Water Under the Bridge

For more than two decades, Jim Wellington has marked the ebb and flow of the Miami River with a Zen master's eye

Within easy reach, Jim Wellington has virtually everything he needs to watch over the South Miami Avenue drawbridge that spans the Miami River. Looking like a St. Nick of the waterways with his white hair and beard, Wellington has settled in for the overnight shift inside his fifteen-by-fifteen, glass-walled lair, one story above the bridge, and more than four above the river itself. Dressed in gray shorts, sandals, and a light blue shirt, he's ensconced on a comfortable white chair, cushioned with pillows. Strategically placed on the desk to his right are two different radios, one a black scanner that picks up various broadcasts (from ships, the Coast Guard, and police), the other a small transmitter-receiver that allows him to receive and answer messages from approaching vessels or from other bridgetenders along the river. To his left is a small shelf of spy thrillers -- Robert Ludlum is a particular favorite -- and puzzle books that help him pass the time during working hours. And directly in front of him is a large metal console mounted with rows of switches and buttons that he uses to operate the bridge. He's ready for anything, but he is only called to raise the bridge a handful of times each night.

Nonetheless the work intrigues him. Even after 21 years of manning bridges, the 64-year-old Wellington remains fascinated by what he observes from his perch: the Port of Miami ahead, the river that runs by the bridgehouse, the smattering of street life below. Seen through his eyes, the world of the river is a wondrous thing, rich with drama, excitement, beauty.

Shortly after 12:30 a.m., the first ship of his shift requiring a raised bridge draws near, a Jamaican-registered cargo vessel drifting in from Biscayne Bay, pulled by one tugboat in front and steered by another in back; it first radios ahead to Wellington, then signals the bridgetender with the Coast Guard-mandated code of one long blow of the horn followed by a short one.

This prompts Wellington to get up from his chair and respond with duplicate horn blasts of his own, after which he starts flipping switches on the console, thereby activating the lights, signals, and machinery needed to run the drawbridge. This Miami Avenue bridge is particularly complicated because of its considerable size -- two separate spans for the three one-way lanes that run northbound and southbound on each side of South Miami Avenue. Wellington dims the lights inside the bridgehouse, peers outside to make sure there are no pedestrians on the bridge, closes the gates on the walkways next to the street, and then sets in motion the flashing lights, bells, and downward closing arc of the bridge's traffic gates. After doing that, he turns on the power for the hydraulic pumps that will enable the bridge sections to move upward; then, as red lights flash on the console, he presses a button that pulls apart the locks holding together the spans, and pushes a pair of handles forward that swing up the bridge's four sections. From the vantage point of the bridgehouse, the rising latticework of the steel bridge is awe-inspiring, bathed in the powerful light of the nearby street lamps. And as the ship passes under the raised bridge, Wellington says, even though he's witnessed this particular scene thousands of times before, "Isn't that a pretty sight?"

Jim Wellington, it sometimes seems, is the Zen master of the Miami River.
Yet even as he admires the ship gliding by, he finds something about the equipment and his bridgehouse to grouse about, one of his favorite activities. "Here's something to drive you crazy: You pull [the handles] back to lower, but you push forward to raise," he says. "There's no ergonomics. But why do the engineers need it? They don't have to operate the bridge, so why do they care?"

When he's ready to lower the bridge, he lets loose five horn blasts to indicate its closing, then reverses the process he just went through: He brings down the bridges, jostles them into place by pressing a special "jog" button, and sets off a round of flashing lights, ringing bells, and opening gates. After the boat has passed and the bridge spans have lowered, he writes down on a logsheet the time, name, and number of the passing boat. The entire process takes about five minutes, and on most nights there are long stretches of time -- sometimes hours -- before he has to raise the bridge again. "There's tedium, yes, but boredom, no," he pronounces in appropriately gnomic fashion. "You don't let it become boring." Wellington works the midnight to eight a.m. shift five nights a week.

He's got plenty of items to keep himself occupied during the job's extensive downtime. On this particular night, he has brought an overstuffed leather bag jammed with a few news magazines and a Scientific American, books on World War II and dieting, and county job contracts to peruse as part of his role as shop steward for a public-employees union. It's always a long night, but Wellington makes sure he has enough background diversions to pass the time, in part because, as he puts it, "I have to keep alert."

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