 145th Street and I-5, just a few miles north. I don’t really know much about her case, what had transpired in her life for her to do such a thing–who ever really does? We hear such stories on the evening news, ponder them briefly, then move past them as we slip back into the relative safety and security of our own lives. But, occasionally, I’d drive across that bridge at NE 145th, see all the flowers and mementos left by her loved ones, and I’d wonder about her. In those moments, I’d want to know her–I’d wish I’d known her. Not that I could have done anything to have stopped her–who knows? But to have known her and to have had her know that I knew her . . . .
Watching this girl, this one before me now on the overpass, I wondered: does knowing someone, being known, hearing and being heard, keep us from jumping?
She continued to lean against the railing. I was across the street from her, but I decided to walk over to her side, to just put myself in her path.
As I approached, it became clear that she was hurting. She wasn’t looking at the environment in a general way so much as she was pondering the steady flow of cars directly below her. I stopped and leaned along with her. I watched the commuters commuting, moving, yet unmoved by our presence above.
I finally broke the silence. “Are you alright?”
She paused, glancing at me curiously. “No, I’m not.”
“Well, I know I’m a stranger, but if you want to talk, I have some time to listen.”
She looked back at the traffic below. “All I wanted to know was where the Department of Social and Health Services was, and they treated me like shit.”
“The people over there at that school. I know DSHS is over there somewhere, I just don’t know which building exactly, so I asked some people who work there, and they looked at me like I was stupid. One person ignored me, and the other totally brushed me off.”
“They didn’t even suggest where you could go to find out?” I asked.
She was sensitive. And I don’t mean that in any negative way. I could totally relate. I’m sensitive, too—too much so in my opinion. I tend to flee at the slightest hint of conflict. Listening to her, I recognized myself.
I thought for a moment. “Well, you know what? I work over there; I don’t know where DSHS is either, but if you’d like to come with me, walk back to the school, I’ll make sure you find it. How’s that sound?”
Instantly she replied, “Okay.”
I reached out my hand. “I’m John.”
She extended hers. “I’m Abbie.”
We headed back toward the school, and, for the briefest of moments, my anxiety took over as I thought of what we could possibly talk about. But then I just let that thought go. That didn’t matter.
After a few minutes, I asked, “So, what do you need to do at DSHS?”
“I need to get my insurance figured out.”
“Ah, yeah. That sounds pretty important.”
“Yeah. And, I’m turning nineteen in nine days,” she exclaimed, throwing her hands skyward. “But there’s all this drama that’s making me crazy. My family, friends . . . ugh.”
“You’ve had a pretty rough time of it, yeah?”
“Are you staying somewhere around here?”
“Up on NE 145th with some people.”
Again, the girl who had jumped from the overpass, the one on NE 145th, crossed my mind. I wondered if Abbie knew about her.
Then Abbie looked at me and asked, “Why can’t we just have great days? Do they all have to be so shitty?”
“I hear ya. Much of the time I want that same thing–for things to be easy, simple. Unfortunately, life doesn’t seem to play itself out that way, does it?”
“Not at all.” She shrugged.
“We have some good days, some bad ones, some in between.”
“Yeah. It’s like a balance or something.” She added.
“Mhm. Nice way to describe it.” I smiled at her, noticing a sense of ease in her body language as we continued to walk, to share.
We finally approached the career services building. “I don’t know if DSHS is in here, but we’ll find out.”
As we entered, we were met by a friendly greeter. “May I help you?”
“We need to speak with DSHS. Are we in the right place?” I asked.
“You are,” he said. “Stand in this line, and someone will be right with you.”
I smiled at Abbie, gesturing to the empty line in front of us. “Here ya go. Looks like you’re next in line. Think you can make it from here?”
“Good.” I paused a moment before continuing, my eyes welling up slightly. “Ya know, Abbie, we have shitty days from time to time, and people can definitely be shitty to us . . . just keep going, okay?”
Abbie looked down at no particular spot on the floor, then back to me, into my eyes as she wiped her own. She smiled and said, “Thanks, John.”
She said my name. She said it so sincerely. As if she had known me. Had somehow heard me. Had kept me from jumping.
“Thank you, Abbie.”