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

He can't afford to make a mistake. With a sly pride, he notes that bridgetenders with the Dade County Public Works Department, which manages the county's six drawbridges and one "swing bridge" (which opens horizontally), haven't injured or killed any pedestrians in more than twenty years; conversely, a Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson concedes that General Electric, whose Tampa office has been contracted by the state to operate its thirteen bridges in Dade, has had twelve accidental deaths or injuries in the last five years, four in the last two. "We're better supervised and trained," Wellington contends, accounting for the difference.

That training -- coupled with an apparently innate stubbornness -- has led him to adopt a by-the-book insistence that vessels give him the correct horn signals. Otherwise, in some cases, he is not going to open the bridge for them. Early in his shift, he gets word via a phone call from the bridgetender at the upstream SW Second Avenue bridge that three Haitian cargo boats are headed his way on their way out to sea. "They'll be blowing their horns for the entire period," he sighs with jaundiced resignation. "But it's very unusual for a Haitian to know the right signal." The first of the boats comes by, laden with empty paint buckets and tarp-covered goods -- mostly bicycles, Wellington speculates -- and with its radio antenna extended high.

The bridgetender's not about to open for it. "See the way the antenna brushes the steel?" he asks as the ship goes under the bridge. "They don't think to put it down. It's due to cultural differences." Under Coast Guard rules, he explains, he is obligated to open the bridge only if correctly signaled. (Indeed, he can report a boat to the Coast Guard for requesting an unnecessary opening, although it's rare for boat owners to be fined.) Minutes later, the second boat passes without incident, followed by the third, which blows two long signals, repeatedly.

"What they're giving is not for opening -- it's for passing on the starboard side," Wellington points out casually as the boat nears the bridge. The crew of the ship below looks up at him angrily. As they move closer to the still-closed bridge, he recalls, "Someone will say to the Coast Guard, 'Why didn't the bridgetender raise the bridge?' The Coast Guard will call me on the phone and I'll say, 'They didn't ask me!'"

Down below, crew members are now shouting up at him, some shaking their fists. He leans out an open window and yells, "Why don't you ask me? You signaled passing the starboard. Go ahead and pass! You've got plenty of room!" Turning away momentarily, he notes with a quiet authority, "My orders are to open upon proper signaling." When asked what he does if a ship doesn't know the proper signal and is too tall to pass underneath a closed bridge, he answers with a hint of defiance, "I make them sweat it" -- although, he adds, he'll ultimately open it for them if necessary.

At this point, Wellington hears the crunching noise of the ship's antenna scraping the underside of the bridge. "They could put it down," he observes. Jim Wellington is, in his own determined way, trying to make sure that the rules are followed.

Sometimes he'll take even more brazen steps to make his point. When he first started working as a bridgetender, he recalls with a laugh, a sport fisherman in a boat nearing the bridge angrily denounced him for opening it too slowly, shouting at him, "I'm going to have your job!" Wellington took him up on the offer, and during his off-hours, knowing where the man docked his boat, he visited him with an application in hand, offering to help him fill it out. "You shouldn't do that," he admits now. "You're supposed to take all the crap they [the citizens] give you."

These days he endures with stoic indifference all the curses hurled at him by motorists irked at lowered gates or boaters wanting the bridge raised (unnecessarily, in his view). "It's a religious vocation," he likes to joke, "because they invoke the deity when speaking to me."

In truth Wellington has something akin to a religious reverence for all the sights and sounds on the river. In the cozy bridgehouse where he sits like a maritime pasha, he can talk for hours -- and does -- about the fish and the boats and the strange parade of humanity he's seen from his perch. But when he first took the job back in 1974, he wasn't drawn to it because of his love of the water, but rather for a more mundane reason. "I needed to keep the wolf from the door," he explains. Back then he was unemployed -- a former baggage-handler supervisor for now-defunct National Airlines -- and had been waiting several weeks for a strike to end. As he waited, he lived on a friend's boat, existing on food stamps and welfare. Then he saw an opening for a bridgetender advertised in the Miami Herald, applied for the county government position, and got it. Problem was it paid only $150 every two weeks. He survived -- after moving off the boat -- by renting a garage apartment in Coral Gables for only $150 a month and making extra cash busing tables. (Now, thanks to seniority and overnight pay, he takes home about $550 every two weeks -- but his rent eats up one paycheck.) Two days after being hired, he started being trained in how to operate the twelve movable bridges then under county control (four are now run by the state and one has been converted to a conventional bridge).

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