It was Washington's birthday, a gray, rainy afternoon when Joseph Knowles, 62, grew tired of his ailments and decided to kill himself. A tall, reed-thin black man with salt-and-pepper gray hair, Knowles huddled in a blue parka on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft in Berkeley, beneath a theater marquee promising, "Fun With Dick and Jane" - and doubled up in a fit of coughing.

He was still coughing when he climbed in the backseat of Sam Wainwright's Arrow cab, slapped a $20 bill on the seat and said. "This is for going to San Francisco. The VA hospital."

Wainwright, 57, fretted about the coughing and tried to cover his nose and mouth. He was prone to infections himself, having lost part of a lung a few years back in an operation. "You don't have TB, do you?" he asked the passenger.

"No," said Knowles. "Emphysema." And he proceeded to tick off the other afflictions: bad heart, high blood presure, kidney trouble. He lived alone on Social Surity in a small $120-a-month apartment. Neighbors always knew he was home by the coughing. Family back East wanted him to find a nurse, but he didn't have any money.Joseph Knowles didn't want to be a burden.

"If I go into the hospital this time. I won't be coming out," Knowles went on. "I'd rather die than beg. Everyone's got to die sometime.

He then told Wainwright he would like to go to the Golden Gate Bridge, that he had never been across it before. The cabbie, wanting to get back to Berkeley and keep down the fare for a man who sounded like he could not affort it, suggested he go to the bridge after the VA hospital. But Knowles was firm.

"Stop here," demanded Knowles, halfway across the bridge. "I want to get out."

Whe the driver told him he couldn't stop in the middle of bridge, Knowles whipped out a knife. The taxi stopped, and Joseph Knowles, still coughing, straddled the 3 1/2-foot railing like a slow-motion high jumper, tumbled 223 feet into the bay and sank like a rock.

Little else is known about Joseph Douglas Knowles except that he was dutifully recorded as the 594th official suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge - a gleaming orange tribute to modern engineering that, in the last 40 years, has provided a permanent solution for the temporary problems of almost 600 people, earning the expanse the worldwide reputation as a suicide shrine, the Golden Gateway to eternity.

The older ones like knowles used to jump all the time in the '40s and 50's. Many left notes in an attempt to interpret their final act for loved ones. In 1966, a San Francisco attorney, age 57, left this note on office stationery: "Please be gentle in breaking the news to my wife. I am reasonably sane and healthy and have done nothing professionally of which I am ashamed. For the past six or seven years I have been enduring the slings and arrows of out-rageous misfortune until I feel like a worn-out pin cushion. My mood is one of profound discouragement and my personal future appears bleak."

The attorney, who was inscribed as No. 304, praised his wife: "She is a grand girl and a wonderful wife. I love her so very much and she is in no way to blame."

But in recent years, younger men and women have gone off the bridge in increasing numbers. In August 1973, Pierre Boal Lee, 27, second son of Maryland Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III, leaped to his death. A few weeks ago, a former San Francisco debutante, in her early 20s, a Stanford graduate from a fine family, jumped. On Feb. 9, Marc Salinger, 28, the son of former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, leaped to his death from a point near the north tower about 8 a.m. Four hours later, a 26-year-old woman jumped to her death.

Psychologist Richard Seiden a professor in the University of California at Berkeley Department of Public Health who has published several papers on bridge suicides under a 1972 National Institute of Mental Health - HEW grant, finds the trend toward younger suicides depressing. "The median age in the early years of the bridge was in the 50s, but now it's down to below 30," he says. "There has been a general drift to younger suicides and an increasing number from the bridge in the last few years. We've had them as young as 15."

The younger ones rarely leaves notes. Their torment is more cryptic.

San Francisco vies with Tampa - St. Petersburg as the suicide capital of big U.S. cities. Three times as many San Franciscans kill themselves are residents of other large U.S. cities. Las Vegas leads in the number of suicides among smaller cities. According to the 1970 census, there were 60 suicides out of Las Vegas' 126,000 population, giving it 47.6 suicides per 110,000, surpassing San Francisco's 30 per 100,000. "Cities with glamorous reputations like San Francisco, Las Vegas and West Berlin have very high suicide rates, the idea being that you're depressed and everyone else is having a good time . . . " says Seiden. Some of San Francisco's death tripping can be explained away by the careful coroner office investigations and record-keeping, but there is much talk of the unrequited California dream.

"The city," as San Francisco chauvinists like to call their city, is a place many have come to after the heartland had grown stale. There are pockets of East Coast emigres seeking a respite from the boredom, psychic release, a cure for life's malaise, love in all its forms or perhaps a bit of happiness after a sad divorce. San Francisco suggests sourdough bread and cable cars, jaunts to the wine country, a bunker paradise at the end of the road. Everyone expects to be happy in the city.

When the dream begins to crumble and seekers find they have brought their psychic baggage west, some retire to the bars - San Francisco boasts the highest liquor consumption and alcoholism of any city in the country - for relief. Some make a stab at other diversions: yoga, camping in the Sierras, picnics or flying kites in the great outdoors. And a few turn to the bridge.

But if this scenario holds true at all, the fatal decision often takes years.

Almost four out of five persons who take their lives in San Francisco have lived in the Bay area for five years or more, says Seiden, and the same pattern applies to the bridge suicides. His data punctures the images of a west-ward-ho, wagon train of troubled souls itching to end their pain from the bridge. "You can't blame the disillusioned newcomers," says Seiden. "It's local problem. The scenario of people getting off the Greyhound bus and jumping is a chamber of commerce myth. Death certificates show 95 per cent of local suicides lived in the Bay area. We're not pround of it, but we can't wish it away."

