1:31 PM, Mar 3, 2006
A College Memory
In Dubuque, IA, where I went to college, the bars all close by about 1:40 or so. The state closing time is 2AM, but Dubuque's bars exhibit some of the most ridiculous "bar time" policies I have ever heard of. They even apply bar time to drink specials and happy hour.
Anyway, right across the river from Dubuque is the great land of Illinois, represented by the pile of shit that is East Dubuque, IL. One of Illinois' prominent "East" cities(East St. Louis, East Peoria, East Moline, East Dundee, East Galesburg, eastcetera) that are known for basically being trashy towns with loose moral fiber in an attempt to attract drunken commerce. A mantra we had, when the bars would close in Dubuque, was to "go east." We'd all hop into cabs, cross the Julien Dubuque Bridge on Highway 20, and pile into bars that stayed open until 3:30AM.
Now, from the front doors of the bars in East Dubuque, to campus, it's about four or five miles. If that route is taken on foot, as it often was, by me, about a mile and a half of that is on the terrifying , rattling, alarmingly mobile sidewalk hanging off the side of the bridge. The sidewalk is a cement affair with three-foot cement walls on either side. It was very odd for me to walk home, especially at 4 in the morning, when birds are chirping and daylight is threatening, but alcohol, combined with cheapness, had me walking home. I despised the crooked cab service in Dubuque. If you got in a cab with your friends, the cabbie would just say, "how about seven bucks from each of you," and my dumb friends would never argue.
I was walking home across the bridge, one such night, and the thought occurred to me that you'd have to be drunk to walk across that bridge without getting a heart attack. When an eighteen-wheeler came barrelling down its side of the two-lane bridge, the whole bridge would shake and rattle, and a mile or so of cement sidewalk in front of you would visibly undulate like a ribbon in the wind, threatening to toss you over the side into the swirling waters of the Mississippi, over one hundred feet below. This was especially terrifying when urinating over the side. The sidewalk was completely unlit, and the angle of the cars on the bridge, combined with the level of the light-shielding, assured that if you were walking there, nobody could see you. This meant that if anything happened to you, nobody would know anything about it until your pummelled body clogged the lock & dam in Clinton, forty miles downstream.
When you set your foot on terra firma on the Iowa shore, you are typically a mass of nerve endings, incapable of relaxation or unclenching. It was this frame of being that brought me to the western end of the bridge, one early morning, when I spotted a grey utility box, mounted man-high, just after stepping off the suspended sidewalk. Drunk, and in no hurry to go anywhere, I approached it, examined it, and noticed immediately an orange-handled lever on the right side, the kind that you imagine seeing next to an executioner's electric chair. Again, please remember that I was drunk, and happy to have survived the crossing. I wouldn't have reacted badly to being shot in the knee by a passing motorist, so elated was I to be alive, and drunk.
There was no padlock in the little hole at the bottom of the lever, where one would usually see one, so, I figured that whatever this lever controlled wasn't that important, if it controlled anything at all. I grasped the handle, and pulled down on it. It slid satisfyingly down, and came to rest against a piece of steel at the bottom. When the lever touched the steel, there was a loud "SHOONK" noise, like the sound of the coupling of two fully-laden coal cars. At the same time as the loud noise and the satisfying report of the lever snapping to, all the streetlights on the bridge went out. In a panic, I pushed the lever back up, which was much more difficult than pulling it down, and with some effort, got it lodged back in the position where I found it. I was no use. The lights remained off.
I guiltily walked the rest of the way home, constantly looking behind me for a sign of uniformed people in pursuit. They never came, and I got home just as the sun began to rise. The next day, I told my friends what had happened, and they didn't believe me, until we were crossing the bridge to go to Van's Liquors, later that day, and saw that the lights still weren't on. They didn't come back on for about two weeks, in fact.
The next time I saw that utility box, there was a lock on it.