Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Last Sunday night, my wife dropped me off 20 minutes early to get the 7:56 pm Amtrak train to Boston. I walked around the station and, as usual, it was practically deserted. A young woman was sitting on a bench texting.
The only other person present was an older man in his late 50s or 60s with white, disheveled hair and scruffy facial whiskers, wearing shorts but no shirt. He was standing quietly on the train track, casually looking around with vacant eyes. Unlike a kid who jumps on and off the track, the man was standing still.
For years I have made fun of my wife for constantly calling the police to report “suspicious” activities. I am repeatedly telling her to mind her own business. But this scene was unsettling, so I walked up to the man.
I already knew the answer but asked him, “Is this the train to Boston?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He was responsive but distracted, and his tone flat.
I asked, “Do you know when its due?”
I paused a second and smiled. “Are you going to get off the track before it gets here?”
He kind of smiled, “Hope so.”
I paused again. “Do you live around here?”
“I live ... on the other side of town.”
“Oh,” I said. “Do you come down here a lot?”
“Not so much.”
“Just to watch trains?”
“I guess so.”
I paused, then turned around and, trying to appear casual, walked a few steps away. By now it was almost 7:45 pm: ten minutes before the train would arrive. An older woman had appeared on the platform and was seated on a bench, watching our interaction. Otherwise, there was no one else around.
Two memories came to mind. One was a day a couple of years ago when I had arrived at my commuter train station in the morning to go to work. I learned that the trains were not running. Minutes earlier a man at the station had taken his life by stepping in front of a train.
My other thought was a documentary I had watched once about suicides and the Golden Gate Bridge, in which a man who died by suicide had left a note in his car saying that if one person smiled at him before he jumped from the bridge, he wouldn't do it.
I walked a few more steps away, then took out my cell phone and called 9-1-1. I told the dispatcher what was happening and he said he would send someone right over. I hung up and, again trying to appear casual, wandered back to where the man was standing.
He continued just standing there, on the track, looking around. I started thinking about what I would do if the police did not appear before the train did. If I hear a train whistle, I thought, I could yell for help and grab him off the track. Within a minute, I could hear a siren approaching. After a few more seconds, as the siren got closer, the man stepped up off the track up onto the platform and looked at me.
In a resigned, matter-of-fact way he asked me, “Did you call the police?”
“Yeah,” I said. He just stood there, expressionless.
I asked, “Were you trying to hurt yourself?”
Again, he broke a very small, nervous smile. “Sort of,” he said. “I didn't know when the train was due. Do you know when it's due?”
“Uh, you had a little ways to go.” I asked, “What's your name?”
“Walt,” he said.
“Hi Walt.” I stuck out my hand. “I'm Justin.” He shook my hand.
“What's going on?” I asked.
“Oh ... I just got evicted.”
“That's terrible,” I said. “Do you have any family around?”
He paused. “Out of state.”
I said, “Well, sorry to have messed up your plans, but I didn't want you to get hurt.”
By now, a police officer appeared on the platform. I waved him over. He looked at Walt and asked pleasantly, “So why were you standing on the tracks?”
Walt, somewhat sheepishly, but still very matter-of-fact, said, “I was trying to commit suicide.”
Justin has been a volunteer with Families for Depression Awareness for five years. Because he had the compassion to intervene, he saved a man's life.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call the suicide hotline at 800-273-TALK or 9-1-1 immediately.
Also learn about Helping Someone Who Has Depression.