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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Something In The River

During the workweek, I park about a mile from the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas—where I'm employed—to avoid the downtown Pittsburgh parking fees. I walk to work. Along the way I pass Mercy Behavioral Health—psychiatric facility, a Salvation Army—drug and alcohol rehab, the Allegheny County Jail, the Renewal Center—halfway house, the Allegheny County Municipal Court, the Allegheny County Criminal Court, and the tent shantytown underneath the Parkway East overpass. The scenes amid the walk from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail parking lot on the South Side to Ross St. downtown are reliable landmarks. To identify a few: The two scruffy curmudgeons, wearing 1990's Starter team parkas, who perpetually antagonize the poor toothless lady, also wearing a 1990's Starter team parka, while they carouse on the street curb. "Zig-Zag Guy" who, ah, zig-zags along the sidewalk and swigs from the 16 oz. Miller Lite can fused to his palm while he mumbles either nursery rhymes or footnotes in the Necronomicon. The motley flock of desperate humanity who fritters another sunrise while wandering among the jumble of pop-up parcels that form Hobo Junction—including the tent tagged "NIGHTMARE" in black spray paint—under the 376 East traffic jam.  

***

Sometimes the Monongahela River flows upstream, as it was the crisp morning of Monday, October 24th, 2016. Okay, so the river doesn't actually flow upstream; it just looks like it is. The effect is a visual sleight of hand perpetrated by nature. Regional wind typically blows from west to east, down the Ohio River Valley and the Monongahela River Valley, thus forcing the top "layer" of the Mon River the opposite direction of the water underneath. 

The Mon River was muddy, choppy, and flowing upstream that morning; a weekend of scattered heavy rain had preceded my walk to work. I passed the first two aforementioned landmarks en route to the Tenth St. Bridge. As I began scaling the span of bridge that tops Allegheny Millwork and Lumbar Co. on the South Side, I noticed something floating, or partly submerged, near the downtown-side riverbank and not far downstream from the bridge itself. My initial conclusion was the object was a large beaver. I'd spotted beavers in the Mon River before, while kayaking. The object appeared to be a fiery orange roundish clump, attached to an elongated roundish black clump—a beaver's body and tail. However, as I gradually approached the object, its girth wasn't that of a beaver. A tree trunk perhaps? No, the color and shape didn't fit. A trash bag? Nah, a trash bag would be fluttering wildly in the choppy current.

I'm a fast walker. I pass handfuls of pedestrians amid my daily walk to work. I've only been passed by three others—each moving hurriedly, perhaps late for something—on the Tenth Street Bridge during my six years of crossing it. I sidestepped others as I approached the object. I attempted to glance into their faces and notice if they were also contemplating the object's identity. None seemed to have spotted the…eh…whatever it was. The mystery was mine to solve alone. All I needed was a closer inspection. As I approached the object, the realization rained on me in a sudden downpour—I'm staring at a body! I needed a closer look, though, so I used my IPhone camera to snap a picture. I zoomed in. Yep, that's a body, alright! I looked around again at passing pedestrians. All seemed oblivious to THE BODY in the river. Am I the only one who sees the body in the river? THERE'S A FUCKING BODY IN THE FUCKING RIVER! A man's body! Gotta' be. Looks just like one. I see defined back muscles. I see the buttocks. I see a head. I see arms, however blurry, submerged underneath the torso. Orange shirt! Blue jeans! Exposed flesh between the shirt and jeans! That's definitely a goddamn body! How can no one else notice this? Why isn't there a crowd? Why aren’t others taking pictures? Where is the Pittsburgh River Patrol? The body must've been reported by now. Right? RIGHT? I'd been standing in the same spot for five minutes now. Maybe it isn't a body. Hell, it can't be a body. Just can't be. Must be something else, and I'm the only one who can't tell a body from…a beaver? No. It DEFINITELY ain't a beaver, remember? A log? No. Already eliminated a log from possibility. Trash? No. It's isn't trash! Come on, you know it ain't trash. Wait! It must be a fake body. Eureka! It's a Halloween prank. I'm the only sucker who thinks the body is an actual corpse and not a dummy, or a prop sold in a Spirit Halloween store. Jesus, why am I even bothering with this? It's just a friggin' joke! It looks TOO MUCH like a body to be an actual body. The fake body looks ripped, like a body builder. It's probably plastic—a Tommy Hilfiger mannequin from JC Penny. Or it's rubber, like a tackling dummy. A real corpse would be round and bloated. I watched Faces Of Death in college. Hah! Good one! Can't fool me. I'm heading to work.

I kept on walking.

Minutes later, I noticed a buddy of mine walking near the Allegheny County Jail, about 40 yards ahead of me. I figured a second opinion couldn't hurt. I began sprinting toward him, cell phone in hand, and blurry picture of the body on the screen. What the hell are you doing? He's going to tell you to call 911, idiot. Of course he is. Even if that is just a hunk of plastic with a smiley face drawn on the head in Sharpie you need to call the authorities. A mother might be praying to God for news, any news, concerning the whereabouts of her missing son. A young daughter might be stapling Xeroxed photos of her father on telephone poles, believing she may never learn what became of him. Jesus, SOMEONE out there is desperately seeking closure. I slowed to a walk, winded from the dash. But still, I don’t want to waste emergency crews’ time for a sick prank. Surely, others are in more need of services. What if a house fire breaks out? What if a toddler falls into a well? What if the Fort Pitt Bridge spontaneously combusts...again? I can’t let the pranksters win. I know. I’ll call 311. That’s right. To report a possibly dead human being in the river I called The City of Pittsburgh’s 311 response line—the number one calls to report a pothole on Second Avenue, or ask what week compost pick-up is. Of course, as soon as I told the operator I wanted to report a floating carcass she told me to call 911….duh! “Yeah, I guess I kinda’ already knew that,” I told her.

