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."

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).

As a new hire, he was required to fill in wherever the county wanted to place him. One of the bridges he liked least was an earlier version of the Miami Avenue bridge, which was built in 1918 and kept in operation until 1979. "This one had a wooden deck, and sometimes when it rained it got out of balance and couldn't close properly," Wellington remembers. "It was very low on the river. You had to raise the bridge for a mosquito with an erection."

While the low bridge meant he was kept busy raising it frequently, he also had to face the discomfort of trying to use the bathroom in the old bridgehouse. "It was down the stairs and you had to climb over machinery to get to it," he recalls. So he and the other bridgetenders devised their own solution: "We used to bring a plastic cup, urinate in that, and throw it out the window." (Life for bridgetenders used to be far rougher than it is today. For example, when the original Miami Avenue bridge was built in 1903, it was a manually operated swing bridge. The current hydraulic bridge opened in March 1987, with Wellington working the overnight shift.) He notes now, "The bathroom here is a little easier to get to," although it's still two stories below the main room. In the bathroom, there's an emergency button he can press to signal five horn blasts, which means -- in addition to warning of the closing bridge -- that the bridge isn't ready to be opened.

Eventually, Wellington was permitted to choose, or "bid," on the shift and bridge he wanted, and he selected a daytime slot on the old Rickenbacker Causeway drawbridge. There he got some unexpected visual treats. "I remember a girl at the Rickenbacker who was topless on a sailboat; she covered her face with her hair and waved at me," he says. "There's always so much to see with a good pair of binoculars," he adds, recalling how he spied a totally nude woman parasailing a hundred feet above him. He smiles and shakes his head at the memory: "I can't see nothing freer than that. I envied her that real freedom."

His own job has given him a kind of freedom, too. "I enjoy having this solitude. Most people don't get that," he says, as if referring to a luxury others must crave. (He's hardly alone after work. He's married for the third time -- for five months to a woman he's lived with for twelve years -- and he's involved in a variety of marine-related groups.) "Nobody looks over your shoulder, and the bosses don't bother you as long as you do your job." At the Rickenbacker, he pursued one of his hobbies, photography -- "I had a chance to see great sunsets and sunrises" -- and even managed to sell some of his photographs to stock-photo houses seeking Florida sunshine shots.

His love of nature still surfaces in his rhapsodic conversation. "When the river's spawning, you can walk across it on the mullet, it's so packed," he observes. "Some of them are flashing in the sunlight, and the other fish will make a charge, and one of the flashes disappears. Nature takes the sick and the weak, not the prime. Only man kills the prime." He continues, cataloguing in no particular order the simple wonders of nature: "I see the sun come up five days a week, which only seven percent of the regular public gets to do. There's the birds, and the pelicans during the winter, and I also watch for manatees."

He pauses and looks out the window into the night. "I've seen terrific thunderstorms and things you wouldn't believe," he notes. "I've seen balls of lightning, and lightning that's 360 degrees around. I've had to close the windows and walk downstairs; with the wind and rain, it gets a little unnerving when it's like that."

In the quiet early morning hours, when it's been a long time since a boat has passed, he still finds things to interest him. "Look over there, the lighting in the port makes the water look almost like glass," he says."During Christmastime, you can see the reflection when the old CenTrust tower is lit up with a deep purple with a cross or a deep blue with a Star of David."

He's also witnessed his share of crises and oddities. He's seen ships on fire and called them in to the fire department; he's watched the engines of planes catch on fire; he's spotted people crawling out the window of one room into another at the Hyatt; and one morning at 5:30, he used the bridge's PA system to tell a mugger on a pedestrian walkway to stop hitting a woman -- the assailant was so shocked to hear what sounded like a loud, all-knowing voice that he backed up into the railing and toppled into the street. He has called the police, the fire department, and the Coast Guard many times to halt suspected wrongdoers, from drug smugglers crawling away from a docked boat being raided by Customs officials to vessels spilling oil or dumping waste.

