Retired Sgt. Harry Dolan still rides out to the bridge on most nights. It’s the beat he rode for more than twenty years as a California highway patrolman. He’s retired the khaki uniform and tall, black riding boots for a windbreaker and blue jeans, a trade he made even before he left the force. Plainclothes are less intimidating to most people, especially the ones he meets. The only physical evidence of his time on patrol is the identification in his wallet and the police scanner on his motorcycle. He leaves an identical scanner in the kitchen flipped on in the evening, like some people tune into a baseball game on the radio. The chatter and hum make the house feel less empty as he moves between rooms. If he hears a “10-31,” at home or while on his motorcycle, he heads towards the bridge at once.
A “10-31” is bridge code for “jumper.” No patrolman has responded to a “10-31” more than Harry Dolan. All told, he’s talked more than 200 people off the two-foot outer platform and back over the slatted railing of the bridge. He’s trained dozens of other patrolmen to do the same over the years. Reporters tout him as the “Golden Gate Guardian” for his service, and the mayor of San Francisco once presented him with an oversized, old-fashioned key. If a reporter asks, he pulls it out of the closet in the front hall of his house. People get a kick out of seeing a bronze-colored key the size of an adult golden retriever.
Tonight, the bridge is quiet. Harry parks and starts across from the north. The walk is never the same twice. On a foggy night, the bridge arches out like a pirate ship’s plank, and pedestrians inch across the sidewalk, half-expecting to find the concrete vanish beneath their steps. This night has shooed the afternoon fog away, though. The soft glow of streetlights curls up around the suspension cables until dissipating into the night air. A soft purple drapes the city in the distance. Harry passes beneath the first tower and feels dizzy trying to eyeball the top. The sense of enormity never changes – the sheer tonnage of concrete and steel suspended 250 feet in the air, the 10,000 gallons of paint applied annually. Looking straight up, the bridge’s two spot-lit towers seem to pillar the sky, preventing the heavens from crashing down into the Golden Gate.
Harry thinks he smiles as he observes people crossing in the opposite direction. “Are you alright?” a young woman stops to ask him. He nods and walks on, not seeing her turn back to check on him several times until the man she’s with convinces her it’ll be alright. Harry looks down the sidewalk in both directions. All is calm. He stops and leans out against the rail. A gust of wind snaps against his jacket. The dark water below rocks undisturbed. He’s at the midpoint of the bridge, known as “the gateway” for the portal shape made by the cables sloping to and from the main towers. Many people have claimed to have seen ghosts out here. Others have said an almost tangible sadness hangs thick in the air, and the mind starts to get lost in dark thoughts. Still, others say the water itself calls out to people, luring them over.
The strait is full of names that drift through Harry’s mind. Less than a year on the beat, a teen named Brendan Skiles leapt but survived. The water shattered two lower vertebrae, and a broken rib pierced a lung. The coast guard officer naturally assumed he was diving in to recover a corpse. In the hospital, the boy told Harry that he had walked the length of the bridge three or four times that morning—crying into his cupped hands—but nobody stopped to check on him. One couple with a small child even asked him to take a family picture for them. That had been the breaking point. “I just needed someone to listen,” he said. “The moment my hands left that railing, all I could think about was how much I really wanted to live.”
Most jumpers don’t get to explain their experience. In his wallet, Harry keeps a folded letter from a Mrs. Irene Nance. “It must be hard to do what you do,” she wrote, “and to go back day after day to a place where there is so little hope and such overwhelming sadness.” The letter goes on to tell of her plans to walk the length of the bridge soon, maybe when the weather breaks. She hasn’t driven across or set foot on it since her son, Josh, vaulted the railing several years ago after his wife left him. Harry found Josh’s note on the bridge tucked beneath a rock. It read: “I love you, I’m sorry.”
The name that shakes Harry most, though, will always be Arnold Brown. He had spent more than three hours listening through the railing to the twenty-seven-year-old laid-off father of two. Brown told Harry about the factory job he had lost three months before, about the stack of unpaid bills sitting on his dining room table, about his two daughters, and even about the Niners’ chances at the playoffs that year. Harry had sunk a dozen “hooks” into Brown and allowed him to talk so long that his initial agitation and hollering had softened into a calm conversation. When this happens, most jumpers regain their senses and climb back over the rail to safety. However, Brown wasn’t most. “I want to thank you for all you tried to do,” he told Harry, pumping the officer’s arm twice. “But I think it’s time for me to go.” He took two steps backward and disappeared. They never found the body.
There are thousands of names floating in the troubled waters below. Names that Harry has never been able to set aside. Names that have kept in touch, thanking him for their second chances at life. Others are just faceless names appearing at the top of morgue reports. Elizabeth had tried to understand. She knew her husband’s job wasn’t normal or even like that of most police officers. After Arnold Brown, she urged him to transfer out of the area, to a patrol where that bridge couldn’t take any more from him or their family.
Harry instead opted to move them closer to the bridge. He started doing extra shifts and even patrolled the bridge on his free time, tending after the desperate souls who leap into oblivion about three times each month. That responsibility made it difficult to think of Sunday dinners or little league. He became all but a stranger to Elizabeth and the boys, spending his little time at home in the garage polishing his motorcycle and listening to the scanner for trouble. Eventually, like Arnold Brown, Elizabeth decided it was time for them to go. They had moved out three years ago last month. By the time Harry’s superiors noticed a change in him and nudged him toward a desk and then early retirement, the “Golden Gate Guardian” had nothing but an empty house to go home to.
The retired Sgt. bites his lip and begins rocking gently over the rail, using his palms and chest as a fulcrum. As Harry feels his momentum shifting away from the bridge and towards the open night, a voice breaks the spell: “Can I come closer and talk with you, sir?” Harry feels a cold, sobering breeze blow against the wetness on his cheeks. He lowers himself and turns to see a man in the same patrol uniform he had worn for so many years. The officer walks a few steps closer and kneels. “Were you thinking of hurting yourself tonight, sir?” he asks in a calm, even tone. The officer’s face is unfamiliar, but Harry recognizes the script, the one taught to all patrolmen who work the bridge beat. The one that had made him the “Golden Gate Guardian.”
“Would you like to talk?” asks the officer. “I’m here to listen.”
Harry nods and steps back from the railing. His chest heaves until he can choke back the tears. “Would you believe I have a key to the city?” the retired Sgt. asks the officer.
“Does that ever come in handy?”
“Truth be told, I don’t think it opens a goddamn thing.”