Thursday, September 21, 2017

Don't kill yourself before hitting the Ritz

     Two people killed themselves on the Metra Milwaukee North Line this week. At least two people; two that I know of. A 53-year-old man stepped off the platform Sunday into the path of an Amtrak express at Northbrook station, a block from my house. And someone Tuesday at Western. Two so far this week. It's only Thursday.
      The suicides prompted me re-visit one of my more controversial columns, this irreverent gripe about people leaping in front of the train, written just before 9/11 gave us a far greater horror to contemplate.
      If you are the grief-stricken relative of a family member who committed suicide, let me warn you up front: skip this column. It is not sympathetic. Or, rather, it is not sympathetic to you, but rather to the other people unwillingly drawn into your tragedy, albeit temporarily. 
    If you insist on continuing on, remember: I'm sorry for your loss. Truly. And I know the little tableau of imagined ritzy suicide at the end shrugs off the agony, desperation and mental illness that drives a person to take his own life. I've written about train suicides with more compassion in the past, trying to encourage Metra to do a better job helping suicidal commuters. 
    But not everything is for everybody. And being hurt doesn't make you right. This is for those who sit on the  train and wait, or who are compelled to clean up the mess afterwards, and for the mothers with their kids out walking Sunday who had to confront this jarring horror. They deserve sympathy too.    
     Speaking of which, if you notice that the talk of martinis at the end reminds you that I am a different person than I was 16 years ago, that is true. But I certainly can still relate to what this guy was trying to say. If I didn't, I wouldn't repost it.

     Why can't people kill themselves at home? That's only polite. Why all this leaping in front of commuter trains, during the morning rush hour no less. At least wait until lunch; what's the big hurry?
     I suppose this sounds callous to you. Well, you were not cooling your heels with me for an hour Thursday morning on the Milwaukee North Line while the earthly remains of some troubled soul were hosed off the track at Forest Glen. I'm sorry, but it doesn't strike me as an occasion for violins and mawkish sentiment. Suicide is cowardly and inconsiderate enough in the standard, Roman, warm-bath-and-a-straight-razor fashion. Add to it the public inconvenience of thousands of people who are in no way responsible for your disappointments in life, and it is not an act deserving of sympathy.
     At least I assume it was suicide, to give the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it could have been one of those people who blunder blithely in front of an express. Though which is worse? To toss your life away willfully, in despair? Or to lose it through stupidity? Frankly, I'd take despair. It sounds better. Ten years from now, my boys would rather say, while pretending to be dark, troubled teens in order to pick up girls, "My dad leapt in front of a train when I was 5," as opposed to, "My dad leaned down to tie his shoe and his head was an inch over the train tracks." Not a James Deanish way to go.
     Perhaps this is a failure of empathy on my part. I just can't imagine, even were I the most wretched, loathed, miserable person—Mike McCaskey, say—wanting to do myself in.
     Suicide is so illogical. It flies in the face of the only undisputed fact we have about life: It's short, relatively. The universe was born, chugged on for billions upon billions of years then, pop, you show up for, what, 100 years, max, if you take care of yourself. Then you're gone, perhaps in front of a rush-hour train, and the universe shrugs and skips merrily along for billions of years more without you.
     This would seem an argument for staying alive. No matter how painful, difficult, unpleasant, woesome your existence, it's just a tiny flash, and then you'll be back to the comforting void from whence you came. Patience. "We give birth astride a grave," as Beckett says.
     But even if you're going to do it—I mean, come on. The train? Granted, it's over quick. Over for you. But think about everyone else. First, you get sprayed over 100 feet of track, and some poor person has to go about collecting you from between the ties. Trust me, it isn't pretty. I glanced up at the wrong moment, as the train slowly rolled through Forest Glen, and saw about 25 train officials and city workers standing around, plus four uncomfortable looking firemen straining to lug a black plastic body bag past about a dozen small squares of white sheet covering the various lumps of offal strewn among the weeds.
     We shudder at the thought of state-sponsored suicide. It seems very Dutch, very contrary to the sanctity of life. But the way people are leaping in front of commuter trains, Metra is fast becoming a sort of de facto government vehicle of death--and being governmental, it doesn't work all that well. The Grim Reaper Postal Service. Would it really be that bad to, say, set up a pile driver behind the medical examiner's office on Harrison Street? The lovelorn and the depressed could show up, pay the $40 fee, climb into a fresh body bag, and two burly aides would toss the bag under the pile driver for the quick clomp. No fuss. No mess. No choice between little Billy making the grisly discovery in the basement, leading to years of psychotherapy and a lot of bad literature, or disrupting the sacred routines of thousands of innocent working mopes like myself.
     Getting through the day is tough enough without witnessing the mortal remains of somebody who wasn't up to the task being tweezered away. It undermines, if slightly, the grip that we keep on life. Who hasn't thought about suicide? God knows I have. I've even plotted out the best way to do it. You check into the Ritz Carlton Hotel—a suite, of course. It isn't as if you have to worry about the bill. You get yourself comfortable, admire the view, then pop downstairs to the Atrium Bar and have Michael whip up one of his martinis (Bombay Sapphire, straight up, with a twist is my choice, but feel free to bow to your own tastes; it's your funeral). Then head to the dining room and begin with the cheese course—I know it's supposed to be dessert, but you're always so full after the meal, and the cheeses are so great there: fresh, fanciful, displayed with little cards holding their names, serene as a Joseph Cornell box. Better to have at it with hunger unabated.
     And that's about as far along as I've planned my suicide. I figure, when dinner's over, you stagger up to your room and—heck, it's a waste not to use it. Those big white pillows at the Ritz—so comfortable. So you go to sleep and the morning comes and everything looks better in the morning. Room service sends up fresh coffee and a $15 omelet—the wince at the cost, a sign of life returning—and soon you'll run back home to cook up a story the wife might believe. She'll find out—wives always find out—and be mad at wasting the money, but you have a handy rejoinder: "Would you rather I were dead?"
     Thus gluttony saves another man's life, and I would recommend it to anybody contemplating the abyss. It may be a bad thing to be living for your next meal, but at least you're living for something.

