By Tim Brost
True story. A man jumped from my office building years ago. He lived through a sixteen story fall that ended on the roof of a vehicle.
I told my wife about the guy. Didn’t tell her I’d thought about doing the same thing, but I’m telling you now.
I wasn’t sitting in a piano bar. I was at my desk in the office in Battle Creek listening to the piano inside of me. Make sense? I was a musician for many years so I hear rhythms in my footfalls and recall chord patterns all the time ,but this was unique. I heard ballads, head tunes (pun intended) like Unforgettable, Moon River and My Funny Valentine. If I could sing like Marc Broussard I’d give up everything just to stand in front of a mic and croon. Whomever was playing loved Satin Doll, or maybe I requested it over and over again but it was stuck in my head. That’s besid the point, right? I digress, but me. I was a professional, a front man in many bands. Point is, I would never jump in the middle of a set.
There was an acoustical string base that carried the soulful melody when it was his time. My guess it was Charlie Haden because I loved that guy. I was happy to listen for the whole set, but then it was gone, the instrumentals I mean. Band took a break or something and my head tune returned to simple words. Played a lot of guitar in the day, but I don’t hear guitar in my head. Should have stuck with the piano.
My office was in an older building. The radiators clicked, clacked and hissed all winter. I had an antique clock in the lobby which broke the atonal radiator melodies with bells hour, the counterpoint of a single chime on the half hour. Old clocks are decorous, they give an image of stability or something. That old clock said craftsmanship.
Anyway, here’s what happened. My office was on the twelfth floor, more than enough height to kill. I sat at my desk trying to compose my thoughts and write a parting memo. Everything overwhelmed me that day, including the cadence of the clock. I don’t know if it was the sounds that carried me back , or something else, but I found my thoughts back at the start, back in my youth, when I made money with my back, hauling boxes, shoveling and sweeping. Simpler times, you know? I was a janitor for a while. Loved the isolation of working at night, alone. Did whatever I could back then to get by. I would still be a janitor if there was money in it.
In my early twenties I made the shift from physical labor to craftsman. Worked in a leather shop making belts, pouches, very cool leather hats and vests. We did the New York Boutique Show every year. Good times. I grew in skill and bought a walking-foot heavy-duty sewing machine. Awesome tool. The natural progression, for me, was to move from belts to wallets to leather clothing. Like musicians, craftsmen experiment with their tools, push the envelope and hunt for a place in the forced march of innovation.
Did it with music, too. Went from being on stage to playing and singing in studios – commercials, sound tracks for video, that kind of work. I had my own advertising company for a while, where I specialized in spot radio. You don’t know about any of that, or the motorcycle salvage company, or the other things I did then; the fights I was in, loves lost, desperate moments. Point is, craftsmen evolve, sometimes in the wrong direction. That’s what I did.
I took on print jobs and purchased media for advertising. You see the progression? Back, hand, brain. It’s a natural progression that led to that office and the twenty-three active clients that carried me to the edge. I’d believed I had to be there. Had to pay for a family and there was no way out of or around the need for fucking money.
Music wasn’t the only thing in mind or in hand. I had a Subway foot-long on the table, oil and vinegar, chips , a cookie mostly gone, radiator hissing. Huh! I remember now. The piano was in sync with the clock for a while, very cool, but then out of sync and annoying. I stopped the clock. Would mom keep the clock? Would you inherit it? Who gives a shit, but I might have written something about that, about who gets the leftovers, or maybe not.
Men and women at one time spent their entire lives training to build mechanical clocks. Incredible craftsmanship., that. I/O killed craftsmanship. We replaced craftsmen with programmers. Actually, many lives were spent, one on top of the other, generations of clock makers. It’s what we did, what we are still built to do, but craftsmen are nearly gone now, devoured by innovation, automation and greed. They’re all in the ground, those guys, like the guys who could tie knots and navigate oceans using the stars. Sailors that learn celestial navigation today do it more as an avocation I’m told. Don’t know. Could never see myself in a sailboat. But that walnut encased clock that stood in the lobby? I don’t even know where it is anymore. Must have sold it. I must have been flat broke and sold it.
