My wife and I were taking a stroll through Golden Gate Park one sunny morning, forking back and forth on the running paths that line the hilly landscape. As we ascended a hill by Fushsia Dell, we noticed a man laying under a grove of trees. He was dressed shabbily and sprawled atop a sleeping bag.
Homeless people are a common sight in San Francisco, especially in Golden Gate Park, so I thought nothing of it, until my wife exclaimed in my ear:
“Jason… that’s a dead body!”
My heart jumped into my throat, and I looked more closely at the human figure. Looking more closely (we were a good 20 feet away), I noticed certain… things about the body (I’ll spare the exact details for the faint of heart) that indicated that he was, in fact, most likely dead. Not least of which was the swarm of flies buzzing around the grove of trees.
My wife’s a doctor, and I watched from the sidelines as her instincts kicked in. She called out to him.
“Sir! Can you hear me?”
She approached, getting close enough to discern that, yes, this was most certainly a dead body.
She called 911, and we watched in amazement as the San Francisco emergency response wheels were set in motion. Trying to explain precisely where we were in the park was a challenge, but we flagged down the approaching cruiser and within five minutes a cop was taking my wife’s statement. Nobody seemed to want to get too close to the body.
“Did you attempt to rouse him?” asked the cop.
“I got close and called out to him,” said my wife. “He is dead, isn’t he?”
“Well,” said the cop. “We’ve seen people that look as bad as he does that are still alive.”
That was an astonishing statement given the condition of the body.
The medical examiner arrived shortly thereafter, briskly dispelling our concerns that maybe this poor guy was still alive.
“That’s obviously a dead body,” said the ME. “He’s probably been out here for a few days.”
Yellow tape went up around the site and we were allowed to take off and resume what had suddenly become a much more somber morning.
The Homeless All Around Us
I’m no expert, but this certainly didn’t look like an act of violence. The body looked quite frail, with gray hair and stubbly beard, though it’s hard to tell age on a dead body that’s been exposed to the elements for several days.
At first, I thought it amazing that this body could be laying out in this park for a few days without anyone noticing. After all, it was only a few feet off of a heavily traveled running path in a popular park. But then I started to think about how many homeless people I “see but don’t see” on any given day. I’ve lived in urban ares with significant homeless populations for decades, and street people kind of fade into the fabric of the city for me.
This wasn’t always the case—I clearly remember the extreme discomfort and embarrassment 18-year-old Jason felt when first encountering people asking for money on the streets of Chicago. How could all these people have ended up at this point in their lives? I didn’t get it and it troubled me. Probably a good thing. Over the years, that reaction got cauterized out of my brain and I started to see street people more like an obstacle to wheel my bass around, like a lamp pole or bench.
He looked like he died peacefully. Overdose? Cancer? Who knows. But if it’s time for your card to be punched, leaving this world under a grove of trees in Golden Gate Park is not a bad way to go. It’s got to be better than dying in the subzero temperatures under a bridge in Chicago.
Shocking the Doctors
You’d expect that, given their profession, doctors would be the least likely people to be squeamish about someone finding a dead body. It was surprising just how shocking us finding that body was to my wife’s doctor colleagues—they all seemed scandalized upon hearing the story. I suppose there’s a difference between encountering death in a medical setting and finding a body in the park, but the reaction was still surprising.
Shocking the Kids
There’s an absurdist part of my personality that enjoys saying strange things (within reason) to large groups of teenagers and observing their reaction. It’s a good way to break up rehearsals, and it can make you seem quite mysterious if applied judiciously. I’ve told many a crazy gig story in orchestra rehearsals, which results in a lot of laughter and quizzical looks.
So… I had to decide… do I talk about the dead body with my orchestra?
The next day, I found myself up on the podium in front of one of my orchestras (about 60 students), and they were merrily playing, tuning, chatting, and settling into rehearsal. I couldn’t help myself.
“Hey guys, guess what? I found a dead body!“
Note to self: if you ever want the total, rapt attention of a large group of high schoolers, just say the words “dead body.” Never have I heard a room fall so eerily silent. I had their complete, rapt attention. If only I could get that attention when trying to give them a new bowing!
I related the story, they asked some questions, and we proceeded with a very somber rehearsal.
Dead Body Club
Coincidentally, my orchestra director colleague at my school has also found a dead body. He was in Laos on vacation and was chilling out on the beach when the lower half of a body (no upper half in site) washed ashore. It had obviously been in the water for quite some time. He found the manager of the property, who shrugged and said that he’d heard about that body bouncing around in the surf. He said he’d take care of it sometime soon. A little bit of a different response than the San Francisco authorities, huh?
What are the odds that two orchestra directors working together would have independently found dead bodies?