The Center of Attention
As grit swirls in the wind the word spreads. On pavements approaching the bridge a crowd Springs up like mushrooms. They are hushed at first, intently Looking. At the top of the pylon The target of their gaze leans toward them. The sky sobs With the sirens of disaster crews Careening toward the crowd with nets, Ladders, resuscitation gear, their First Aid attendants antiseptic in white duck. The police, strapped into their holsters, Exert themselves in crowd-control. They can't Control the situation. Atop the pylon there's a man who threatens Violence. He shouts, I'm gonna jump-- And from the river of upturned faces --Construction workers pausing in their construction work, Shoppers diverted from their shopping, The idlers relishing this diversion In the vacuity of their day--arises A chorus of cries--Jump! Jump! and No-- Come down! Come down! Maybe, if he can hear them, They seem to be saying Jump down! The truth is, The crowd cannot make up its mind. This is a tough decision. The man beside me Reaches into his lunchbox and lets him have it. Jump! before he bites his sandwich, While next to him a young blonde clutches Her handbag to her breasts and moans Don't Don't Don't so very softly You'd think she was afraid of being heard. The will of the people is divided. Up there he hasn't made his mind up either. He has climbed and climbed on spikes imbedded in the pylon To get where he has arrived at. Is he sure now that this is where he was going? He looks down one way into the river. He looks down the other way into the people. He seems to be looking for something Or for somebody in particular. Is there anyone here who is that person Or can give him what it is that he needs? From the back of a firetruck a ladder teeters. Inching along, up up up up up, a policeman Holds on with one hand, sliding it on ahead of him. In the other, outstretched, a pack of cigarettes. Soon the man will decide between The creature comfort of one more smoke And surcease from being a creature. Meanwhile the crowd calls Jump! and calls Come down! Now, his cassock billowing in the bulges of Death's black flag, A priest creeps up the ladder too What will the priest and the policeman together Persuade the man to do? He has turned his back to them. He has turned away from everyone. His solitariness is nearly complete. He is alone with his decision. No one on the ground or halfway into the sky can know The hugeness of the emptiness that surrounds him. All of his senses are orphans. His ribs are cold andirons. Does he regret his rejection of furtive pills, Of closet noose or engine idling in closed garage? A body will plummet through shrieking air, The audience dumb with horror, the spattered street . . . The world he has left is as small as toys at his feet. Where he stands, though nearer the sun, the wind is chill. He clutches his arms--a caress, or is he trying Merely to warm himself with his arms? The people below, their necks are beginning to ache. They are getting impatient for this diversion To come to some conclusion. The priest Inches further narrowly up the ladder. The center of everybody's attention For some reason has lit up a butt. He sits down. He looks down on the people gathered, and sprinkles Some of his ashes upon them. Before he is halfway down The crowd is half-dispersed. It was his aloneness that clutched them together. They were spellbound by his despair And now each rung brings him nearer, Nearer to their condition Which is not sufficiently interesting To detain them from business or idleness either, Or is too close to a despair They do not dare Exhibit before a crowd Or admit to themselves they share. Now the police are taking notes On clipboards, filling the forms. He looks round as though searching for what he came down for. Traffic flows over the bridge.
From The Center of Attention, by Daniel Hoffman, published by Random House. Copyright © 1970 by Daniel Hoffman. Used with permission.