NOT LONG AGO, I crossed paths with a suicidal woman. My writing partner, Bennett Yellin, and I had been strolling in a park on the cliffs of Santa Monica, hoping for inspiration. We were in the middle of a "Disney Sunday Night Movie" project and were burnt out. It was supposed to be a comedy about a haunted hotel but read more like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." After an hour outdoors, we still couldn't get things to work the way Disney wanted them to. We decided to flip a coin: If it was heads, we'd quit for the day; tails, we'd continue our walk. Heads. Time to go home.
We could have easily missed her but Bennett happened to look up. She was on the roof of a 16-story building, and it was obvious she wasn't sightseeing. She was too close to the edge, and there wasn't a wall. The woman sat down, stood back up, ran her fingers through her hair, then paced back and forth.
We were the only ones who saw her and we didn't know what to do. Should we call to her, or would that freak her out? I ran to a phone booth while Bennett kept an eye on her. If she looked on the verge of leaping, he would try to get her attention.
I dialed 911. A woman answered.
"Someone's on top of a building at the corner of San Vicente and Ocean," I said. "She looks like she might jump."
"Where are you calling from?"
"A phone booth across the street."
"Can you see her from where you are?"
"What's the address?" the dispatcher asked.
"I don't know," I said. "It's at the corner of San Vicente and Ocean. You'd better hurry--she looks serious."
"What side of the street?"
"It's the only high-rise here. You can't miss it."
"What side of the street?" she repeated.
I couldn't think clearly. "I don't know," I said. "It's the only big one. The others are all low."
No response. I concentrated and got my bearings.
"It's north," I said. "The north side of the street."
"Northwest or northeast?"
"There is no east or west here!" I said. "The buildings are all on the north or south."
"Is it east or west of Ocean?"
"East," I said.
"What is your name?"
I gave it.
"And your address?"
"Look, you better send someone in a hurry."
I hung up. From the phone booth I could see Bennett still looking up. That was a relief. I ran into the lobby of the building and informed the security guard that there was a woman on the roof who looked suicidal. He thanked me and said he'd take care of it. He was very calm, and I got the feeling that this was a common occurrence.
I ran back onto the street. The woman was still at the edge, looking frantic. It was tough to watch her. I knew I'd have to turn away if she jumped.
After a few minutes, she stepped back, out of sight. The police still hadn't shown up. I headed back to the lobby to make sure the security guard had grabbed her. The woman was leaving the building as I got to the front doors. She looked to be in her 30s, her hair was pulled back tightly and she was wearing a sweat suit. When she brushed past, I turned and followed.
"Excuse me," I called. "I saw you up on the roof."
She looked embarrassed and kept walking.
"Is there something wrong?" I asked.
She didn't answer, so I repeated the question.
"No," she said, "I was just looking around."
The woman picked up her pace. I had to hop every third step to keep up.
"It's dangerous to stand at the edge like that," I said.
"I know," she said. "That was stupid. I won't do it again."
"Listen, if there's something wrong, maybe I can help."
She didn't say anything, just kept on moving. Finally I took her arm and pulled her aside. Her face looked pinched, tense. She didn't struggle, though, and for a second I thought maybe I really could help her.
"Tell me what's wrong," I said.
Her eyes avoided mine, and she managed a vague smile. "It's not what you think," she said. "Don't worry, it's not what you think." She pushed past me.
"Just talk to me," I said. "I really can help."
"My friends will help me," she said, and then she ran off.
"Just remember," I called, "nothing can be that bad!"
Bennett and I watched her climb into a new BMW. She drove off, never looking back. We jotted down the license-plate number, and when we got back to our office I called 911 again. This time a man answered. I asked him why no one had responded to my earlier call. That building had its own security force, he said. They'd been notified, and the situation was under control. The security guard had reported back that the woman was just looking around.
"That's a bunch of crap," I said. "I watched her and she was definitely going to do it. Shouldn't you notify her family or something?"
"Can't do that," he said. "Unless she threatens to kill herself, there's nothing we can do."
"But she was threatening to kill herself," I insisted. "For God's sake, she was standing at the edge of a 16-story drop!"
"She never said she was going to jump."
"How could she?" I yelled. "You guys weren't even there!"
At this point I was put on hold, and then I was connected to another dispatcher. There was nothing they could do, he repeated.