The Nameless Old Lady Who Jumped

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03/25/2010

Neighborhood: Featured, West Village

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The sidewalk in front of my apartment building was wrapped in crime tape. An ambulance waited idly on East 10th Street. Policemen strode in and out of the lobby. It was a mild winter Saturday afternoon, and I’d come downstairs for my mail.

My doorman looked ashen. “A woman jumped,” he said. “18G.”

He was the second person to see the tragedy. A guest was walking toward our building when she watched the woman’s body crash to the sidewalk—after ricocheting off a metal overhang. The impact of such a fall sounds like a bomb. My doorman thought it was a car accident, and ran outside to see what had happened.

“You couldn’t even recognize her,” he said, shaking his head.

It seems no one could recognize her—not even her poor, demented husband. When the police asked what happened, he couldn’t even tell them her age. The doorman said she rarely went out and her husband had been housebound for years—except for an occasional trip to the hospital. Few neighbors knew what she looked like, let alone her name. They had no children. Their caretaker had left to go to the store, and when she returned….

Standing in the lobby, gripping onto bills and unwanted store catalogs, I couldn’t picture the effects of falling eighteen floors onto concrete. The only image in my brain were flattened cartoon characters. I felt morbid curiosity about the details, yet a gruesome aversion to even speculating.

“She didn’t have any clothes on,” my doorman continued.

“Of course not. She was only wearing a robe,” said a neighbor, while I wondered how he knew.

A crowd had formed in our lobby, buzzing with the horrific news.

“Is she dead?” someone asked.

“Of course! Eighteen floors!”

“What happened?”

“She jumped.”

“Or fell.”

“I spent half a day with a dead person once,” our handyman said.

“Maybe her husband pushed her.”

We were on a set of Law And Order. Our building was a crime scene. But reporters weren’t flocking with cameras and notepads. This wasn’t a spectacular news story, like the eleventh grader who’d jumped to his death last year from an 11th floor upper east side private school building, while first graders played in the street below. Or the New York University student who’d climbed over a protective barrier to his death in the school library, where previous suicides had occurred. This was just a humdrum story of an old woman whose life had ended in the saddest, most ghastly, loneliest way. Just another suicide. It happened every day in this city—in fact, averaging 34 per month.

It would be difficult for me to climb out my living room window. How could an ailing octogenarian achieve such a frightful feat?

A spry, well-dressed 86-year-old neighbor peeked out the lobby door and remarked, “I’m just making sure it’s not me. You know why I’d never jump? After I jumped, I’m afraid I might change my mind.”

“When you’re ready, call me and I’ll go with you,” said a woman ten years younger but burdened with health issues.

“I’d take morphine,” said a lithe man who spent an hour a day in our gym.

We were interrupted by the EMT’s, wheeling the poor woman’s husband through the lobby. He looked confused, but not upset. His wife’s body was to the right of the entrance door, a sheet covering her, but he just stared blankly ahead.»

The Nameless Old Lady Who Jumped
Photo by J.B. Hill

“Why can’t they take her body away?” I asked. It seemed so undignified.

“They have to investigate first,” said the handyman.

Soon conversations in the lobby drifted to the usual chit-chat between neighbors. Is it cold outside…Is the laundry room crowded? Life was beginning to return to normal. I was beginning to think our building was jinxed: every ten years or so, something unthinkable happened. In 1985 our upstairs neighbor Leon Klinghoffer was thrown overboard by Palestinian terrorists in the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Laura. In 1996 Abe Lebewhol, owner of the Second Avenue Deli—who lived in the building with his wife and donated his famous chopped liver for our annual holiday parties—was murdered in an attempted robbery; he’d survived the Holocaust but not a routine trip to make a bank deposit.

But no, my building wasn’t ill-fated; today’s tragedy was a microcosm for the inexplicable and seemingly random series of isolated calamities. Some received national—even global—attention. Others didn’t go beyond one’s own front yard.

I wanted to weep for the old woman with no one to mourn her. My own mother had died just six months ago. Her caretaker had gone to the next room to cook dinner, and in those ten minutes my mother fell—she broke her hip and spent her last two years of life completely bedridden with advanced dementia. If my mother could have, she might have jumped out a window. At times, if I could have, I would have given her extra morphine to quicken the painful, interminable, humiliating end.

I wanted to cry out and publicize this unknown woman’s death—not even a name, but an apartment number, 18G—and inform the entire nation that we’ve lost our way in our care for the elderly.

Later that afternoon, the woman’s body was finally removed. The police department had only one truck to pick up bodies, and they “rounded them all up” at once, starting at 6 P.M. My building staff washed down the sidewalk with soapy water. The staff changed shifts. Building tenants who arrived home later that night, from errands and movies and visits with friends, might notice an odd fact: only a portion of our building’s sidewalk was wet, as if it had rained in only one isolated spot. They might pause and shrug, and then continue their lives without a clue that anything macabre might have occurred. Nothing more, perhaps, than a geological aberration.
 

Candy Schulman's essays have been widely published including Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Lost and Found, Stories from New York, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Travel & Leisure, Glamour, Parents. She is a creative writing professor at The New School.

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