I read somewhere that novelists fuss over the first sentence or two of what they write. Some of the best writers can quote opening sentences of others’ work. They say it’s appreciation of craft, but I disagree. Truth is, writers obsess about first lines because we have to grab the reader in the first few seconds or they can’t sell their product. I don’t blame anyone for fussing. If you don’t grab the reader in the gut, you’re sunk. I’m sunk. But the opening is not the full story. Sometimes the writer just has to hope the reader can hang until the ending.
I wrote, “Sorry for taking flight …” or something clever and mannered like that, trying to make light of things. I’d followed that with some other garbage about why I’d jumped, but I don’t recall the wording, only that I was writing in past tense and from my own point of view.
We are, all of us, trivialized by the loss of craftsmen and craftsmanship. Watchmakers are still around, very sophisticate stuff, but even there it has evolved to be less about the craft and more about brand strength and ego satisfaction. It’s all brains now, cognitive this and that. If you haven’t been in the lobby or on the main floor of a regal historical building recently, go to one. Take notice. Someone did all that ornate marble work. Italians mostly but some Greeks came here too, 30s or 40s – barely speaking English they spoke with chisel and stone. Who does that anymore? We quit buying the best we had to offer because time are expensive. That’s the root of modern and post-modern design no matter what people tell you – showing off wealth through the quality of the people you can buy is a thing for the wealthy.
Craftsmanship is a union of digits and mind (see how I did that, digits, fingers?). Fewer of us touch, bend, and mold materials anymore. The craftsmen of today are animators, programmers, robotics engineers. These are incredible craftsmen as I think about it, as are fabricators of all types. Custom motorcycle builders are craftsmen. But mostly, it’s machines building machines in service of machines. People are the most redundant spoke in the hub of commerce. Don’t get lost.
Operating a belt stripper worked for me. Designing brochures did not. Now I work for an algorithm owned by one of those guys in the penthouse suite on the top floor. Guy’s a real prick. Has his own elevator so he doesn’t have to run into people like me in person.
Do you recall the view from that office way back then? What am I thinking? Of course you don’t. Let me tell you. I was twelve-stories up. I could see a river, the railroad station—brickwork, cobblestone pavers—but that’s not what I want to say about why I didn’t commit suicide when the piano stopped, the clock went silent and I’d finished my sandwich. Doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I liked the view and thought it had to be in the story.
The streets that day were decorated for Christmas. People came downtown from throughout the region to see the decorations. The craziest things delight. Anyway, it was a holiday and the doors to the building were locked. The room was silent. Silence is a sound to me in the same way black is a color. Actually, I’ve always been alone, inwardly silent, so what’s new. I’m not the type to dance around the office for a while, or eat popcorn and cry into a towel. The walls were so thick it wouldn’t have mattered, but that’s not what I did. Ther eis no release in just sitting. To be honest, I miss crying.
Sidenote: Neither my father nor I had more than a couple meaningful friendships. I had Max and Johnski. He had Smitty. Other than that we had acquaintances.
The day before I didn’t commit suicide I worked until nearly 11:30 p.m. I got up that day at 6 a.m. and left you at home in your new pajamas with the blue feet, and mom in bed hoarse as a goat. It was a Sunday. Stress from marriage, work and mounting bills didn’t let me sleep. In another story I should write out what stress, over many years, does to the autonomic nervous system. The meds I take are associated with that other story, one I will never get to because who the hell likes a whiner.
I watched you sleep for probably an hour, just sat there on the edge of the bed. Then, I drove to the office. Twenty-two miles each way, week in, week out, year after year. So many projects. Endless expectations on my time and expertise.
I have this emotional impulse in me that often flared up under stress. You won’t have a clue why, but I’ll call it Danny Boy. If we talked more you would understand. There is a Siren’s call known to sailors, beckoning us toward rocky shores. Music awakens that in me. Who cares about the label. Call it what whatever. Maybe it is something clinical like AvPD or simply the mournful internal dissonance of age. I’m trying in this paragraph to give it voice, but why? Let’s go to the ending.
