Tomorrow I have a job interview with the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy. They need someone to manage their gift shop, where they sell hats, coffee mugs, books, posters, you name it, all in celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary. A new refurbished gift shop will be opening in April, and so they are in the process of hiring. For now, all these gift items can be purchased online, at http://www.goldengatebridgestore.org/store/ I have a strong retail background, but also know there will be considerable competition. Such is life. It would be fun to work there, though. The Golden Gate Bridge was one of the first things I checked out when I came here many years ago, and it did not disappoint. It stood there, in the bright sunshine, like a lady in red inviting us all into her boudoir. It is ironic that this magnificent bridge, which always lifts my spirits any time I glimpse it from a distance as I move about San Francisco, is also one of the primary places to commit suicide. Given that it feels like a portal to another world, I guess that’s appropriate.
Construction began on January 5, 1933. Herbert Hoover was finishing out his last days in office. Automobiles had become the primary mode of transportation in America, and Highway 1 could promise breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. However, the route was interrupted in San Francisco. Clearly bridges were needed on both sides of the bay. And so both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built. They were a symbol of the modern era of freeways and a sign that San Francisco was no longer the rough and ready home of pirates and prospectors, but a modern, hip city, festooned in fancy Art Deco skyscrapers. The Golden Gate Bridge was the ultimate Art Deco icon. The people of San Francisco persuaded the architect, Irving Morrow, to leave the International Orange color of the sealant he had been using, and paint the entire bridge that color. It actually seems more red than orange to my eyes, and what could be more appropriate for San Francisco? Brazen. Bold. and Sexy. The bridge was completed in April 1937. Franklin Roosevelt was busy trying to lift us out of the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler had come to power and was rearming Germany at a breakneck pace. A civil war had begun in Spain. Japan was on the move in Manchuria and was at war with China. The bridge came into being in a dark time, as a beacon of better times ahead.
The Golden Gate Bridge sported the latest in suspension technology, enabling it to withstand strong winds. At 4,200 feet, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, until 1964. Today eight other bridges are longer. However, it still remains the second longest in the US, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City being the longest. I recall with pleasure the several times I walked the length of the bridge, gazing at San Francisco to my right, and the endless Pacific to my left. San Francisco, from a distance, appears like a imaginary city in a child’s book. A place where wonderful things happen. Is it really a coincidence that both Dorothy’s slippers and the Golden Gate are red? I am sure that I saw the Bridge with a child’s eyes on that sunny day so long ago, when San Francisco was an adventure, instead of a familiar and rather unadventurous home.
The Golden Gate Bridge has had more suicides than any other bridge in the world. Eric Steel captured 23 of them for his documentary The Bridge. We know the statistics, but it doesn’t really tell the story. San Francisco has a harsh beauty, unforgiving. The wild waves crashing along the ragged coastline speaks of a natural world filled with violence. A human being can seem very small. The views are awe-inspiring and beautiful but it has a bit of an edge to it. Another reason the bridge is red. It feels right somehow to leap to your death from the symbol of dreams, when your own dreams have been dashed. But this is sheer speculation. I do not encourage anyone to take that step. It is not a quick and easy death. Those who survived the leap can tell you about the agony and the cold and the fear. This is not a fun, romantic way to die. And so the Golden Gate frightens and thrills me at the same time.