Thursday, November 17, 2005

Looking up

A piece by Michael Manske of The Glory of Carnolia and San Diego Reader fame recently on Self-Esteem and Suicides is worth a visit. Some professors at Bradley University concocted a survey and proceeded to draw conclusions on the results, based on the scores of each particular country. The subject was self-esteem. Mr. Manske then ties in suicide rates, globally speaking.
This little post starting a wee bit of reminiscing on my part. Back to the days when I was a 7th grader in the old Croatia, when it was still Yugoslavia.
I was back in the Old Country for a year’s worth of education so that the Croatian that I had so quickly and shamefully forgotten when we first came to the states could be recovered. My (ultra-limited) natural abilities for learning to speak a language combined with the difficulty of this particular language, with its rules and counter-rules (Learning Croatian being akin to learning to playing the violin with one’s feet while sitting on a wood-burning stove) made for quite an interesting year. “Interesting” as in that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
We shuttled between various relatives in the short year that we were in Zagreb. For a short while, I lived with an aunt just off of the central square, nowadays called Jelicic Plac (Jelicic Square). Her apartment was in a 6 story building fairly close to the tallest building in the city, its first skyscraper. That building was called the Neboder, which is the Croatian word for skyscraper. Since there were no other skyscrapers in the city, this building became The Skyscraper. Even after other taller skyscrapers went up, they were called "neboder" rather than "Neboder".
During my short stay with this wonderful aunt and her family, living in the center of the largest city in Croatia offered a continuous stream of happenings. From Monday through Saturday, I'd take the tramway from the square to my grammar school in another part of the city. The tram stop was less than 1 block from my aunt's building, so I tended to cut it close as far as catching the #9. Sometimes, I'd miss it, because the usual stop was closed off and I'd have to walk quite a few blocks to catch another streetcar. The main reason the stop would have been closed was that a body was on the street.

Someone had jumped from the Neboder.

The relatives tell me that was the worst year for suicides, specifically for jumpers. Those who ventured up to the roof of the Neboder were said to be in for the Duboki Pad (Deep Fall). After a while, the management of the Neboder caught on that it wasn’t good for business to have people regularly jumping from your building, so guards and locks were implemented. A determined person could still make their way through. For others, the alternative would be the surrounding buildings. Shorter versions of the Neboder. These deaths were called the Plitki Pad (Shallow Fall). The block on which the Neboder was located was packed with shorter versions of the original, all together forming a wall edging the four sides of that block. In the center of this block was empty space. A locked in sound amplification area. Sometimes, a jumper would not throw themselves onto Ilica, the main street. They would go to the other side of the skyscraper and throw themselves into the enclosed space. On such an occasion, if the window in the kitchen or in my bedroom were open, I’d hear a boom and I’d know someone had jumped.

"Pogledaj gore" (Look up) became the phrase for the morning salutations as we left for school. Supposedly, one pedestrian was almost killed when a jumper landed very closely to them one morning. In kid-dom, the "almost" quickly became the "certain" and we began our mordant math on the number of deaths so far. Since I was one of my only classmates who commuted from downtown, I was expected to provide the gory details of any death. This worked out fine, since I never saw anyone; I was usually asleep or in class when someone died. But on one morning, I came out of our building shortly after someone had landed on the main street. The body was already covered with copies of that morning's paper and with someone's coat. Blood was pooling around the person, with a bright red rivulet running into the black steel tram tracks. A younger woman, one of the municipal cleaners, was brushing the flow with her long twiggy broom. I could see tears rolling off her cheeks and mixing in with the blood of the jumper. This must have been her first incident. Later that year I came upon a similar situation, but the cleaning woman, an older stockier version, wore a blank expression as she hurriedly swept the street. The sharp rasp of her broom echoing in the street. I stopped providing any descriptions after that, ashamed of the attention given to me by someone's tragic death.

