Why you should care

Because long-term solutions to short-term problems are usually pretty permanent.

I was walking across the Collegetown Bridge in Ithaca, New York, when I saw my friend Mark sitting too close to the edge, with his back to the gorge and his feet dangling. It was 200 feet down to a dry creek bed full of boulders the size of cars. A crowd of fellow students had gathered on the sidewalk to watch, keeping a safe distance. There were no cellphones in 1979, so somebody ran to a pay phone to call the police.

I stood off to his side about 10 feet away. “Mark, what are you doing?” I asked. He was bent forward on top of the waist-high stone wall that bordered the pedestrian walkway. His face was sickly pale and he had a gash crusted with brown blood above one eye. “I thought we were doing a reading tonight,” I said.

He and I were scheduled to read our short stories at a bookstore on the edge of campus, an event set to start in a half-hour. My story was about a rich kid at summer camp who learns about working-class pain when he volunteers to help in the kitchen. Mark’s story was about his stint as a mental patient and the grief he’d brought to his well-meaning parents.

Next thing I knew a cop was shaking me, saying, “Hey, I’m talking to you. What’s his name? How do you know him?”

“Leave me alone!” he said, turning his head to look me in the eye. I stepped toward him and reached out with one arm. He reacted by leaning even farther forward.

“No!” I said.

I was so charged with adrenaline that I was almost deaf. Forty years later, I still feel guilty about being too scared to grab him, to at least try to wrestle him back to the pavement.

“I’ve been trying to call you,” is the stupid thing I said.

“It’s no good,” he said. “My mind doesn’t work.”

“What’s that like?” I asked.

He squinted for a few seconds and seemed to be considering an answer. Then he pushed himself off and disappeared. The crowd screamed and groaned.

I remember looking over the edge and seeing him on top of some gravel, one arm bent behind his head. Then a young woman from one of my classes put her hand on my shoulder, guiding me back to a safer place on the sidewalk. I knew her as a shy, sensitive person who winced at too harsh a word or too bright a light. “You’re very beautiful and special,” I babbled at her. “You need to be very careful.”

Next thing I knew a cop was shaking me, saying, “Hey, I’m talking to you. What’s his name? How do you know him?”

The cop drove me to headquarters, where I waited in a windowless room to be interviewed by a detective. What did I know about the bruises on Mark’s hands? the detective wanted to know. What about the cut on his face? Were we queer for each other?

“No, just friends,” I explained. I hadn’t seen Mark for more than a week. He did things like that. Got off his meds and went on walkabouts. He was a townie who hung around poetry readings. His parents lived just up the hill, and they would call me sometimes to ask his whereabouts.

1978

The author (far left) and friends in happier times.

Source Courtesy of Jon Cohen

Looking back, I can understand why that detective didn’t like me. I was a lazy, doughy trust fund hippie with a nest of curly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, wearing sandals with no socks, shorts almost down to my knees and a rock band T-shirt barely covering my potbelly. The kind of smart-ass brat who hung around school all summer, smoking weed, taking a couple of makeup classes but not earning a dollar.

The detective asked me to write everything down. “I think you’re lying,” he said after reading my report. “I think you two were lover boys.”

After telling me not to leave town, the cops drove me to the small suburban house where Mark had grown up. His parents were plump, kindly, middle-aged people who worked as college administrators. They sat weeping in the living room, across from a bearded rabbi wearing a yarmulke and thick black glasses.

“What did I do?” Mark’s mother wailed. “What did I do to hurt him?”

“He never blamed you,” I told them, which was true. “He knew it wasn’t your fault that he got sick. He worried that his stories might embarrass you.”

Later, the rabbi drove me home. I suddenly felt absurd in my short pants and flip-flops. Ashamed that I was stinking up the car with patchouli oil and BO. It occurred to me that I didn’t even own a button-down shirt, a sports jacket or anything appropriate for a funeral.

“Do you know what kaddish is?” the rabbi asked me.

“A poem by Allen Ginsberg?”

“No, the mourner’s prayer,” he said. “Do you want to say kaddish with me?”

I nodded and he walked me through it while he steered the car. Then we rode in silence for a while.

“So, Mark’s parents tell me that you’re a very promising writer,” he said. “I understand that you won the college story prize.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really haven’t done or seen anything worth writing about.”

“Not until now,” he said.

OZYTrue Story

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