Two years ago, I served as a parent helper for my son’s 5th-grade field trip to the Mississippi River. We took a paddleboat cruise, a preteen version of the one I and my classmates took back in the day after a dance at DeLaSalle High School on Nicollet Island, which is surrounded by the Mississippi and, hence, the Islanders’ nom d’slang: “river rats.”
It was a beautiful June day. Our expert guide was clinical and informative with her bullhorned facts regarding the landmark many of us learned to spell by singing: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. The main factoid she imparted, the one that stuck with me most, was, “Eighty-percent of your body weight is water. And if you live here, all of the water you drink is from the river. This river.”
Kids looked down at their feet and out at the river roaring underneath. I imagined all the breweries, bars, falls, wells, bottles, inlets, arteries, and various bodies of water (human and otherwise) across the state. Our guide was a scientist, so she stopped short of philosophizing that we’re all part of the river, or that the river is in us, but that much has been made apparent over the past two weeks, given the sadness and the hangover.
Some say that the rubberneckers’ connection to the collapse of the 35W bridge is false because we are too mediafied, too willing to be hypnotized by the emotion of a real tragedy unfolding on unreality TV. That’s elitist horsecrap, if you ask me. I can feel it in my bones, and I know I’m not alone.
This is how my friend Rae Rae, a Minneapolis native and bartender/exotic dancer/writer who loves this city as much as anyone ever has, put it to me in an e-mail after her shift early Sunday morning at the New Delhi Bar and Restaurant, which sits beneath one of the most beautiful vistas of the downtown Minneapolis skyline you’ll ever see:
“It’s not for MSNBC to decide what kind of community we are, and broadcast our pain to the rest of the country. I know this is selfish. I know that people empathize as well. But they don’t know. They can’t. They can’t know that I crossed that bridge when I found out I was pregnant at 19 and had to tell the father that I was getting an abortion. They couldn’t know that I trusted that bridge to get me to a show at the Kitty Kat Club on time. They couldn’t possibly understand the picture I took of our skyline at sunset with my cell phone and it was the goddamned most beautiful sunset that I will now remember.
“The day the bridge went down, I couldn’t get out of bed. For three days. It was as though I could feel every person on my block … every person in the city watching the TV, crying, sad, hopeless … it’s a weight and it pressed me into bed those days like a weightlifter without a spotter. Maybe I should be stronger. Maybe I should have gone to the river and tried to make other people feel better but I just couldn’t.
“If it were possible for me to fall into the earth from the sadness I felt, I’m sure I would have. So the only time I left my bed, I went to my garden and smelled my soil. I took it back, just for a moment. Then I went back to bed.”
A few weeks ago, I took my dog to the off-leash park by the river, not far from where the bridge collapsed. We walked through the woods and came to the riverbank and I threw sticks out into the wake and rooted him on as he and a couple of his buddies dog-paddled out. It was hot, the water was inviting, and I took off my shirt and shoes and jumped in. We swam almost to the middle of the river, but my dog thought it was a game. He kept jumping on me and dragging me down into the warm muddy water, so we went back to shore.
River stories, we’ve all got our river stories, because at the end of the day, we’re a small river town on the prairie. Which is why it doesn’t matter how anyone else measures our grief — at the moment, it runs through us the way the river runs through us.
If you ever ran a marathon by it, biked or walked a lunch break by it; made out by it, summered, wintered, falled, or springed by it, if you’ve ever skipped rocks on it, ever fished it, ever brought your guitar or camera down there or ran through its woods and ended up forming a band there, if you ever held pagan rituals there, ever carved your initials into someone’s heart there, if you ever became blood brothers/sisters there, if you ever peed there, if you ever drank there, if you ever slept there, if you ever sat there at night and listened to the loudest crickets known to humankind, then you know what glory and mystery it holds, and how it rolls, up and down just like life, and not even death can change that.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.