Death, subsequent delay bring on some cold realizations
By William Campbell
October 20, 1993*
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
— John Dunne
Evelyn Ruth Billings made a lot of people late to work October 12.
Because of her, the two right lanes of the southbound San Diego Freeway were closed for nearly three hours. Rush-hour traffic was backed up to Nordhoff Street, to Winnetka on the southbound Ventura Freeway and to Coldwater Canyon on the northbound. The resultant traffic clog led harried commuters to inundate the surrounding canyon roads and Sepulveda Boulevard, jamming those streets for several hours.
All because she died that morning.
All because at 56, Billings, after apparently parking a friend’s car at the west end of the Mulholland Drive overpass that spans the 405 Freeway, squeezed between a narrow opening in the bridge’s tall railing and jumped to her death that she met after falling the 80-or-so-feet and hitting the freeway pavement at 6:30 a.m. And it seems that all that was talked about was the traffic mess she made.
Well, I was stuck in that traffic as I tried to make it over Beverly Glen Boulevard in Sherman Oaks to the west side of Los Angeles that day. And I heard over the radio during a one-hour commute that normally takes 15 minutes, that a fatality on the 405 was the reason everything was so screwed up all over the place.
Just so it’s known that I’m not the pot calling the kettle black, in the solitude and security of my dilapidated 1973 Pontiac Firebird, I cursed this then-unknown dead person for the delays that were caused.
While watching my gas guage drop and inhaling the collective poision being belched forth from the cars stacked up both in front and behind me, all the while hoping beyond hope that this would not be the time my radiator decided to blow or that old fanbelt — which should have been replaced months ago — would not decide to snap, I silently hoped that the death was an especially painful one, long and drawn out and full of suffering. At the same time, I envied the person for no longer having to deal with L.A. gridlock ever again.
A saint, I am not. What a surprise. But tell me you don’t identify with my frustration.
Of course, all these thoughts took place before I learned of the dead woman’s name, her circumstance, her pain. The following evening, I finally had time to read the story in the newspaper. It was only then that I found out the fatality was not the result of a traffic accident. It was only then I learned it was an apparent suicide. It was only then I knew her name.
I sat down and cried.
I didn’t know her. I never met her, or knew anything of her life or her family. Unknown to me were her hobbies, her favorite color, her favorite sport, her political leanings, her health, the color of her carpeting or her hair, the happiest moment of her life, or the reasons she decided to end it all.
She was a life. A living, breathing human being that deserved consideration and respect. But it was so easy for me to belittle her death and suffering when it was anonymous and distant.
In looking at the picture in the paper taken from the overpass and looking down at the freeway and the police cars and the Coroner’s van, I could just make out the vague blanket-covered shape of Evelyn Ruth Billilngs in the shadows. The finality of the picture hit me hard. I’ll never look at the Mulholland Drive Bridge the same way again.
I could tell from where her body came to rest, she had apparently decided to get it over with. Picturing it in my mind, she wanted no part of a dramatic rescue or theatrical display of emotion. There was no need for her to make her way to the center of the freeway. She didn’t want to be stopped or caught or found or saved. She probably didn’t even want to cause too much trouble. She made her way out over the freeway just far enough to clear the shoulder and jumped.
How I wish I could have reached out a hand to help that woman who stood all along in the cool morning air as she faced a San Fernando Valley that was just coming alive at the same time she chose to die.
How I wish I could have been miraculously crossing over the freeway during those crucial moments before she let go, to offer her my compassion, to listen to whatever overwhelming pain was consuming her, to let her know she was not alone.
An empty heroic dream brought on by guilt? I doubt it. I take Donne’s words pretty seriously. But I am ashamed at my callous reaction and the city’s at-large.
In a place this size, it seems too easy to dismiss the end of a single, tortured life. Especially if it disrupts the status quo. Or in this case, the traffic flow.
*Originally published in the L.A. Pierce College Roundup when Will was its editor-in-chief, this column went on to win a first place column-writing award in the 1994 statewide Journalism Association of Community Colleges competition, judged by the incomparable L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith.