Life on the Mississippi

Portraits of the urban river in words and pictures

There's nothing vague about what you accomplish. It's very concrete and direct. It's satisfying moving big objects like this. Northbound we unload coal, fertilizer, steel. Right now, we're unloading a barge of rice hulls, which goes to a greenhouse in Cottage Grove. Out of here, it's usually corn, soybean, and oats.

A barge is 200 feet long, and 15 to 18 feet high. If there's a crosswind blowing, that's a lot of sail. The wind can blow you out of position. Even an empty barge weighs 900 tons. If you get going sideways and can't control it, even an empty barge can cause a lot of damage. Years ago, we had some kids come down here and they would cut the lines and the barges would drift away. The police would call us, and we'd bring 'em back.

We've found two bodies. We call them "Bobs" because they kind of bob up and down in the water. One was right by that tower. It had gone off Coon Rapids dam. Some guys on the dock noticed it.

Mike Mosedale

About 10 years ago, I was eating a hardboiled egg sandwich and Tom said, "What's that?" There was something resting under the slant of a barge. I couldn't see much. I said, "Well, let me finish this sandwich." Then I got one of these spike poles. I went down there and sure enough it was Bob. So while Tom was running the boat, I got one pole under the neck, another under the shoulder, and we floated him down to the dock. The medical examiner came and got him. It wasn't pleasant.

Another time--10, 15 years ago--we saw a four-wheel drive pickup truck floating down the river. It was a monster truck, with these great big tires. The wheels were turning slowly, and the knobs on the tires grabbed enough water to move down the river. It looked like a very relaxed situation. They were having a good time.


On The Rocks

I met Mike and Ronnie on a hot July afternoon. They were accompanied by two other homeless men, Paul and D.J., walking along the river's edge near where the Burlington Northern railroad bridge crosses from north Minneapolis to northeast. The day, the men reported, was following a familiar trajectory: wake up, scrounge for cans, and cash in the haul at a recycling yard on the north side. All told, they had gathered about 46 pounds of aluminum--worth about 17 bucks. They spent most of the money on a case of beer. What money remained might be spent on food, but dumpster diving is the more likely option when it comes to dining. All four men grew up in northeast, and that's still where they spend most of their time, mostly on the river. A preferred drinking spot, known as "the Rocks," is located below the Burlington Northern bridge. The men said there is little romance in their lives on the river. It's just one of the few places they can hope to be left alone--a hope that is often dashed in encounters with railroad cops, city police, and their fellow transients.

Ronnie: This is my first year down here on the river. I used to work for the city of Minneapolis. Now look at me. I've been on the streets ever since me and my wife separated. I don't hang with any riffraff. I only hang with guys I trust. Everybody watches everybody else's back. We keep an eye on each other.

I stay a lot of places on the river. Depends where I'm at. If I'm on this side, I'll just go down by the bushes. If I'm on the other side, I'll go down by the bushes. I move around all the time.

One of my best friends died down here. He was beat up and thrown in the river. That was probably last July. His name was Sonny.

The river's very polluted. Sometimes, I swim because it's the only way I can get cleaned up. You do what you got to do. But I wouldn't eat a fish out of here.

Mike: I used to make $25 an hour. Union work. Did that for 10 years. But after I lost my family, it's been nothing but chaos. I've been out on the streets for seven years now. At first, I thought it was fun. It ain't fun no more.

Three, four years ago, I saw a guy get beat with a club down here. And I had an Indian friend, Timmy. He was killed on the other side of the river. Someone poured Bacardi on him and burned him up. And one time, I got hit with a baseball bat by a little black guy. He knocked out my teeth and took $60 off me. I still have a steel plate in my skull.

The police are probably the worst people who are around here. But there are a lot of crazy people, too. I don't want to be down here when they're around.

Look at all this trash. Sometimes, I try and clean up. But nobody else cares.

There is a lot of wildlife. One time at my camp, three raccoons came along, one mama raccoon and two babies. That mama came up and started hissing in my ear. Three times she come back. The raccoons aren't nice here.

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