My aunt lived on the third floor of her apartment building. The staircase wending its way through the building was broad and the steps short. One could easily take two steps at a time which meant a typical teenager could take three. The steps were finished with an Adriatic blue ceramic tile, a bit slippery after a rain or snow fall. Because the steps were so short and the tile so slippery, when coming down one could slide down by taking a running start. Coming home, one could seemingly fly up the stairs, bounding up through the building.
There was an iron gate at the foot of the stairway, requiring a key. While fumbling through one's pockets for the key, someone may be exiting the elevator. It was then easier, though slower, to take the lift than to keep on searching for that key.
One day, coming home later from school, I found myself tearing through my pockets for the keys for the gate to the stairway. That keychain also held the keys to the elevator, which one needed to get onto the elevator unless someone was exiting as you were hoping to enter the elevator car. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a tall shadowy figure. It wasn’t odd to see someone just moseying around the lobby, especially in the colder months of the winter. Someone may be waiting for a friend, a tenant in the building to come down so they can go to one of the 4 or 5 kavanas (coffee houses) in the immediate area. Or, someone may just duck in to get a bit warmed up from the bitter blowing outside. I didn't recognize this man as one of the regulars, so I assumed he was there for a warm-up.
As I was still digging through my pants for the keys, the lights of the elevator stopped counting down. A tenant from the top floor got out, looked at me, swirled the top of my hair as was the wont of most older folks, smiled, and held the elevator door open for me. I went inside and, just as the door was shutting, found myself in the small elevator car with the shadowy stranger.
He slipped in and leaned, slightly, on the far wall. He was about 6’ 2” but seemed taller because of his gauntness. Though he seemed to be using the wall to support him, he stood ramrod straight, his cloudy eyes staring straight ahead, his hair, grayish tinged black, standing resolutely high and straight.
The dignity he bore was, alas, not reflected in his suit. The fine cut, the crisp cloth, the tightly sewn and aligned buttons. All were now gone, the well-dressed spirit had deserted the cloth. Only his posture, now stark due to his skinniness, remained, a faint reflection of what must have been an impressive gentleman.

I punched "III" on the control box. From his position, he extended a long arm and scraped on "VI". I peeked over. I knew who lived on the sixth floor; his face was a new one attached to that floor. I continued to busily go through my pockets, just an activity to keep me engaged in my own solitude and a siganl to him to stay in his.
"Nice day", he said in a high and airy voice.
I mumbled some acknowledgement and pressed "III" over and over again, all the while knowing this would not make the elevator go any faster.
"It’s cold but it’s a fine purity. A clean day for flying",
What? Did I hear that? I faked a coughing attack.
"Are you o.k.?"
I nodded, excessively, if I recall correctly.
We reached the third floor. I hurriedly pushed the door open and grabbed my schoolbag.
"Good bye, son".
It was the loneliest sound I’d ever heard.
The elevator door closed and started its ascension to the 6th floor. I rushed to my aunt’s door, keys at the ready. Quickly opening the door, I went directly to my bedroom. I cracked open a window slightly, so I could hear...anything. An hour or two passed with no booms. I walked to the living room, where windows offered a view of the entire square. I pulled the long drapes back, swung the casements windows in, and leaned a bit over the window ledge.
No trollies were stopped.
No crimson on the street below.
I stuck my head out and looked up.
There he was, his head poking out from the tip of the flat roofline, hair still perfectly vertical. He saw me after a while and waved a fluttery good-bye.

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I almost didn't finish reading the piece - the phone rang, I got busy, then remembered it was still on my screen.

Great story - sad story. I hesitate to ask....
Ignoring the entire thrust of your magical and touching story, I'll just note my belief that the entire "self esteem" issue seems to be a red herring invented to sell magazines and fill chairs on television talk shows.

To the degree that "self esteem" can be quantified, the results are almost always counterintuitive. Criminals and prison inmates seem to consistently score highest on SE tests. And leaders, intellectuals, scientists, and similar types often score quite low. I shall not attempt to explain this, other than to say that human psychology is deeper than the birdbath that passes for pop psych.

Another fact of continuing interest is that in 19th century usage (e.g., Oscar Wilde, who wrote quite a bit about it), "self esteem" is clearly a synonym for "arrogance" or "vanity."

Given those who prattle on endlessly about it in public, one begins to doubt if the true meaning has changed all that much.

We now return to the regularly scheduled program.
Poor sod - both of you.
I know I'm late to the party, but this is an exceptional post/story. You've conjured the atmosphere in my Warsaw apartment building perfectly ... so perfectly that it made me shiver. The tiny elevator compartments, the elevator keys -- it's all there.

And of course I've also seen gentlemen like that poor man. And poor you -- that memory has remained, apparently.
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