Just three months after the gala opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in May 1937, war veteran Harold B. Wobber clambered over its rust-red railing and plunged 220 feet to his death, igniting the pilot light that makes the bridge the No. 1 suicide shrine in the Western world. Since then, hundreds have followed Wobber, perhaps because it's a handy way to kill yourself — there's no hassle with gun permits, ropes, or prescriptions.
And who could deny that beautiful postcard view?
Most are killed instantly, but one who survived the four-second plunge called it “the only stylish way to go.” The note left by one 72-year-old man who snuffed himself there read: “Survival of the fittest. Adios — Unfit.” Then there's the father from Fremont who heaved his 3-year-old daughter over the rail before jumping after her. And don't forget the celebrities, most recently Roy Larson Raymond, founder of Victoria's Secret, and Mark Finch, director of the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
Depending on who is doing the counting, and which article you're reading, the current suicide total stands at 997, with the most recent death recorded June 5. To deter leapers, the California Highway Patrol has ceased releasing its official tabulation. But keeping a vigil as the countdown approaches the magic milestone millennium of 1,000 is Bob Madigan's Club 1,000.
Madigan hands me a typewritten flier over a beer-encrusted table at the Midtown bar in the Lower Haight. The headline says it all: “Club 1,000 Wants You!!!”
Ever since reading an article on bridge jumpers this past February, the 31-year-old has kept close record of the suicide count. Besides setting up a Club 1,000 hot-line number (415-922-5966), he has archived bridge suicide clippings in a big black folder with a “Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whiskey” logo emblazoned on the cover (“I got all the information in here somewhere”). Interspersed with the clips are occasional pornographic photos and coroner shots of gunshot-wound victims.
“Jumpers go in waves,” says Madigan, with copycat leapers taking their cues from news accounts of Golden Gate suicides.
“At Club 1,000,” continues the flier, “we are providing a recorded message with up-to-the-day info as the body count continues to climb. … History is in the making, and we at Club 1,000 are committed to document and make sure that these troubled souls are remembered and respected.”
The rumpled Madigan slurps from a pint of Red Hook.
“I moved out here from Detroit about two years ago, and immediately I noticed there was a lot of really strange, colorful, weird things in the paper out here. So I started collecting a scrapbook.”
After reading a February news article about an influx of jumpers, Madigan realized, “I might as well start using my answering machine to do this, you know?”
Curious callers receive such deadpan messages as this: “Wednesday, May 31st. Well, we had quite a busy week last week. We had three jumpers, two died, one survived, bringing the total count to 994. Six left to go …”
Madigan, an unemployed musician, receives two or three calls a day, including a message from one guy claiming he was a counselor, who “didn't like this thing at all.”
“People think that I'm getting off on other people's misery or something,” answers Madigan. “It's not like that at all. I just think it's really interesting that people will actually get on an airplane and fly all the way out here to San Francisco to jump off that dang bridge over there. That's weird, you know?
“I do have a sense of humor about it, but there's nothing funny about committing suicide. … If I was a family member of me, and jumped off the bridge, or even committed suicide in any way, I would be upset about it.”
Why is there so much interest in the hot line?
“They just want to hear something wacky on the phone, I guess. I don't know.”
Emerging from Madigan's research is an urban legend about jumpers who survive their leap: that a large percentage were wearing Levi's jeans.
“No!” exclaims an astonished member of the Levi Strauss historical department, and transfers me to someone in marketing, who says there actually have been reports of Levi's providing protection in dangerous situations, “whether it was a really bad motorcycle accident, and the pants didn't rip and held their legs from being scraped off down the highway, or they were in a chemical explosion and their jeans protected them, or other things of that nature. As to whether there's any specific property in the jeans that has made this possible,” continues the spokeswoman, “I would not be able to tell you what that would be. … We only know from what people have written us to tell us about their own experience.”
Madigan intends to photocopy every existing newspaper obituary of the first 1,000 jumpers and make a big plaque, and then commemorate the first anniversary of the event with an art opening at a local gallery.
Asked how he would commit suicide, Madigan's answer is immediate: “I'd jump out of a plane with a stick of dynamite and blow myself to bits all over Detroit!”
Yes, but the view would suck.
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; fax: (415) 777-1839; e-mail: Slapshawtsaol.com
By Jack Boulware