The city, as well as the nation, was stunned recently when two of it’s proverbial children were both found dead of suicides. Handbag designer Kate Spade, who claimed humble Midwest roots, was found hanged in her Upper East Side apartment while noted chef and author Anthony Bourdain was on vacation in France when he was discovered the same way in his hotel room. New Yorkers were shocked and saddened to hear of both of their passings, as evidenced by the amount of times they came up in conversations in the back of my cab over the following days and by the memorials left around town, including the one at Bourdain’s first restaurant on Park Ave South in Murray Hill.
Like many people who commit suicide, there weren’t any outward warning sides that were readily apparent. Spade was born in the Midwest and represented the All-American success story as she started her business with her husband in her apartment, taking it global within a matter of years. Bourdain overcame drug use in his reckles youth but the release of his book Kitchen Confidential made him a household name and millions tuned in to his show on CNN to see where he would travel to next, and what foods he would introduce to Americans who may not have been so lucky to easily go abroad. While their stories were quite different from each other, they seemed to “have it all” in an age where many could not make that claim.
Of course, the tale doesn’t end there. In the midst of the mourning of their lives, Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow became the sixth professional driver in New York to take his own life, due to the pressure caused by the proliferation of For Hire Vehicle companies. Chow, missing since May 11, left his cab on E 86 St and East End Ave in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood (within a stone’s throw from Gracie Mansion) and was found a few weeks later floating in the East River in close proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. As was the case with many of the other drivers who took their own lives, a rally was staged in front of City Hall with the Taxi Worker’s Alliance and fellow drivers calling on the City Council to do something to stem the tide of driver suicides.
While Chow was not a celebrity, his story tied in closer to Spade’s and Bourdain’s than most people realize. He did what he loved, he was an example of an American success story (for a time being), and he saw the walls closing in on him. While we may never know the demons his contemporaries faced, Chow’s was well-known once he went missing. He owed over half a million dollars on his medallion, his wife was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and he was unable to pay the tuition for his daughter’s college education. That’s not to minimize the problems that plagued the famous who ended their lives, but Chow’s ordeal put a human face on an issues that has been so inhuman to the majority of New Yorkers unfamiliar with the plight of the modern cabdriver.
But what to make of it? Suicide is not a new issue nor is it one that discriminates. Since the great recession 10 years ago, it has become more hot-button as many working-class Americans are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. Throw in a celebrity-and-image obsessed society where outward appearances and social status count for far more than they should and the end result is a cycle where one attempts to keep up with the Joneses, as they attempt to keep up with everyone else around them at the same time. It should come as no surprise that many are afraid to admit defeat, even when offered help from friends and family. The inability to “make it” stands in polar opposite to what New York, as well as the rest of America” stand for as the self-made person who pulls the bootstraps up and trudges on ultimately stood in stark contrast to the constraints faced in modern reality.
For years, those from everyone immigrated to America with the chance to better their lives, move on up, and achieve the American Dream. As study after study has shown, that is no longer possible for a majority of people. Stagnant wages and the rapidly increasing cost of living have eroded not only people’s purchasing power, but their faith in the institutions that were created to serve them. While everyone feels the pain of those have ended their own lives, true action to prevent such further tragedies is rarely taken. Time and time again, people go back to their lives, glued to their phones and the ever-quickening pace of life while leaving those close to them behind in the dust. Seeing how many of my passengers have ignored yours truly during his shift, as well as the decline in voting, civic participation, and in activities such as clubs, leagues, and groups has resulted in a society where we are truly “bowling alone”, as everyone else does their things on their own timetable.
If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it’s that it’s not too late – for those who are teetering on the edge of their lives and to turn around larger circumstances. Should one person pick up the phone to check on a friend, or retweet a suicide prevention hotline, or call 311 and demand the city to protect those who are it’s ambassadors on wheels, then the lives of those who have killed themselves will not have been in vain. Everyone wishes they could go back and prevent their untimely demises, but while that’s not possible, there is hope that tomorrow’s headlines will be about the course that was taken to prevent these tragedies from ever happening again.