It happened on May 4, a spring day so sweet I felt only the smallest twinge of guilt for blowing off a looming deadline. My neighbor Cory and I had spent the afternoon fishing for smallmouth on the Mississippi River. A little before six o'clock, we were casting plugs about a mile above St. Anthony Falls when the Patrick Gannaway, a towboat, came chugging upriver with two barges.
Suddenly, the pilot of the Gannaway was squawking on the loudspeaker. It was difficult to make out exactly what he was saying over the roar of the Gannaway's twin diesels. Something about the Broadway Bridge. Something about a person in the water.
Once it sunk in, I fired up the motor and we boated a short distance downriver to the bridge. I could see an ambulance and a few police cruisers, cherries flashing, lining West River Road. There were about two dozen people spread across the sloping, grassy hill that leads to the water's edge. They looked like bird dogs, their eyes all fixed on the exact same spot in the middle distance. When I followed the invisible line from their eyes to the river, I saw what they were all looking at. A man was floating facedown, just the top of his head and the nape of his neck breaking the surface of the water, about 30 yards from the shore.
I motored closer and stared. I felt squeamish. I looked to the nearest shoreline and saw a Minneapolis police officer. I asked what I should do. He said a search and recovery crew was on its way. I took this to mean that we should leave the body where it was. Maybe this was a crime scene and shouldn't be disturbed, I thought. There didn't seem to be any urgency from anyone. No frantic waving of arms. No shouting. No one jumping into the water to drag the body to safety.
As we drifted slowly with the current, I looked more closely. He was an older man--Latino in appearance, heavyset with thinning white hair, bushy black eyebrows, and a thick moustache. He was dressed in loose-fitting pants, black slippers and, I think, a polo-style shirt. I was paralyzed.
For several years now, I have spent so much time tooling around the river that friends have often said that it was strictly a matter of time before I came across a body. I always laughed at such jokes. I made the cracks myself. When it was happening and I was trapped in a moment that felt so unreal and hyper-real at the same time, of course, it wasn't funny.
I don't know how much time passed. Maybe it was 30 seconds. Or a minute. Or two. I remember looking downriver and seeing an approaching boat. I figured it was the rescue boat and I felt relieved. As the boat came into view, I determined that it was just an old fiberglass jalopy, probably out on a pleasure cruise and almost certainly oblivious to what was happening.
Then I thought, after too much hesitation, What if the guy isn't dead yet? We motored next to the body. Cory--who in the past year lost his leg to a motorcycle accident and his father to a heart attack--is one of the more unflappable people I know. He just plunged his hand in the water and grabbed the guy's collar. He turned the body faceup, and held tightly as we trolled toward land. There were no signs of consciousness or life--just a faint, white froth on the lips.
When we got to the shore, the cop I'd spoken to dragged the body onto the sand and flipped it over. Just as I was thinking that it sure seemed like everyone was dawdling, I heard Cory shout loudly: "Get a medic down here! Now!" A few EMTs, toting a stretcher, made their way down the hill and, after putting on their latex gloves and mucking around with their gear, began administering CPR. Cory and I sat in the boat and watched.
When I looked up at the crowd on the hill, I noticed Dan Corrigan, a Minneapolis rock photographer and longtime City Pages contributor, and his wife Rebecca. Dan was shooting pictures of the grim scene. I heard a cop yell at him to stop and to show some respect for the dead.
Then another cop summoned Cory and me to a different spot on the beach, 20 yards or so from the body. He asked to see our driver's licenses, and scribbled some notes into his pad. He offered a sliver of information: He told us that a passerby had called 911 after seeing the man leap from the Broadway Bridge. Then he said we could go.
We pushed the boat back into the current, and slowly floated downriver until we were 10 yards or so from the EMTs, who were still pounding on the man's chest. We stared, until another officer said, "Thank you." It was one of those Thank-yous that suggests by its tone and inflection the opposite meaning: "Move along. Nothing to see here. Don't be a morbid fucker."
I felt chastened. As a journalist, I have a certain professional license to be nosy. But in the news business, suicides are generally treated as fundamentally private matters, not to be discussed, investigated, or written about. There are exceptions, mostly reserved for public figures. But by and large, society has decided that it is news when a person kills another person, and it is not news when a person kills himself. Besides, at this moment I wasn't a journalist--just a passerby caught up in events.
As Cory and I boated back toward home--our appetite for fishing depleted--the questions rattled around in my head. Was the guy really dead? Why did he jump? How long was he in the water? And, were we total idiots for our hesitation out there on the water? I looked to Cory, who was seated in the front of the boat, holding his fingers to his nose and taking a deep whiff. I gave him a puzzled look, and he explained: "The guy was wearing a lot of cologne."
That night, I checked the TV news and scoured the web for any information on the jumper. I didn't find much. On an errand in the car, I tuned to a talk radio station, where I heard a top-of-the-hour report. It said only that a Fire and Rescue crew had pulled a man from the river in Minneapolis. There was no mention of his condition. For the next few days, I scanned the Strib and Pi Press. Nothing. I called the Minneapolis Police Department, hit a phone tree, and left a message. I never heard back. Meanwhile, a friend whose husband works for another news outlet in town passed on the word he'd heard from unspecified sources: The jumper had in fact died, and was probably dead on impact.
