Sunday, April 15, 2007

Berkeley,Garage Sale and the Fuzzifiers........

I was dreading this day since I started to have an inkling it might happen - as I could not talk T out of it and ran out of credible excuses - and so the inevitable Garage Sale finally approached .

T had surgically gone through my wardrobe of seven years and basically reduced it by two-thirds ( yes, I have that ' what if I might need it some day ' syndrome or ratpacking ) and gathered all our electronic gadgets that she declared redundant ( why do we have 3 dvd players ? no answer ) - and piled everything at the center of the living room gearing up for The Garage Sale. Most of her burning inspiration I squarely blame on an Oprah episode on "clutter" - and she was on the warpath ! The pile of stuff became a towering presence (increasing every week) in the living room - and I was compelled to add another chore to my routine , that is - to sift through and find out what else was dumped in that tower that I cannot part with and make a spirited defense to take it back to the bedroom !

I tried everything to put it off - " Babe, its going to rain so hard this weekend ! " ; " I might have to swing by work for a while " ; " Sorry baby, could not get hold of the landlord today " ; " Don't we have to be in Palo Alto this weekend ?" - and finally with all options runing out , I went on the offensive - " has anyone thought through the logistics of this ?" Well, it didn't work - I could put it off for a while , but the day finally came.

And T, was ecstatic ! Lifting the boxes down three flights of stairs , I was cursing the weatherman who had given me a faint ray of hope of postponing this for the fourth time - a 33% chance of rain , he said the previous evening , and we woke up to a gorgeous sunshine ! As we were driving up to the designated place for our garage sale a different kind of fear gripped me - what if nobody comes and nothing sells ? I don't want T to be disappointed after all the trouble she went through - maybe I should have called some of my friends "to pose" as buyers , ahh no, lets see what happens.

We set up at a corner and while lamenting a lost Sunday I kept a stiff upper lip about the whole thing . But T's abundant energy and the slowly trickling-in people was a surprise . You should have seen her - waving at people , explaining each item in unshying detail - she was in her element ! I always thought I had the salesmanship between the two of us. Boy, was I wrong ! We met people of so many different shades , some with astonishing simplicity and some with complexities beyond belief - that it was a new experience all in itself.

As I walked up to the set-up , T introduced me to this frail old man wearing an italian hat - " Look who we have here Raj , this is the distinguished mathematician - Dr. Lofti Zadeh ! You know... The inventor of theFuzzy logic theory ! " Although T is in Aplied Maths , I am not - but in this case I nodded with assumed certainty , " Ahh, yes , yes - nice to meet you !" - making a note to google it when I get home while shaking his hand and hoping I wouldn't be asked to elaborate on my non-existent knowledge of this theory ! The man was frail and very thin ( if the wind speed would have picked up 5 more knots he would have certainly been swept away !) - and a tough bargain hunter , T and him was furiously going back and forth on the price of the items he wanted to buy. When the dust settled , he had a lot of things to take back to the car - and I volunteered to carry them . The woman in the car was not at all amused by the sight of these items being loaded into the car. " Lofti ! I have only one car you know ! This is the fifth garage sale you have stopped since six in the morning ! " What ? Six in the morning on a Sunday ? You got to be crazy ! As there was no room in the trunk , I had to move stuff around on the back seat to make room . And off went a happy Dr. Lotfi Zadeh - by far the best client at our garage sale that day !