Wait. There’s one more story. It comes from sister Norma. Find the picture of the three of us hanging in the hallway – Norma smiling, me in a business tie holding you. You can’t be more than a year old because you are still in your little blue China outfit. Really cool pic, actually. Norma’s gone too, now. Max is gone. Johnski is gone. Even some of my enemies are gone. I miss them all.
Norma had a neighbor in California. Dude had Alzheimer disease and told sister that when it got bad he’d commit suicide. I don’t blame him. Best for everyone. Sister was torn up about his frankness, said she understood but always argued that suicide would only make things worse (wtf?)
When things did get bad (assumption) he took his life with pills. Set her off. She was visiting in Michigan at the time. Sister liked the guy, but called him an atheist, as if that were the reason he would do such a thing. My father, your grandpa, talked about euthanasia all the time toward his end, and he was a minister. Told me Christians are in denial about existential pain. He got screwed out of a dignified end going for the surgery, probably thinking he was obligated to try, but what can you say. Life gets interrupted. I’m off the tracks again. Back to the story.
Why didn’t I commit suicide? There are always good reasons to surrender an incarnation. I get the urge all the time. Suicide has been an option since the beginning. I was in Aurora, Colorado, first grade, and realized that the religion we were in wouldn’t allow me to see movies. Zeke was going to see Mickey Mouse at the theater, on the big screen. I was invited. Didn’t know what that meant for sure but he made gestures with both arms trying to show how big the screen was going to be, and how magnificent. You could see everything, he said, and it sounded amazing. His mom was going to pay, but for religious reasons that made no sense to me, still don’t, I wasn’t allowed to go. As a little kid I stood in front of the clock in the kitchen, clock over the sink, hands ticking away, carving knife to my chest thinking when the big hand gets to the one, and then I thought to the two, and the three … obviously I didn’t do it.
I haven’t thought about doing myself in for a long time. When I do it’s always to get away, not ever trying to get to something. I use Buddhism instead. In craftsman mode, innovating my way forward has always been the very next thought after suicide, that and letting go. The neurological pathway goes like this: I’m pissed or broken, think about a cigarette, think about a drink, think about suicide and then get on with finding a solution. It’s a totally messed up system, worn paths carved deeply into the wreckage of my past.
Someone did jump from that building though, the janitor. One day he jumped from the top of the frigging building and landed on a car or a truck or something in front of the main entrance. He lived. Did it in the middle of the day. People couldn’t get in or out of the office for an hour until they had him in the hospital and cleaned up the scene. Sixteen floors, nearly every bone in his body bashed to hell, but he survived. Horrible way to not go. Car broke his crash just enough. I knew the guy, talked to him sometimes. It’s beyond me what takes over. Just like it’s beyond me to know why I smile every time I see your baby pictures. I have a nice black and white one on my monitor, you resting your chin on your little forearms, huge smile, looking right into the lens. I love how kids belong.
Back to the story. I didn’t stand in the window with one leg in and one leg out. No one called up the concrete and glass face of the building at me standing there. I wasn’t crazed enough to bounce like a rag doll on the street. Grandfather didn’t do it. Dad didn’t do it. Your uncles didn’t jump, not yet anyway. Point is, I didn’t commit suicide and neither will you. It’s just a warning light that visits from time to time like an LED on a car’s dashboard. The thought just means try something new. I get all kinds of indicators; I want to smoke again, be in Varmland or on the beaches of Lake Superior. Sometimes I want to sit cross-legged on a patch of sand in the temple garden in Rochester as the sun rises. I used to sit just before dawn so I could rise like a sunflower with the new day, and follow the arc of light until dusk. In truth, suicide is just a region of the brain, like any other. The brain is vast – something like 100 billion cells? Use some other part of it when things go bad. It’s easy to do. There are more cells than there are stars in the universe someone said. Who’s counting? A machine. Point is, we can change our minds, and I did.
Let me almost end with a joke I found at theoatmeal.com: “What did the psychiatrist say when a man wearing nothing but saran wrap walked into his office?” He said, “I can clearly see you’re nuts!” I thought it was funny.
The real ending is not yet here. I won’t be able to write it. Telling it, or not, will be up to you. My only advice, don’t hesitate to embellish.