How is the lionfish’s success unnatural? It was their beauty that captured our attention, their attractive qualities that led a large, human mammal to transport them to a new environment, a force like a seasonal jet stream. And the lionfish thrived.
I don’t know Park City and Cold Turkey at all as individuals, but I see their place in the order. They are first-generation lionfish, brought here by some other, bigger creature. Executives, a plutocracy flush with cash that needs to change hands in order to maintain its value, had to move more workers into this place. They made no provision for preserving the environment. They just ate it.
Maybe I could feel the beauty and depth of these lionfish-men if I could see them in their original habitat. Something beautiful in a crowd, strong by contrast with what surrounds it, becomes ugly as a dominant mass—all that’s left, all alone. Here we are, in this line, and all I see is two monsters locked a confrontation with each other’s facades, in the midst of a city that their very existence pollute—then erases.
After ordering and sitting down, I watch the two of them walk to a table outside with their matching girlfriends, and it makes sense why two people who so clearly hold no affection for one another would spend time in each other’s presence. Something else holds them together: a community, small but growing. They are trying to make it here. They are surviving, but they are not home.
I moved here, to this place with these people, despite my misgivings. I truly believed the company that hired me was invested in creating a better future. I was excited to be the hero in the adventure of life, or on the hero’s team. Then I got here, and saw that’s not what I am at all. What I am is much more like a henchman in the rearguard of the villain’s army.
There is a lot left for me to learn at my job, but I’ve heard the most important lesson loud and clear. Even before coming here, I felt trepidation about moving to a place that was so dominated by one industry—my industry. I knew that even as a woman, I would be The Man.
After weeks of crying, hair-pulling, and weighing the consequences of desertion, I tried to change sides. Fueled by a mix of personal experience and the gravity of obligation, I began training to become a hotline counselor at San Francisco Suicide Prevention. It’s an operation that subsists on the volunteer labor of hopeful people of various stripes. It’s a place whose formal organization has existed for decades, but has persisted in one form or another for as long as people have.
I go in at least once a week, sometimes more. I sit in a call center at an anonymous location and wait for the phone to ring. Sometimes it’s quiet. Sometimes it rings so much, so frequently, that it’s all I and the other counselors can do just to pick up the phone, let people know we’re here, assess their suicide risk, and ask them to call back later. Sometimes someone calls, desperate.
During these most serious calls, something shifts inside me. I can’t see what’s around me, or of course, around them. Sometimes I close my eyes. I listen for every tremble in their voice. Word choices matter, but also don’t. If they falter, I decide to stay quiet or to offer continuation. I ask about the background noises I can hear. I alternate—sometimes stern and forceful, sometimes gentle and concerned—following their need.
I become only my voice, and my voice turns liquid, pouring through the receiver, reaching out to feel the humble, secret knife slices that reveal themselves, with all vulnerability, to my sounds and silences. Surprisingly often, the pain of a stranger does not feel alien to me. I can feel something like what someone else feels. The memories of my own struggles rise up, renew, and remind me of the gifts I used to survive them. My work there is to try to pass these through.
Some nights after I’ve come home from a shift, tired and quiet, I’ve thought—doesn’t convincing someone in pain to go on living create a greater amount of pain and suffering? Suicide hotlines have never been “proven” to have a positive effect. And yet, I counter, how could we ever measure such a thing? This kind of value cannot be measured by the cutting-edge tools of science or the judgment of a person who takes everything from a city and then spits on its name.
Almost everyone who calls a suicide hotline wants to live. That’s why they’re calling. They want to live and they want to die. It’s a natural thing to feel, if you can admit it. The job of a person on the other end of a phone that only rings when someone is in pain, is to just be there and share that pain.