We had other people also besides him , as I said of all varieties. One guy kept coming back on a bicycle every half hour asking the price of everything and saying ( truthfully as I might add ) - he will be back ! I gathered this must be the local stalker or something , and finally T offered to give him a decorative cushion for free . There was this taxi driver from Yemen ( a place T is greatly infatuated with !) , a school kid bitterly disappointed that we had no X-Box games to sell , two guys and a girl from Israel going through all the electronic items , and this handsome Microbiology student from Berkeley casually walking by and browsing ( T was eagerly conversing with him and I pretended to be busy with other things but kept a sharp eye and ear out ! ) . And then came these two ladies , going through each and every item with a minimum of three questions for each one of them - and when they stumbled upon the hand-free-headsets for the cell phones , they went berserk ! And the conversations went like this :
" Do these work ?"
"Most of them ".
"Why do you have three?"
" I just bought them with each new phone ."
"how many phones did you change ?"
" If they work, why are you selling them ?"
"I got a new one with blutooth ."
"Why did you buy a phone with a blutooth when you could have used these with some other models ?"
"Because I liked the set I bought ."
" Are you sure they work ?"
"As I said, most of them ."
" Most of them ? You mean 1 or 2 that works , or all 3 ?"
" Well, you can take them all and try which one works ."
" How much are they ?"
"Since, I cannot tell which one works , I'll give it to you for free ."
"Why will I take it for free if it doesn't work ?"
"You have to take a chance , but they are free ."
"Why are you giving them for free if it works ?"'
" I guess I have no use for them ."
"Well, if it doesn't work there is no reason for me to take them ."
"How far can I talk on this headset ?"
"As long as it is connected to your cell phone ."
"Can I borrow your cell phone ?"
"Because I want to see if it works ."
"Okay ."
Turning to the other guy browsing : " Can you call him on your cell phone while I walk around the block ?"
As I watched her disappearing around the block I thought to myself that I just had lost my new cell phone. But she came back , smiling .
" All of them work ! "
"Great , its yours then."
"but, what will I do with three sets ?"
"You don't have to take all three if you dont want "
" Why wont I take them if I dont have to pay for them ?"
Inexplicable. Is she married ? This is torture .
"Well, I'll take them . Do you have the instructions manual ?"
I was afraid to answer - a blank stare said it all. She went to T and said how she was there at 7am and didn't see us and came back at noon , and an endless lament of what items she might have missed out on !

It was late afternoon , and as T and I agreed , whatever we didn't sell would have to go straight to the Salvation Army . So we wrapped up, T was extremely happy , most of the items were sold , this was a resounding success for her . And I was happy it came to an end . But more happy , that she enjoyed every minute of it !

But I learnt something in the process - and met some characters I never imagined I share the city with. And added some new words to my vocabulary - fuzzification, fuzzifier , fuzzified - which ranks right up with "projects" ( a term given a new dimension when T's father asked her , So you are living with this boy - are you guys doing some projects together ?) - which had countless spinoff lines which I have to leave to your imagination to wonder .

The foundation of the Fuzzy Logic theory states that there is a third region beyond true and false . I guess the whole experience of this opened my eyes to another set of people -who hunt for bargains waking up at six in the morning on a sunday and drive from one garage sale to another - with zeal , just to find another good deal - whether they need it or not . But mostly, to find , discover and interact with people they would never meet otherwise - and revel in the experience .

The Call on Valentine's Day...........

It was a sunny day, and I was tremendously busy at work. The fact that I came back from an extended weekend worsened my workload - but it was Valentines day - the first one since T and I met. We had gone to San Diego the previous weekend for the Rugby 7 series , and I made plans for us to stay at the beautiful Konakai Resorts ( one of the hotels I helped my previous company acquire ) - and I kind of thought that it will make like a valentines getaway for us. Well, it didnt . All my kenyan friends were in San Diego, and the fact that I have stopped drinking totally , and T is not that much into parties - made for an uncomfortable mix. My friends kept calling , and I kept away from the parties except for the first night. And they equated my presence on that night to having Jesus sitting with them at the table while they are drinking.

But, it was our first V-day, kind of. And I wanted her to feel special. So, in between work, reports and meetings , I was deeply wondering what I should do. And when the idea hit me, I sneaked out in my busy schedule - bought two dozen roses (peach and pink) , two gigantic lobsters, some seafood for a home cooked dinner and with the nice bottle of chianti I had at home - I was all set for the evening.Feeling pretty pleased I went back to work.

And thats when the call came.