"Everything's interesting on the river," he says.
And his commitment to the Miami River has grown as the years have passed. "I saw the oil spills and pollution, what was happening to the river, and it bothered me," he notes. His concerns turned to activism on several fronts, with Wellington balancing interests in promoting both the environment and commerce. He sits on the boards of Friends of the Everglades and of the Marine Council, a Chamber of Commerce-type group for the local maritime industry; and until recently he was a member of the City of Miami's Waterfront Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the city on the use of city-owned riverfront property. "He's like an urban guerrilla," theorizes Nancy Brown, president of Friends of the Everglades, "keeping people educated on our urban problems. He's our river man." Wellington even founded his own one-man resource group, the Miami River Information Service ("Miami River hotline" is the salutation he uses when he answers the phone at home).

In this last role, he tries to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to date he's given about 175 lectures onboard the Island Queen, a private tourist boat based at Bayside, to mostly inner-city kids as part of a program arranged by the Maritime and Science Technology Academy magnet school on Virginia Key. (MAST'S principal, Linda Eads, notes that Wellington talks to the children about the historic value of the river, as well as about marine-related career opportunities in science and the environment. "He makes it come alive," she says. "He's brilliant.") Wellington regularly attends Metro-Dade Commission meetings and City of Miami Commission meetings to air his views on environmental issues, particularly large waste-disposal projects that threaten marine ecology. "The job has become a tool for me," he says. "It gives me a platform for giving a qualified opinion."

Jim Wellington is not reluctant to share his views -- along with a stream of jokes and sayings -- with anyone he encounters. Nor is he shy about putting his beliefs into practice. On a recent Wednesday morning, after getting off work, he is still full of energy as he heads toward the monthly breakfast meeting of the Miami River Marine Group, a quasi-trade association that includes cargo carriers, marine patrol officers, and citizens seeking to promote a healthy, thriving river. Wellington is striding down the hallway of the First Union Financial Center to the elevator that will take him up to the Miami City Club on the 55th floor when he spots two security guards in uniform. He walks up to them and asks, "Do you know what happened when Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt formed a security firm?" They look at him quizzically, smiling uneasily. "They called it Wackencut!" he quips, laughing as he walks away.

Upstairs, in a room filled mostly with men dressed in suits or law-enforcement uniforms, Wellington stands out in his casual navy blue guayabera shirt and polyester pants, complemented by his orange, yellow, and brown African-style loafers; still, he seems on comfortable terms with them all. He drifts around the room schmoozing like a pro, spreading tidbits of river news as he mingles. When he spots Sgt. Art Serig, a City of Miami marine patrol officer, he asks him, "Hey, did Sallye Jude contact you? She got ripped off again at the Miami River Inn. [Jude is the owner.] She found some of the stuff across the way with one of the Haitians [cargo shippers]." (Wellington already has mentioned that he plans to visit some Haitian boaters himself after the meeting, accompanied by a Haitian woman, Nadine Patrice, who heads a group dedicated to reforestation in Haiti.)

Serig notes that he hasn't heard from Jude yet, but he knows that when he needs it, Wellington's assistance will be useful. "He's been a great help to me," Serig points out, particularly on the occasions when he's tapped into Wellington's knowledge of river traffic. (Indeed, law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have used log notations by Wellington and other bridgetenders to aid in criminal investigations.)

This morning's talk by Capt. David Miller, the new commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, presents another opportunity for Wellington to speak up. During the middle of Miller's dry presentation of new Coast Guard enforcement initiatives to regulate pollution and substandard ships, Wellington needles in a booming voice, "Tell your admiral that the river is like a hospital gown -- covered in front, wide open in back!" Miller smiles at the interruption and presses on.

After the meeting -- he's still going after being up all night -- Wellington now wants to see what he can do to prevent further thefts. He and Patrice visit Jude at her inn, and she shows them where junkies have broken into a shed and stolen chairs. With the seemingly naive goal of convincing Haitian boaters not to accept stolen property, Wellington and Patrice head over to a dock next to the river.

