Saturday, April 28, 2012

Work of the angels

When I first came to live in San Francisco in 1965, I had saved up $3000 from my time in the army, and that was enough to live on for a year, so I didn’t have to work.  I was all of 25 years old, and not ambitious.  I just wanted to find a job, get my own apartment, and start living.  The thought of being independent at last was all the stimulation I needed.  I figured life would come along soon enough.

I’m old enough now to have lots of regrets (if I were inclined to regret),  but taking that whole year off to do nothing in particular, until my savings ran out entirely, was one of the best decisions I ever made.  I was free to live in the present and to take the time to learn the life lessons that presented themselves to me, without having to push things aside for a job or family demands.  I developed a passionate love for San Francisco which has never left me, walked it from one end to the other, learned all the downtown streets, bicycled every inch of Golden Gate Park. 

I talked with friends way into the night, learned to cook, and to manage an apartment on meager resources.  I discovered politics, developed opinions on Israel and the Six-Day War and Abba Eban, marched down Market St. every year protesting the Vietnam War.   It was the 60s and there were flower children all around and alternative lifestyle was a positive concept.  There was excitement in the air.  I began learning the pleasures of the flesh after years of inhibition, smoked a lot of pot, and the most exciting part of the day was getting up in the morning, not knowing what the day would bring.  It was a heady time.  Everybody should live such freedom at least once in their lives. 

I had left behind the strictures of growing up in a working class family with endless warnings not to get “uppity,” the religious foolishness of believing in a god who loved me but was perfectly willing to send me to hell for disobedience, and after three years in the military, all thought that my country was morally equipped to lead the world.

And like many who taste total freedom, I began to develop thoughts of suicide.

Like so many others who are freed for one reason or another from the need to scratch out a living, and who are not trained from Day One to think that they have a destiny to fulfill, I reached, in practically no time, a place where I began asking, “Is this all there is?” 

How I got from waking every morning with a sense of adventure to this state of mind isn’t the story I want to tell.  Many have told their stories in vivid detail of disappointment in love, betrayal by false gods, punctured romantic notions of how the world works – any number of reasons for disillusionment to set in, and I doubt mine would add anything new to the list.  It’s not my own youthful woes I want to haul out for display here,  except to set the context for commentary on an article I came across in this morning’s paper about a man named Bernard Mayes, who is being honored on May 1, at the St. Regis in San Francisco, on the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Suicide Prevention Center. 

Bernard Mayes
Mayes  got here just a few years before I did, in 1961, and managed to talk a landlord into giving him space to open a suicide prevention center, on Geary Street, between Polk and Larkin, right in the area where so many young gay men were ending up as street hustlers after being thrown out by their families.  It was just him in those first days, and he ran the hotline for ten years late at night, working during the daytime as founding member of KQED and National Public Radio.  He got one call his first night, and by the end of the first week had spoken to ten callers.

Today, fifty years later, the Suicide Prevention Center has 10 paid staff and 100 volunteers taking 200 hundred calls a day, and Mayes’ initiative in San Francisco has spread to 500 cities across the country in all fifty states.

Because the calls are anonymous, there is no empirical evidence for its success, but, for what it’s worth, San Francisco’s suicide rate has dropped from 33 per 100,000 to 12.5 per 100,000 since Mayes began his work with seriously troubled souls in desperate need of an ear and a person at the end of a phone line who is clearly listening.

Back in the 1960s, I used to spend a lot of time by the water.  I would go to Land’s End, and crawl up on the giant rocks and just sit there for hours staring at the Golden Gate Bridge and listening to the fog horn and watch the freighters come and go.  It was a magical place.

I remember a conversation I had with an artist one day who had found his way there and taken my spot.  His sketch of the bridge was quite good, and I complimented him on it.  “Isn’t it remarkable how something that grabs you with its architectural beauty turns out to be so closely associated with death,” he said.  I didn’t know what to say to that, except to mumble agreement. 

“And did you ever notice that when people jump, they always jump facing the city?”

I thought that was some kind of fantastic insight into the human condition until a friend reminded me that they jumped on that side because that’s where the access was.  Since then I have learned that the sidewalk on the east side has longer hours and both pedestrian and bicycle access, while the sidewalk on the west side has limited hours and only bicycle access.  And that the figure is 80% facing the city, not 99%.

Another question I had then, and still have no answer to, is why there should be a higher rate of suicide here in San Francisco than elsewhere.  My first thought is that Americans, when they run from life, have traditionally gone west, and once they reach the Pacific, there is no place left to go.  (I continued on to Japan, but that’s another story.)

There have been moments in my life when I felt a sense of gratitude for that time of mental confusion, when I was coming to terms with life and in over my head.  Having faced suicide in my 20s, I immunized myself, I think, and when things got rough in later years, I never quite went to the edge again. 

I have known suicide up close, though.  My friend Merrill killed himself because, as we all decided (how would we ever really know) he couldn’t handle being gay and Mormon at the same time, particularly in those pre-liberation days before we began to develop the necessary strength to fight the power of toxic religion to demonize and inculcate self-loathing.

I phoned the Suicide Prevention Center at one point, and they apparently decided I was in serious trouble.  A volunteer came to my house to talk to me, and it was the kind of intervention I needed.  That he should have turned out to be a Lutheran minister, from my own church background, I accepted as fate, and evidence that when money and ego are taken out of religion, it can actually be kindly. 

I’ll never know how close I actually was.  I don’t think I was that close, but they took me seriously and to this day I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.  You can see why this article on Bernard Mayes caught my attention.  It’s not often you can make such strong cause-and-effect connections.

Many would make the case that we are simply too indulgent with human weakness.  I watched a video yesterday of Tennessee tea party Republican Jeremy Faison making the case that we are going overboard with this newfound focus on bullying.  Suck it up, guys, he wants us to say.  Get over it. 

He’s got a point.  We can’t legislate away all bad things.  We can’t make laws making people say please and thank you.

But the man is missing something basic about the human condition.   There is no way to predict when we will be overcome by more than we can handle.   I remember a church sermon once in which some preacher was trying to convince me “there is no burden God gives you that is more than you can bear” – a particularly egregious lie considering the evil tortures accomplished by toxic religion.  It’s simply not true.  We all get that message masking as encouragement.  My friend Harriet used to joke, “God may give us heavy burdens, but he also gives us the drugs to handle them with.”  There are burdens too heavy to bear.  Ask the parents of any child who has taken his or her own life.

Those who insist on seeing the hand of God in everything will also find it in the work of Dan Savage and his “It Gets Better” Campaign, if they choose.  And in the work of Bernard Mayes, and the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Center.

And maybe they’ll want to see in the Suicide Prevention Center an illustration of how God helps those who help themselves.  I don’t see it that way.  I’ve never followed the theology that there is a God out there assigning burdens in order to provide humankind with the raw material for making themselves saints.

But who knows how this man in the sky, if he exists, actually works.   Mysteriously, for sure.   The article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Bernard Mayes has a misleading title – “Priest answers call to listen to the suicidal,” it says, masking the fact that this one time Episcopal priest – a gay man, by the way – has left the priesthood and left religion behind. 

But that doesn’t mean he’s not doing the work of the angels.