Not in Our Town

June 16th, 2011

Usually I write about the Arts, but this blog is a bully pulpit when there’s something I need to get off my chest, and right now something is weighing heavily.

It may or may not be true, but according to popular legend, Phil Collins wrote his song “Something in the Air Tonight” after he and another man witnessed someone drown. He wasn’t able to help, and the other man just chose not to, and later lied about it. As the legend goes, Collins invited that man to the first performance of the song, and pointed a spotlight at him.

Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand.
I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am.
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes….

Two weeks ago, 53-year old Raymond Zack waded out into the cold waters off a beach on our little island of Alameda near where my children collect sea glass and search for crabs. He stood there for an hour with the cold water around his neck before allowing himself to succumb to hypothermia, and died. He committed suicide in front of a crowd of rescue personnel and curious onlookers.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I have the utmost respect for Alameda’s firefighters and police. Their hands were tied by a bureaucratic clusterf*ck. If any of them had acted to save this man they probably would have been fired, and that would have meant the loss of someone we need on the job to save other lives. None of what I have to say here is directed at the official responders.

I wasn’t there on the beach that day, but I can tell you one thing unequivocally: It would have ended differently. It might have ended with two people dying, including myself, because I would have gotten in the water. Or maybe no one would have died that day. Either way the outcome would have been preferable. I’m not looking to be a hero and I’m not looking for trouble, but I have always run in the direction of a call for help, whether they want it or not.

I witnessed a suicide once, along with several hundred other people, in the parking lot after a concert. None of us could reach this person, who was separated from us by a barbed wire-topped fence, and police were already trying to get to him. As they got close he hanged himself from a powerline pole. I’ll never forget that image. I never want to witness another person successfully kill themselves.

I brought up the drowning a few days ago and someone said, well, he was suicidal, so maybe it was his time. Bullshit. Five years ago I was suicidal. I suffered from depression and got help, and I’m still here today. Was that supposed to be my time?

I love our little island of Alameda, which I affectionately refer to as “Mayberry.” I remember one 4th of July parade when anti-gay marchers were met with chants of “Not in our town! Not in our town!” I was so proud. That should have been our mantra that day as Zack tried to kill himself. Not in our town. Why did no one go to his aid? Maybe another human being swimming through the cold water to be with him would have been enough to change his mind.

My life is not more valuable than Zack’s was. His was not less valuable than mine. Or yours. Letting him die feels like a betrayal of the values that make this a close-knit community. I’m ashamed of us. This shouldn’t have happened. Not in our town.


Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

5 responses to “Not in Our Town”

  1. chuck says:

    my feelings exactly

  2. Edwina says:

    Thank you for posting exactly how my family and I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks, and most likely, how much of Alameda has felt. Like you, we know that we would’ve ended up in the water with Zack, maybe forming a human chain back to beach? Maybe talking him out of it before he got too deep? Something, anything…because that would be the right thing.

    Since the age of five, I’ve been proud to tell others where I live. Sadly, I now feel the need to add the disclaimer, “We’re not all like that. Most of us care.”

  3. lori Singman says:

    Dear Michael – this makes me feel awful as well. If someone could have reached him, or called out to him, the result could have been so different. I know, that if you had been there, you would have tried to help him. That is the kind of guy you are. I’m proud that you are my son. I love you, Mom

  4. Marjorie Lynne Wagner says:

    Thank you Michael for your blog. Everything you stated is valid. Michael, you are a caring, aware man who sees the world with eyes-wide-open and you don’t wish to put blame on anyone. Sadly, our economic system is set up so employees have to fear being fired for doing the right thing.

    Still, refusing save a life in this situation was morally unacceptable. The excuse “I was just obeying orders” just doesn’t fly.

    This story should not die with Zack. I can’t help but wonder–would the response have been different if a 3 year-old child was drowning or how about a beautiful woman?

  5. Tracy Ricks says:


    Thank you for your “rant” /compassionate declaration and validation of a human life. We ARE our brother’s keeper and the sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll one-day be.

    God Bless You!


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