A Haitian ship is docked there, but the captain isn't around, so they enter a nearby trailer to talk to the owners of a shipping company on the dock (who wish to remain anonymous). Patrice asks one of the co-owners, an amiable Haitian, if the captains know the materials they get are stolen. "They know it's stolen," he allows. "But they can make too much money at it."

Only now, about lunchtime for most people, does Wellington leave the dock to go back to his apartment in Coral Gables for some sleep.

He's devoted to the river now, but nobody sets out in life to be a bridgetender. Raised in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of an engineer, Jim Wellington never settled on a career goal. He served in the Marine Corps for nearly three years after high school, working as an admiral's orderly -- or security guard -- on large naval ships that took him to various international ports, piquing his interest in life on the water. He attended Boston College after his discharge from the Marines, but left school after two years to follow a meandering career path.

"I dropped out of school to further my education," he jokes now, and, indeed, he's remained a life-long student, taking primarily science courses at different colleges in South Florida and Massachusetts. (He is currently president-elect of a group called the Friends of Physics, which raises money and arranges lectures for the University of Miami physics department.) Over the years he has worked as a photographic technician in the Arctic Circle (where he joined a group that ran a nude hundred-yard dash in sub-zero weather), a TV tower repairman, a private investigator, you name it.

"I really couldn't find a field that I liked," he says, but now he's discovered his calling in the unlikely roles of bridgetender and Miami River activist. And he's brought a formidable amount of intelligence, research, and passion to the task. "That's all he talks about, the river," says his wife, Jean Wellington. And yet she's proud of his dedication. "At first I resented all the time away from me," she adds, "but this is his life, and I got used to the hours. When he dies, he wants his ashes scattered on the river."

Other bridgetenders don't feel nearly as strongly about their work as Wellington does. They serve as reminders of just how prosaic the job can be when it is not approached with Wellington's unique vision. Leandro Aguiar, for instance, is a goateed young man of 23 who works the eight a.m. to four p.m. shift on the busy, low-slung SW Second Avenue bridge, and he's here for one main reason: "You're more secure [than with a private-sector job]." He's been working for the county for nearly a year now, and got this post after he failed to cadge other county jobs he applied for. His bridgehouse is more cramped -- only about six feet wide -- and its console controls far cruder and older than Wellington's; the Second Avenue bridge, after all, is about 70 years old. When asked about all the nature he gets to see, Aguiar shrugs and says, "I like it okay." He doesn't detect any special challenges to his job, and working on the river hasn't stirred his interest in environmental activism, either. He concedes, though, "It'll be nice to have a clean river."

Few people are excited about becoming bridgetenders. There are three vacancies, Wellington contends, resulting from the six openings in recent months caused by retirement, deaths, and a resignation. (Although there's no mandatory retirement for bridgetenders -- except in the event of ill health -- Wellington himself plans to retire in another four years or so, then devote himself full-time to environmental lobbying.) The recent departures have meant that some of the remaining bridgetenders (a total of 33) have to work a sixth day and can't take some of the accumulated time off they're owed. (Wellington's supervisors give conflicting answers on whether there's been a shortage of applicants and how many slots -- one or two -- remain open.) "People don't understand it, they think it's dull and boring," Wellington says. He breaks into a mock whining voice: "'I don't want to do that. And there's no way I'm going to work weekends.'"

Now it's past five a.m., and he hasn't had to raise the bridge for hours, but there's still something to catch his interest. He hears a barge captain radioing ahead on his way out to the bay: "I've got no steering. I burnt my valves." The craft is guided slowly along the river by a tugboat, and Wellington makes sure to raise the bridge promptly. A while later the sky begins to grow lighter, almost imperceptibly, but not to Wellington, who notices the first faint shape of a cloud. "Hark yon light in the eastern sky," he says. It is perhaps his favorite part of the day, when the city comes to life and the cleaning trucks rumble by and a few more cars cross the bridge. He looks out the window at the river again, pleased by what he sees.

"To me," he says, "it's beautiful.

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