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What I Watched Last Night

I'm from Minneapolis and I've driven on the stretch of 35W that collapsed into the Mississippi River about a million times. The highway is a major north-south route through the city, and also happens to run along the edge of both the West and East Banks of the University of Minnesota, where I was an undergraduate for, oh, a good six or seven years. I was having too much fun to leave, and besides, we were kicking a lot of ass at The Minnesota Daily.

I just saw the big ol' house that me and four friends lived in our junior year on a national network broadcast. One of the all-time great party houses (before these guys prettied it up). I think we paid $190 a month each in rent. Our landlord was an ass; I'll never forget the time one of my roommates, whose father was friends with my father at the same age, swung a golf club at him.

We lived just a few blocks west of the first entrance and exit ramps of 35W just after the bridge crossed the Mississippi; the campus was a few blocks to the east. We walked by that bridge every day.

Our Bridge, Our City
  • Letter from Minneapolis.
  • Growing up in the Twin Cities, you know 35W the way you know the Kennedy growing up here. It's just part of the local culture; part of Minnesota parlance. In Fargo, when Steve Buscemi is driving into the Twin Cities with his partner-in-crime, he's driving up 35W. He's just a few minutes from crossing the bridge over the Mississippi.

    So watching the 24/7 coverage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse has been a bit disorienting. First, I feel a certain sort of long distance post-traumatic stress. That was my bridge, as much as anyone else's. I love the various routes over the Mississippi, from the Washington Avenue bridge walked by "U" students every day to the Stone Arch Bridge at Mill Ruins Park of the Mills District, which I often compare favorably to the monstrosity that is Millennium Park; the views - of the mighty Mississippi, the river bluffs, and the skyline - are stunning. What is a little piece of my beloved hometown doing on the news? In a story of tragedy, not, say, a Twins World Series victory or the Gear Daddies playing on a barge floating down the river?

    It's still hard for the folks back home to get their heads around what happened, understandably. "Unbelievable" is the word of choice. So far, to my knowledge, nobody I know was on that bridge when it went down. Friends and family all seem accounted for. But I keep waiting to see the list of names of those who didn't make it; I'll probably have some connection to someone on that list. It's not a big town.

    The television coverage has been fine, for the most part. I've switched mostly between CNN and MSNBC because, well, what, I'm gonna watch Fox? I'm not really in the mood to hear how this is the liberals' fault.

    I found CNN's coverage to be the best; Wolf Blitzer isn't the worst news guy you'll ever watch. But as we've grown accustomed to, the cable news shows found themselves filling hours of air time with nothing new to say but with such compelling visuals - even after repeated viewings - that they found it hard to turn away from the story. The broadcast networks, as far as I know, just stuck to their prime time schedules.

    What was really extraordinary was the amount of user-content, as they call it these days, coming in - and how ordinary that has come to be. The best reporters on the ground - in the immediate aftermath - really were ordinary citizens, and their photography skills were impressive. I was also struck by how casually one city official referred to the inevitable use of the Internet in the aftermath. "We'll be setting up a site," he said, as if he was merely announcing that the Red Cross would certainly be on the scene. That's what you do these days; you set up a site.

    I'm not sure I was expecting the broadcast world's top personalities to rush to Minneapolis to front their shows from as close to the fallen bridge and submerged cars and bodies as they could get, but there they were.

    "I turned on the Today show and there was Matt Lauer from Minneapolis!" my brother told me with amazement. He doesn't think the story, as horrible and awful and sad as it is, merits the kind of outsized attention it is getting. I think it does; he was surprised to learn it was the top story on the front pages of Chicago's dailies. Modesty is big in Minnesota, even in darkest tragedy.

    The story is a bit of a shock because Minnesota has such a good record of governance relative to, say, Chicago, that you kind of don't expect bridges to fall down there. One friend has already found a way to blame the Republican governor, and we'll see if his theory holds up. But it seemed very Minnesotan that city officials and Twins management decided to go ahead and play their game against the Royals in the nearby Metrodome just to keep all those folks from pouring out into the downtown streets and adding to the traffic nightmare. Good ol' orderly Minnesotans.

    The CBS Evening News opened its broadcast on Thursday with Sen. Amy Klobuchar offering that "A bridge in America shouldn't just fall down." That's just the way it seems to Minnesotans. Klobuchar is the daughter of famed (in Minnesota) and now retired newspaper columnist Jim Klobuchar, our standard-bearer among newspaper columnists from a time when newspaper columnists and their newspapers embodied their cities somehow. (Klobuchar he is still writing elsewhere today; here is his column about the bridge collapse ). Amy Klobuchar is my favorite freshman senator; unlike Barack Obama, she has no Tony Rezkos or Emil Jones's or Richard Daleys or Todd Strogers in her embrace and a firm and articulate grasp of the issues. She's the real deal.

    The local Chicago news stations also sent personnel to Minneapolis, Jay Levine and Ben Bradlee among them. That's alright, I guess. But I know from covering tragedies like this myself that there's very little for reporters like Levine to do except wring tears out of witnesses and family members; the real work is already being done by hardy print souls poring through inspection records and infrastructure budgets.

    All of this is interesting to think about, but it's also a distraction from imagining over and over what it must have been like to be on that bridge, or to sink in your car to the bottom of the Mississippi. Four are confirmed dead as of this writing, and that strikes me as an incredible miracle; one reason why the story was so big, I argued to my brother, was the initial instinct that hundreds could be dead. Another 20 to 30 are missing, and I think officials mean by that that they are presumed dead but unrecovered.

    There is no natural justice in this world, just the laws of physics. Bad things happen to good people, bad people, and people in-between. Atoms don't discriminate. And maybe that, too, is why we latch on to these stories - or turn away; because they force us to face the indisputable facts of our lives and the human condition. Bridges collapse in horrible, mangled ways, and people die.

    It's beyond heartbreaking; it's unanswerable. And then we go on.

    The Internet is the great uniter now, but I watched TV the last two nights far more than I consulted the Web. Maybe a certain form of passive, intermittment viewing is the only way to process something uncomfortably familiar and yet at a distance and wholly unexplainable. Maybe TV is still the central medium of tragedy. Sometimes you still want someone to tell you what's going on, rather than having to try to figure it out yourself.


    The What I Watched Last Night archive.


    Posted on August 3, 2007

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