I would sit there hiding behind a heap of weeds and overgrown rosemary plants, spending my afternoons watching. People would always come, but on average no more than two a day. When a person walked up to the back of the building and stood at the edge of the descending stairway, I would lift the binoculars that I kept wrapped around my neck and try and get a good look at them. Their shoulders would always be hunched in defeat. Some dressed nice but others looked disheveled. When I got a glimpse of the person’s eyes I would notice the same thing every time. There was blankness, as if no one resided behind those eyes anymore. No matter who they were, everyone who walked to the edge of that staircase would always stop for a minute or longer. They would look down the stairs as if they were staring into an abyss. In those moments I would always feel this uncomfortable sensation come over me because I knew that I would be the last person seeing them alive. I knew that in that moment I could jump out from my hiding spot in the bushes and try and convince them to remain alive, but that was not my role. I was just a spectator and as a result I would always remain in the bushes, waiting for the person to walk down the stairs towards the box.
The city in which I live started the box program a year or so ago, around the time I lost my last job. They started the program in response to the immensely high suicide rate that the city was experiencing. The economic recession was in full swing, banks were swallowing up everything that hard working people owned and jobs were vanishing like mist on a hot summers day. The majority of people who live in my city are middle class people who take great pride in their homes and jobs and when they found themselves without either suicide seemed to become a popular solution. Entire families were killing themselves. At one point it seemed as if everyone was doing it: teachers, electricians, gardeners, construction workers, architects, dentists, chiropractors, therapists, housewives and children. The cost of sending out paramedics and police to the scene of the suicide, hospital and clean up fees were all causing the city to go broke. In response to this crisis the mayor decided to sign into action the box program.
The box program is the cities alternative to messy suicides and to having to pay to send paramedics, police and clean up crews to the scene of a suicide. The program offers individuals the opportunity to climb into a brand new clean white box long enough for someone who is over six feet inches tall to fit comfortably in. Inside the box is a single, complimentary cyanide capsule. There are no questions asked and the individuals final moments can be spent in complete quiet. The person climbs into the box, swallows the cyanide capsule, lays back and then closes the box lid over them. Simple. Every morning city officials come and collect the box and then leave a new one in its place. Bodies are cremated and this is the end of the story as far as the city is concerned. “Everybody Wins,” was how the box program was initially marketed to the general public. For about a year now the box program has been incredibly successful. It seems as if those who want to commit suicide much prefer this method to the more messy ones.
The white box sits against a cement wall in the back stairwell of the cities community center, which was shut down some time ago. The box is on the ground, in the left hand corner and the head of the box is pushed against a locked black door with a sign on it that reads, “Do Not Enter.” Beside the box there is a smaller box of tissue papers and several pamphlets, which offer individuals information about why suicide may not be the best option for themselves and/or their families. On the lid of the box, in bright red letters is written: Please swallow the capsule first and then place box lid on top of the box BEFORE lying down to rest. Thank you.
During my time observing from the bushes I witnessed a few individuals walk down the stairway and then a few minutes later walk back up. I was always glad when I saw this. It was as if the person was getting back something that they almost permanently lost. Their eyes were always bloodshot and filled with tears and they looked as if they were about to collapse. I always wondered to myself why they decided to come back up from the depths. Did they read the pamphlet about suicide prevention and then decide to give life another shot? Or was there someone else already in the box?
It is well known in my city that those who want to participate in the box program should show up first thing in the morning so as to get an available box. The boxes do fill up quickly and even though on many days they are empty way into the afternoon, it is still considered wise to try and get there early. Few things are as disheartening as showing up to commit suicide and then seeing the lid already on the box and knowing you have to wait another day, maybe more. Must be difficult to return home after you assumed you were leaving for the final time.
I would hide in the bushes and observe people participating in the box program a few times a week. I really did not have better things to do. For some reason engaging in this activity added a certain element of excitement and adventure to my life that was not there before the box program. In a strange way I felt as if watching those people gave me a kind of purpose. I would pack myself a bagged lunch, bring a foldable stool and a pair of binoculars and then claim my spot within the weeds and rosemary plants. I would wait there in the bushes behind the community center until I could catch a glimpse of a person who was heading down towards the box. I found it strange that I was so morbidly fascinated by this, so much so that I was willing to spend 4 or 5 hours hiding in the bushes.
It is fascinating to see a person in the final moments of their lives. In my head I constructed a narrative, trying to make sense about what brought them to this point. I was also curious to see if I would recognize any of the individuals who showed up to participate in the box program. It was always the strangest sensation when I recognized someone that I knew. I saw my third grade teacher, my old therapist, my dentist, an old dog trainer my family used to use, a girl who bagged groceries at the local supermarket that went out of business and my parents gardener. Even though my heart would always pound when I would realize that I knew the person- I still never did anything to stop them from climbing into the box. It was not my place to do so- they had made up their own minds and I knew that I needed to respect that.
When I initially lost my job as a librarian I also struggled with suicidal thoughts. I did not know what was going to happen to me or how I would survive economically. I felt like a failure. Bills were piling up and all of a sudden a chronic feeling of impending doom invaded my life. Suicide seemed to be a less painful way out from the difficult situation I found myself in.
Before I became a regular observer watching from the bushes, I was one of those people who made their way down the stairway and into the box. I climbed into the box and held the cyanide tablet in the palm of my hand. I looked around and saw the tops of trees, birds and I could hear the distant sounds of the little league baseball team playing on the old baseball field not far from where I was. As I held the capsule in my hand, I was violently shaking. I felt a wave of fear come over me, since I was not sure about what came after death. I also felt like I was not a hundred percent ready to leave this life. I read through one of the pamphlets besides the box, searching for a sentence that would give me the strength to want to continue to live. Fortunately, I realized that even though I was broke, depressed, without a job and with little hope I could still enjoy being. I could still enjoy the pleasures that hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and touching had to offer me. I heard the distant and beautiful sound of a bat connecting with a baseball and decided to put the cyanide capsule down and make the most of whatever life I still had left to live.
Since that day when I managed to climb out of the box I have been fascinated with those people who are in a similar situation that I was in. Maybe it made me feel less alone to see others who were struggling just as much as I was. When I saw a person stop before those stairs I was convinced that I knew what they were thinking: “Do I really want to do this?” “I don’t think I can take any more of this life,” “I am such a failure,” “I just don’t want to live anymore, death will be easier.” When they decided to walk down the stairs I knew that they had just made the biggest decision of their entire lives.
For the past month or so I have decided to quit hiding in the bushes. I think that I have seen enough from behind the weeds and rosemary. Ironically enough, several months ago I applied for a position with the city working as a box collector and last week I was fortunate enough to get the job. Every morning, seven days a week, I come with my partner to collect the box. I still find it interesting that there is never a day where there is not a body inside the box. We lift the box together, carry it up the stairs and then put it in the back of a long white city van. I then take out a new white box and put it in the old box’s place. My partner is in charge of lifting the box lid and placing the cyanide capsule inside the box. We both try and leave the area in as nice of a condition as possible so that those who are going to participate in the box program spend the last few minutes of their lives in a clean space. The other morning when we were bringing a box up the stairs I noticed something that made me laugh out loud. My partner asked me what was so funny and I said, “nothing.” What I noticed was this older gentleman hiding in the bushes, dressed in tan pants and a green button down shirt observing us through a pair of binoculars.