At first, I was inclined to tell my front desk to pass it on to my voicemail - but when he mentioned it is the second time she is trying to reach you - I decided to take it. It was a call from the San Francisco Coroners office asking me by name ! With a chill running down my spine , I answered yes thats me . She politely identified herself as calling from the investigations office and asked me , Do you know anyone by the name of Kin Wah Chan ? I remember we had a chef named Ken and a maintainence person named Kenny - but no one by that name . I asked her what was it about ,if he is in trouble , and she informed me that Kin Wah Chan had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge at 9:30am that morning and they cannot locate any next of kin . When they pulled him up two hours later , they found my business card in his jacket pocket. They were wondering if I have any information on him. Momentarily stunned, I explained to her that I can look in my guest data base for the hotel and call her back.I shelved all my reports for the day, and started my search. And it did not turn up anything . I called her back and told her that I couldn't find anyone matching that name having stayed at our hotel and asked her what is going to happen if no one can identify his body. She paused, and told me that they will keep trying.

Although I had to go back to my appointments for the day, I could not keep my mind off this at all. When I was discussing an Event with one of my appointments , it suddenly occurred to me that banquet/event information is stored on a different system. I dashed back to my office , and started my search again. And there it was . Kin Wah Chan - had come to the hotel last October to discuss a chinese engagement tea party ceremony with his fiancee - no date selected for the event , no forwarding address , follow-up call on the number given shows number no longer in service. I had come up with nothing at all. When I was in Med School - I formed a pretty good idea as to what happens to unidentified unclaimed bodies. And the thought kept bothering me , and yet I came up with nothing. But, I called the lady again and gave her whatever I gathered and told her I will keep searching and let her know.

My mind was not into work anymore. Why would anyone decide to go out this way ? on valentines day ? I have crossed that bridge so many times and even took pictures of me overlooking that bridge and the sunset so many times and yet never wondered that such a beautiful thing could be the point of a different kind of crossing for others in total despair. I take all my friends and relatives who come to visit San Francisco for a tour of the Golden Gate bridge - and on a sparkling day the beauty of the bridge complimenting the picturesque city in the background is a sight to behold ! I started looking for some answers and it kept amazing and saddening me at the same time.

The total number of people who have jumped off the Golden Gate bridge is well over 1,200 since it was built in May 1937 - on average one suicide every two weeks - and is considered the leading suicide location in the world. When the number was approaching one thousand in 1995 , due to the count-down fever CHP decided to halt its public count at 997 - and that did not stop Eric Atkinson to jump off and become the thousandth person - although like many others, his body was never found but he was seen making the jump. Every year close to about 50 people are persuaded successfully not to jump - apparently Kin Wah Chan was not one of them. Most of the jumpers prefer the fall facing east - the spectacular view of the city of San Francisco and the bay being the reason - than facing west towards the vast Pacific ocean. Researhers conclude that most of the people want to see something beautiful when they decide to end it all - some of the jumpers actually crossed the sister Bay bridge and come to the Vermillion Red painted Pillars of the Golden Gate bridge for the jump. The first recorded jump was just three months after the bridge was officially opened , a World War 1 veteran Harold Wobber walked up to the bridge and turned towards a total stranger and said, This is as far as I go , and jumped. One of the famous people to jump is Roy Raymond - the founder of Victoria's Secret !