The bridge draws more would-be jumpers on a full moon or in the holiday season - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter - when families are expected to be happy and together. Romantics and coffee house poets like to say it is symbolic that most jumpers have gone off the east side, looking back at their past lives and not toward the horizon. But Monday through Friday there is no walkway open on the other side.

More San Franciscans choose to end their lives with pills or guns or in leaps from buildings or with a makeshift hangman's noose than choose to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Bridge suicides accounted for only 10 per cent of the 195 suicides recorded here last year. Yet the city's image as suicide capital of the country stems largely from the headlines earned by the small fraternity of 10 per centers who go over the rail.

Since the Golden Gate Bridge joined the roilling hills of Marin, County to San Francisco in 1937, at least 594 people have leaped to their deaths off the span. That's the officials number and California highway patrol officials charged with keeping count concede it is low - that hundreds of others have slipped over in the night unseen, heralded only by the mournful dirge of ships bleating a path through the fog.

The question remains: Why do they jump from the bridge? "It's fairly complicated," says Seiden, who has interviewed many of those thwarted in a bridge suicide attempt. "Many get the romantic notion they will be swallowed up by the waves. They know they'll become part of the running box score and achieve a notoriety in death they couldn't get in life, something like Gary Gilmore.

And it's so available. You don't need a prescription for it, or a license (like a gun). The rail is only 3 1/2-feet high and it's so lethal. It's almost certain death.

"There's a mystique and glamour and publicity surrounding the bridge. You never hear about people who jump off their roofs or quietly kill themselves with pills. But when you jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you leap into a certain kind of glory."

In 1973, after a third-generation San Franciscan socialite-housewife, active in numerous charitable organizations, became Golden Gate Bridge suicide No. 499, a kind of frenzied media death watch developed over who would be No. 500.

TV stations disptached camera crews to camp out and record No. 500 on film. One young man who ran onto the bridge witn No. 500 stenciled on his back was pulled off. There was plenty of gallows humor and some officials charged that media attention motivated the 14 persons who vied for the dubious honor.

They were all stopped. A month passed before Stephen Hoag, 26, a hospital lab technician, landed on the rocks below and became No. 500. His friends were mystified. And his mother, who suffered from a heart condition, learned of her son's death on the evening news.

For everyone who jumps, five people are stopped. Richard Seiden's research includes interviews with many of the more than 540 persons who have been intercepted. Many say they been intercepted. Many say they wouldn't try suicide again. Only 5 per cent of those stopped from jumping go on to kill themselves, says Seiden. Among the notes left behind is one from a 70-year-old man who wrote, "Why do you make it so easy?"

Seiden calims many would-be jumpers have told him they would have gone home if there had been a barrier. And the debate over erecting such and anti-suicide fence has waxed and waned over the years.

Dr. Jerry Motto, professor of Psychiatry at UC medical school and director of psychiatric consultation at San Francisco General Hospital, has studied a high-risk sample of 3,000 people who have attempted suicide in the Bay area. He alludes to a personality differences between individuals who choose to kill themselves by going over the bridge and those who choose other methods. Bridge jumpers appear to be less violent and made of more ethereal stuff than suicide victims who choose other means.

Behind the numbers there are longshoreman despondent over divorce, and doctors, lawyers, students - all living in their own private hells - but an attempt to stereotype bridge jumpers is futile, says Motto, or any suicidal patient for that matter. "The only thing they share is that they are all hurting more than they can stand," he says.

Some notes read like letters to Miss Lonelyhearts. "Dear Ruth," wrote No. 288 to his wife before he jumped to his death 11 years ago. "I hope you will understand. I love you so much. I feel rotten everything has come to an end for me except my love for you George."

In 1940, Lloyd James, 27, left this message: "Dear friends and relatives, I don't fell like explaining because you have never understood me, so why? I am sorry to have to do it this way. Goodbye Llyod James."

And other notes have hinted at sweet revenge. In the spring of 1940, bridge officers found a purse trimmed in imitation alligator containing: a match packet from New York's Longchamps Restaurant, two clippings of photos and stories headlining the London arrival H.R. Cromwell and his wife, Doris Duke, the world's richest girl, $1.56 cash, an eyebrow pencil, lipstick, rouge, a power compact, comb, gold hairpins, an embroidered white handkerchief and a note adressed to David. It read:

"Dearest, I know this is chaep, but how else could I let them know in New York and London? How they will arch their eyebrows when they see this. The thought of it is my only real satisfaction. I can fall easily, happily down. You know, David, that we could not get along. You're British without understand and I'm just "French without tears." Her body was never found.

No one has ever asked whether or not No.47 should have been classified a murder.

Jumpers pick up speed until they are falling at 33 feet per second and hit the water at 80mph. It takes roughly three seconds to fall the 223 feet from the mid-span, roughly 12 stories, into the frothing bay. It is like hitting concrete; autopsies reveal most jumpers either drown or die from internal injuries.

Friends say one late freelance TV writer, age 29, known in Sausalito houseboat circles as a "typical swinger," was a woman with great ambitions but little success. A New Yorker who had moved west, she worked at Channel 7 as production assistant on a color film series, "The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz."

After she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1965, an apparent eulogy scrawled to herself was found in her pocket. it was a quotation from Milton's "Paradise Lost," line that come just after the passage, "The mind is itw own place . . . and can make a heaven of hell a hell of heaven."