That last detail promised a measure of solace. Once I learned he had leapt from the Broadway Bridge, I knew he could not have been in the water very long; otherwise, the current would have taken him further downstream. The dead-on-impact theory suggested his death was inevitable, thereby absolving me for my own slowness to act. It would absolve the cops and rescue crews for their apparently sluggish response. And it would absolve anybody who happened by, anybody who decided it was not worth the risk or discomfort to swim in 60-degree water and drag in some guy who obviously wanted to die.
But the notion never struck me as plausible. At its high point, the Broadway Bridge is perhaps 30 feet above the water. That would be a long fall, but not likely a fatal one. Besides, there are no especially shallow, rocky areas beneath the bridge. Even close to shore, it is a good 10 feet. Would a fall from a relatively low bridge--into reasonably deep water--kill a person? Doubtful. For the next few days, I theorized with friends and co-workers about such matters. Then I went on a two-week vacation and pushed it out of my mind.
When I returned to town, I called the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office and got some basic facts: name (I'll just use his nickname, "Tino"), manner of death (freshwater drowning), and cause (depression). There was one other disturbing detail. Tino wasn't pronounced dead until just after 7:00 p.m., which was approximately an hour after he was pulled from the water. That meant that he was showing some level of biological response. Which, to my mind, disqualified the dead-on-impact theory--and rendered void any moral free pass over my own slowness to act.
Once I got his name, I searched paid obituaries. Tino, I learned, was 55. Born in Moorhead to a family of migrant farm workers, he had studied at the University of Minnesota, served in Vietnam and, for the past 22 years, worked at a downtown hotel. He loved art, opera, and fashion, it said, and "his passion included bringing joy and life to his fellow employees, friends, and customers." There was also a pointed barb in the obituary. It noted that Tino's employment at the hotel "terminated a few months ago." While the funeral was out of town, local services, the obit declared in a curious turn of phrase, would be "privately announced amongst his friends and outside of the corporate world."
That phrase--"outside of the corporate world"--sent me to his old workplace, where tracking down people who knew Tino was easy. He had worked there for over two decades. Beyond that, he was unforgettable: flamboyant and voluble, the type of guy who gives everyone a nickname and who might break into a show tune at any moment. He was also famously sentimental. Every day at work, he would neatly arrange a row of photographs at his station, pictures of friends, family, co-workers, even the children of co-workers.
He also displayed a few photographs of himself. Tino loved to dress up. So he was Santa at the drop of a hat, the Easter Bunny in springtime, and Greta Garbo whenever the spirit seized him. Because he loved Garbo so much, he got the nickname "Greta." He didn't care. He was open with his co-workers about his sexuality and his enthusiasm for drag. And if someone called him an old fag, he would laugh it off. Tino liked to joke. He liked ribald language.
Among his friends and former co-workers, there is not much question what precipitated Tino's slide: the loss of his job. According to three of Tino's friends, he was suspended for "unprofessional behavior" last winter after a female co-worker complained that Tino had used a slur. He was instantly despondent. One day not long afterward, says Tino's longtime roommate, Tino walked from his home in Minneapolis's Jordan neighborhood, down West Broadway to the Broadway Bridge, where he tried to jump in the river; he was rescued by a passerby and landed in the psych ward at Hennepin County Medical Center for a nine-day stay.
After the suspension came the firing, and Tino was crushed. He consulted a lawyer, only to learn his chance for redress was slight. This wasn't a union shop. He had violated company policy. But Tino's friends are certain that he said whatever he said to his co-worker in jest, not in spite. They believe the hotel was simply using a corporate speech code to get rid of an older, expensive employee.
Whatever the case, Tino soon fell out of touch with most of his former co-workers. He was slow to return calls. He was always a drinker, but the drinking accelerated through the long winter months. Before he killed himself, his roommate says, he downed a half-quart of hard liquor.
It wasn't the loss of money that hurt him, according to friends. He had bought his house more than a decade ago--the down payment coming from the proceeds of a radio station contest in which he had won a car--and his mortgage was just $32 a month. But, friends say, the hotel had become the focus of his life. It was a gay-friendly environment where he could be himself, where he could show off his latest drag outfits, where he could joke. When that was taken away, he was lost.
Perhaps, under different circumstances, Tino could have turned to family and righted himself. But neither his eight surviving siblings nor his parents live in Minnesota. Besides, there was much about his life that his parents--traditional and devoutly Catholic-- might not understand or accept. When Tino died, his roommate says, the family decided to tell his mother that it was a car accident. Suicide is a cardinal sin, and she has a weak heart. Why make things worse for her? The truth isn't for everybody.
After his death, Tino's body was returned to Texas, where his status as a Vietnam veteran earned him a military burial. In Minneapolis, friends rented a community hall from Lutheran Social Services over on Park Avenue and conducted their own memorial. After the eulogy, his roommate recounts, people just got up and talked about Tino. How he could light up a room with his 1,000-watt personality. How he could embarrass the hell out of you at a restaurant by sending back food that wasn't prepared exactly to his liking.
Everyone did agree on one thing, though. There was nobody like Tino.
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