                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 26, 2001


  1. I've written this before, but it's now over 7 years since I saw an old man just drop to his knees & stretch out over the tracks at Edgebrook.
    Now all I had were about 3 weeks of nightmares & a continuing fear that some asshole is going to do it, every time I'm waiting for a Metra train. But the woman standing a couple of feet away from me was flat out screaming like a banshee & was shaken up incredibly bad & went away in tears.
    Now maybe I was a bit used to it, as I also had seen what happens when someone hangs themselves & it ain't pretty.
    But I still don't know why it takes 2 hours for Metra to get moving again, because in NYC, it takes maybe 15 minutes.
    The only person I really feel sorry for is the train's engineer, who has to witness this, sometimes several times in a career & know there's nothing that can be done to stop the train in time.
    Plus without checking out the stats, it sure seems like the Milwaukee North & West Lines get more Metracides, as some wit calls them, than the rest of Metra combined.

  2. This article happened before Phil Pagano, the CEO of Metra, committed suicide by train. Subtlety apparently wasn't his strong suit.

    An acquaintance of mine chose this path to the Void. He was deeply troubled, clinically depressed. It is worth mentioning that no one kills themselves for the hell of it. Clinical depression can make suicide look like a sensible solution to an unsolvable and ever present problem - the concerns of others are not considered.

    The article is funny as hell, but for those who have dabbled in crippling depression, it might be problematic. Your preliminary warning was a wise way to begin the piece.

  3. You'd think they'd just take a big bottle of sleeping pills. Less messy.

  4. Selfish of them when they do that.

  5. Not all could afford the Ritz.

    1. If one were to go through with it, paying the bill is not a problem.

  6. A friend of mine was going to jump on the El tracks in Evanston but called me first. He obviously didn't really want to do it; he told me exactly where he was and waited patiently until I called the cops (after some dithering) and they came and whisked him off to the hospital.

    He did end up taking his life a few weeks later, hanging himself in the basement of his apartment building. I don't know who found him, but at least he didn't inconvenience a lot of train riders.

  7. ..."it sure seems like the Milwaukee North & West Lines get more Metracides, as some wit calls them, than the rest of Metra combined." - interesting because I always thought the BNSF Aurora Line must have the most. It's so bad on the BNSF that I just assumed it couldn't be even worse somewhere else. We didn't have two already this week but had one last week.

  8. I remember a TV show that said a lot of people check in to the Dorchester Hotel in London to kill themselves. It even said the employees had a funny name for them, but I can't remember it.

  9. When I lived in London, my commute on the Underground was sometimes interrupted by an announcement that there would be delays due to "a person under a train." There was no media coverage of such incidents, so we didn't find out if it was suicide or someone simply carelessly failing to "mind the gap" or "stay behind the yellow line." In any event it was not a popular means for doing oneself in there, as it isn't here. The Brits prefer to hang themselves, and firearms are seldom used, in contrast to the U.S. where 50 percent of suicides, the 10th greatest cause of death, are with guns.

    Interpreting suicide statistics is difficult. Emile Durkheim, whose 1898 monograph "Le Suicide" is credited with being the first systematic study of a social phenomenon, cited statistics from Germany seeming to indicate that Catholics committed suicide less than Protestants, but later researchers noted that authorities in Catholic communities are less inclined to conclude their demised citizens to have committed what is, in the eyes of the church, a sin.

    Neil's 2001 piece is indeed funny and makes points we can all agree with, but I'm inclined to think he would be a bit less judgmental about the Metracides if he wrote it today. Having known some people who suffer from clinical depression, I'm inclined to think the idea of jumping in front of a train is more often an impulsive than a calculated act.


  10. I was all over the place with this one. Tried to see the humor in it but was kinda freaked out. Remember, mentally disturbed and all that.

    Were I to consider suicide, a much easier and less dramatic procedure would prevail, such as a nice long sleep after overdosing, or a nice long sleep in the garage with the car running. No way would I throw myself in front of a train, well, except perhaps in tribute to Ana Karenina.


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