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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Man Jumps to His Death in Center City Philadelphia

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 23, 2013
By Thom Nickels

When I ran into my friend Eric in Center City recently, he said he wanted to talk to me "as a journalist." His tone was somber, and I was concerned.

"I’m a wreck," he said. "Three days ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine in restaurant Nineteen atop the Bellevue on Broad Street. Not far from my table there was a couple, a man and a woman, maybe in their sixties. At some point the woman got up to go the ladies room, and as soon as she left the man left the table, walked over to the restaurant’s huge balcony window, and jumped out onto Broad Street."

"He did what?" I said.

"He jumped out of the window, while the waitress fainted on the floor. Management then ushered everybody out of the place. I haven’t been able to sleep ever since."

There was a distressed look in Eric’s eyes as if the memory of the horrific event were still casting a shadow. "I even spotted the couple on the way up to the restaurant in the elevator. The man was standing in the rear of the car. What I want to know is: why wasn’t there anything about this in the news? There was nothing in the newspapers, and nothing on TV. There’s been no reporting on it at all."

Eric asked if I would please find out what happened.

"I’ll try," I said, while warning him that everybody gets tight lipped when it comes to suicide. "I’ll do what I can."

Although Eric never told me why he wanted to put a name to the jumper, I got the impression that he wanted a name because, as a Catholic priest, he wanted to pray for the guy.

Back home at my desk, I checked all the local news venues and found nothing on the incident. I couldn’t understand this. A man jumps from a Center City restaurant shortly after Noon, on Broad Street nonetheless, and not a single bit of information about it in the media. Years ago I had heard stories about the suppression of suicide stories because of their unpleasant nature. Some news outlets don’t want to upset readers but yet they think nothing of publishing stories about mass murders and serial killers. One can understand why families and loved ones of suicide victims wouldn’t want this fact publicized in obituaries. Very often an obituary will state that so and so "died suddenly," which is often a code word for suicide.

The Center City suicide was a very public event, however. The man in question chose a public venue in the middle of the day in a crowded, popular restaurant, and he chose to jump into Broad Street, which has thousands of people and vehicles moving up and down from north to south at any given time. The choice of Restaurant Nineteen was also a dangerous choice because of the possibility of pedestrians on the sidewalk. What if the man had fallen on top of someone? What if his suicide led to other deaths or permanent injury? No doubt this unfortunate man wanted to create a sensation of some kind.

I called restaurant Nineteen to see if management would confirm that a patron had jumped from one of their windows but I didn’t get very far. "We have no comment, sir," I was told, albeit politely. I explained that I was very sorry about the episode, and made it clear that telling the truth in no way indicts the restaurant as a suicide destination. The response, however, was the same. "We have no comment, sir."

Bellevue management was more forthcoming, as they confirmed that there was a death on the sidewalk in front of the hotel but they would not confirm that the victim had jumped. I was told to call the police. I gave the police the date and time of the incident, based on my friend’s report, and was told that somebody would get back to me by the end of the day. The day came and went, and so did the weekend and most of the following Monday, with no return call. I placed a reminder call to the police, explained that I’d been waiting to hear from them, but was coldly informed that I had to call the Medical Examiner’s Office. Somehow they’d forgotten that they had promised to call me back, and seemed very annoyed at the follow up.

The Medical Examiner’s Office, in turn, told me that their official contact person would have to get back to me, which took another two days.

When I received the information and could give Eric a name, he was thankful, but I was left feeling bad for this guy who had nobody to turn to in his final moments.

Could anything have prevented this?

The situation reminded me of my long conversations with my 95 year old great aunt in the years prior to her death. Aunt Dorothy would often review her life and comment on what it was like to get old. She would talk about what life was like for her when she was in her sixties ("the time when health problems tend to surface"), while adding that the seventies tend to be more balanced. "Once you turn eighty," she said, "watch out." Eighty, Aunt Dorothy liked to say, was when the body began to not let you do the things you wanted to do." As for the secrets of a long life, she repeated this stock phrase many times: "Everything in moderation." And Aunt Dorothy meant it. She smoked one cigarette a day after dinner; she enjoyed sips of sherry and a good rum and Coke, but never more than two drinks. When I would have lunch with her and go for a third glass of sherry, she would look at me disapprovingly.

She was a meat eater, but at the same time she was someone who believed in the goodness of vegetables and salads. As a steadfast walker, she introduced me to the world of walking sticks. She loved hiking on the trails near the Valley Green Inn. She loved grapefruit, cantaloupe, grilled cheese sandwiches and Spam. She went to church every Sunday and made it a point to tell everyone that she never used water on her face but instead dabbed it at night with something called Abolene crème. At eighty, she looked fifty.

Relatives would ask her: "Did you sign a pact with the Devil?"

About life’s ups and downs she was tremendously philosophical, and often liked to call her life The Agony and the Ecstasy, after the book by Irving Stone on the life of Michelangelo. In her blunt German manner, she told me there were many times when she felt like just going to sleep and not waking up.

One of her worst personal tragedies occurred after World War I when her fiancé, who had been in Europe at the Front, returned home and broke off the engagement without a word of explanation. She’d often show me his picture which she had in a special box on her dresser drawers. On the back of the photograph, she’d written: "Bill Stanton, the love of my life." The dashing, smiling uniformed figure didn’t look like the kind of guy who would mysteriously break off an engagement.

Aunt Dorothy described this time of her life as an extreme low point when life did not seem worth living, when in fact the option of going to sleep forever seemed like a good escape. But had Aunt Dorothy climbed to the top of City Hall tower and jumped down into City Hall courtyard, she would have missed the real love of her life, a man she was with for almost 40 years.

One never knows what the fates have in store.

That’s why I never believed her when, in her nineties, she’d tell me that I should just push her into the creek near the Valley Green Inn. "People would think it was an accident," she’d say, winking.

Good try, Auntie!

The whole family knew her philosophy when it came to living. "It’s great life if you don’t weaken!" she’d say many times over. "No matter what your problems in life, they are rarely permanent. Think of yourself as a train going through a tunnel. The tunnel is dark and foreboding, but the tunnel comes to an end. You come out on the other side."

I wish somebody had told that to the man in restaurant Nineteen, who ended his life on that beautiful September afternoon.