So, why do they do it ? Every one of us go through the ups and downs of life , and some of us are more vulnerable not to overcome our depression than others . Most of the reasons remain uncovered, swept away in the waters under the bridge like the bodies of the people who attempt the suicide . Some are trivial, some are deeply touching. Sometimes the relatives, even the parents cannot explain why an otherwise healthy productive individual decides to take this deadly decision. When I was shifting through the articles , one was particularly troublesome. One of the jumpers wrote on his suicide note : " I am going to walk to the bridge today. If one person smiles at me on the way , I will not jump." Apparently, no one did. Another 14 year old High School student skipped school and took a $ 150 cab ride to the bridge and wrote on her suicide note :" I love you all , this is not your fault ."She was a straight A student. Kevin Hines, one of the very few that survived the jump recounts how he was on the bridge , utterly distraught with tears down his eyes , waiting for someone to stop him when a tourist approached him - only to ask him to take a picture of her on the bridge completely oblivious of the tears in his face - Hines obliged , accepted the thank you in return and jumped off the bridge. Tracy Lea Heineman - a computer programmer,music director and piano teacher who could converse in six different languages - stopped her VW Cabrio midway on the No.3 lane on the Golden Gate bridge on a January evening , got out with fresh groceries still in the back seat of her car , ran and jumped over the rail. These are all ordinary everyday people , with deep emotional distress they could not cope with. What was Kin Wah Chan's reason ?

In 2005 ,Eric Steel released a documentary named " The Bridge" - a documentary made up of footages from numerous cameras panned on the bridge span 24 hours a day - from January till December of 2004. It captured 23 out of the 24 jumps that year , and created a firestorm. His team actually stopped 6 of the suicides by alerting authorities , and the film also contains interviews with family of the jumpers to find the causes .

How can we prevent this from happening ? How many times have we all experienced pain and a sense of desolation and somehow bounced back and worked our way through it ? Thought, life cannot go on and found out although it limps for a while , it does go on. Doesn't these people need a deterrent to dissaude them from the jump ? And here lies the controversy. The safety railing of this bridge is only 4 ft. tall ( some say because Joseph Strauss , the designer of the bridge was only little over 5 ft and he wanted to look over the railing !) - so anyone with a sudden urge to "just disappear" - has nothing to stop him or her. A lot of the families of the jumpers have taken up the cause to build a safety railing deterrent . But opponents say it will destroy the aesthetic nature of the bridge , there are also wind and stress concerns and of course monetary funding. Despite spending 20 million for a moveable median to prevent head-on collisions on the bridge, and another 5 million to keep bicyclists safe ( even though not a single bicyclist has ever died on the bridge !) - the Bridge Authority could not find 6 ~8 million needed for the safety barrier to this date.

The startling fact remains that the few survivors have said the same thing - they regretted what they did the moment they released their hands from the railing. Ken Baldwin , who jumped in August 1985, tells how he counted to ten and released his hands and while clearing the chords of the bridge realised : "... that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was completely fixable - except for having just jumped". Dr. Richard Sieden followed 515 people who were persuaded to come back from the railing and found 96 per cent went on with their lives and did not attempt again - if this is not the one compelling reason to erect the barrier , then none is. Maybe , some suspect , there is a certain disdain for these desperate souls even in liberal San Francisco. Filmmaker Eric Steel says :""The strange thing about the bridge itself is that when someone dies there, there's this big splash," he said. "And within minutes, it's like nothing ever happened. All the ripples go away. And the traffic keeps moving, and the pedestrians are walking, and the water's going under the bridge. But for the families, that ripple keeps going forever."

It was already dark , approaching 8pm and I had to wind up my day at work. And it was Valentines Day. I hurried back home with the flowers,chocolate and the bags of seafood I was cooking for dinner. And T was there , smiling , we cooked the dinner together - pointing out each others flawed method of cooking seafood - and ate heartily together. And I was thankful to have so many people I can relate my life to in some way or another.

Next day, I went to work again , called the Coroners Office and asked the lady if they had any luck and told her that I wish to be notified if there are any funeral services so T and I can attend. What prompted Kin Wah Chan to take his life we would never know , whether a barrier or just a smile would have made him rethink his decision we wouldn't know either. The fact will forever remain that on a sunny crispy Valentines morning , Kin Wah Chan slowly climbed over the 4 ft. guard-rail , stood on the ledge of an iconic modern marvel overlooking the breathtaking grandeur of the city , then looked down at the icy waters of the pacific and decided there is nothing to hold him back to this earth - and jumped - with my business card in his jacket.