The first time I ride my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s sunny. And not just sunny, but warm, too. I’m with my friend Lizzy and at one point while we’re gliding over the sidewalk, one of us shouts to the other: “We’re the luckiest people in the world!” Then for about a half a minute we both just keep chanting that – “We’re the luckiest people in the world!” – each with one hand on the handlebars and a fist pumping in the air.
We make our way across the bridge, sometimes getting caught behind packs of slow-moving cruisers and sometimes darting out and around them. At one point, a man coming in the opposite direction yells “Get over!” at me as he speeds toward me in his little cyclist leotard.
His aggression reminds me of a woman I saw earlier, as we were rounding a tight corner to get up on the bridge. The woman screamed at a little boy standing in the middle of the bike path with a camera. “It’s just the worse place to stand!” she yelled, part to the boy and part to everyone else. The way she looked around for affirmation made me feel dirty and I avoided eye contact.
I mean, I get it. Nobody wants to crash into anyone or anything, ever. That’s kind of what keeps cities running – this mutual understanding that we’d all rather not collide into one another. We veer over street lines, double park, hop down from sidewalks to walk in the street – all with a shared trust that everyone else is going to shift to accommodate us. It’s when this trust is broken, that people lose their sense of how to behave.
At the end of the bridge, Lizzy and I descend into Sausalito and press on to Tiburon. In Tiburon, we take a seat on the patio of the Mexican restaurant right by the water. We order margaritas and ceviche. We take effortless photos of nothing in particular and watch them turn out beautifully. “We’re the luckiest people in the world,” one of us says again.
I don’t notice the ambulance that’s parked on the street outside the restaurant until we’re getting up from the table after settling our tab. When I do see it, all I think is: “Sometimes ambulances just have to park somewhere, right?” and move on to grab my bike.
Lizzy and I get in line for the ferry and I pull a beer out of my bag and we pass it back and forth as we chat with the couple in front of us. We watch the giant boat floating in to take us home.
When ferry pulls in, it spits out passengers and starts taking new ones. But after only about a half of the people waiting to board get on, the boat closes up quickly and pulls away, leaving about a hundred of us behind.
It’s around now that a helicopter swirls in from above and lands in the grass nearby. Soon after, another ambulance arrives with about five or so cop cars behind it. And it’s also around now that we first notice the coast guard boat that’s chugging in from the Bay with a speedboat in tow. The windshield of the speedboat is shattered and the front of it mangled.
Those of us in the captive crowd start looking around at each other like we’re on a flight that’s hit some turbulence and whether or not we’re going to be okay depends on the expression on whoever’s face our eyes land on first.
EMTs rush down from the road to meet the coast guard at the dock. A cop comes down the path ushering everyone who’s standing in it over to the grass to clear the way to the helicopter. Lizzy and I shuffle aside with our bikes, and as we’re doing it, I bump into something that knocks the half-empty beer bottle out of it’s perch in my helmet and onto the walkway, where it shatters. And that’s how I become the person who’s drinking beer while a rescue crew fights to keep someone alive on the dock. I grab a plastic bag and sheepishly toss the shards in it and throw them out, saying nothing until the moment’s safely over.
Standing in the grass, I both look and try not to look down at the dock. Once I glance over and see an EMT crowded over some bloated flesh. It looks like it belongs to a large man. Suddenly I realize I want to know nothing more about this man than that patch of skin I just saw. I want to know less about this man that I did this morning, when I didn’t know he existed. But my ears can’t avoid the narration happening all around me.
“They’re giving CPR now,” says someone.
Then the theories start circulating. Someone says the speedboat crashed into a ferry. A cameraman for the local news says that this is what he’s heard, too. I’ve gone from wanting to know nothing to imagining the people that must be in this man’s life – a wife, children. I think about how their lives are changing forever right now and how they might not know it yet, but I do.
After several minutes, they start moving the man toward the helicopter. I look away.
“Did you see his head?” I overhear. There’s talk of blood and I cover my ears. The helicopter takes off into the darkening sky.
When it’s all over, another ferry arrives. This time, it lets us on. Lizzy and I order another beer on board because we can and check the news for updates. There’s not much there, but what is there confirms a speedboat and a ferry did collide.
When we get off the ferry, Fisherman’s wharf is crowded. I try to weave through with my bike, but no one is moving out of my way. The system isn’t working and I can’t trust these people.
Lizzy and I bicker about which route to take home. We’re exhausted and the headaches from our 30-mile ride plus the booze are setting in. All I want to do is get home and think about what it means that I just watched someone die and maybe write some sentences about. But the only sentence that seems to matter comes from Lizzy a few days later, in the subject of an email with a link to an article: “He was from Oregon.”
There’s something about witnessing a tragedy that makes us cling to facts. It’s like the more we can piece together – was he drinking on the boat? Was he already in poor health? – the more we can distinguish ourselves from what happened.
It makes me realize I don’t want to be lucky.
I want to be safe. And I want to be safe because I know how to pass people on my bike on the bridge. And because the captain knows how to drive the ferry and the speedboat knows how to get out of the way.
But for the days following this man’s death, all I can think about is how luck is all I’ve got – and for that day, Lizzy and I had it and he didn’t.
After all, we’re the luckiest people in the world.