I called 911. Too bad there isn't a way the dispatcher could be given a heads up concerning my emergency. Any mention of a floating corpse is a super awkward ice breaker. I wish there was a feature like "...Press 4 to report an armed bank robber. Press 5 to report a dead body in the river. Press 6 to report..." Anyway, the conversation went pretty much the way one would expect.  I laid out my case: "Maybe a dead body…in the Mon River…might not be a real body but it sure looks a helluva lot like a real body…near the shoreline on the city side...maybe just a Halloween prank…orange shirt and blue pants…sorry if it isn't actually a real dead body."

Throughout the call, what struck me most was the 911 dispatcher's nonchalant tone, as though I'd dialed the "Report-A-Corpse Hotline", and I was the 37th caller of the day. Remember that State Farm commercial? "Six dead body reports ahead of us Jimmy." 

My first errand upon arriving at work was to call my wife. "I think I just found a dead body," I told her. Seconds later, and I do mean SECONDS later, two co-workers crept into my cubicle with wide-eyed slack-jawed "holy fuckin' shit" looks on their faces. As I detailed to my wife the last 15 minutes of my life, the two "holy fuckin' shit" faces gradually bore down. I had an audience. After I hung up the phone I texted her the picture of the body. Then I detailed, again, my Monday morning escapade to my two co-workers. Their "holy fuckin' shit" looks only got "holy fuckin' shittier," as my story unfolded. They left my cube with the "holy fuckin shittiest" looks I'd ever seen.

A few minutes later my wife texted me back a keen observation. "The body looks Mr. Incredible." I studied the picture again. The reddish shirt, the blackish pants, the muscular build, the overall fake appearance—indeed, the body DID look strikingly like Mr. Incredible. I just reported to emergency responders the floating carcass of a much loved and respected computer animated Disney superhero! I'm a twisted dope! A part of me felt relieved to acknowledge "the body" was almost certainly not a body. But as morally insolvent as it sounds, an equal part of me felt duped, felt defeated.

The feeling lasted a minute, maybe two.

"Yep. It's officially a body," exclaimed my co-worker, reemerging into my cubicle, cell phone in hand. "I just got a notification from WTAE.  'Man's body discovered in Monongahela River.' "

Okay, here's the part of the story I'm most ashamed to share…my kneejerk reaction to the news was to shout "YES!" and do a fist pump. I felt vindicated. But almost immediately afterward, shame befell me. The object in the river was the mother's son, was the daughter's father…was a human being. I sat there for a few moments, staring up at the tiny black specs in the particleboard ceiling. The object in the river IS a human being.

The remainder of the work day I enjoyed a small measure of celebrity status. Co-workers approached me unsolicited: "I heard you are a hero." Emails came in: "People down here are talking about you." I became more animated upon each retelling of the story: "I thought it was a beaver…but then I was like 'holy shit, it's a body'…I called 311 like I was reporting a pothole…no wait, IT'S MR. FRIGGIN' INCREDIBLE!!!...'Hey, I got a blurb from WTAE'…sadness."  

Hell yeah, I'm a hero. Where's my key to the city, Mr. Mayor?

Furthermore, I checked local news sources throughout the day in hopes of learning details, any details, about the identity of the body or circumstances surrounding the death. But each news article was nearly identical: "A body was found in the Monongahela River after 'someone' called to report it. No further information is known."  


"Someone!?"
***


Throughout the next few weeks I continued to investigate news outlets in hopes of learning details. I wanted closure too. But there were no updates. The news blurbs that broke on the morning of October 24th were frozen in time. The headlines sunk lower with each Google search. I eventually ceased my pursuit. Admittedly, as the days passed, and my interest weened in lockstep with my 15 minutes of fame, I became increasingly relieved my daily searches yielded dead ends. I didn't want a beaming face to pair with the one I saw submerged, and lifeless. I didn't want quotes from his grieving family. I didn't want to know his hobbies. 


After recounting the discovery to family, friends, and co-workers time and again, and laughing freely and regretless at the punchlines I'd melded into each retelling (not to mention that a buddy had gag-gifted me a Rogue's Dead Guy Ale), I came to the conclusion that I didn't even want to know his name.

Why? Simply because he had a name.

***

I got a Facebook notification on November, 30th. It was a link to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article: "Body Identified of Man Found in Mon River in October"

I read the article. The deceased's name is Dwayne.

(If you are curious about details, perform a Google search, or view my Facebook page. Although the deceased's real name is public information, I choose here to refer to him using a fictional name, Dwayne.) 

Dwayne's Facebook page still exists. December 1st, the day I perused his FB page, happened to be his 33rd birthday. Jesus, only 33! More disturbingly, however, was his photograph, prominently displayed, taken from atop the Rankin Bridge, overlooking the Monongahela River. I learned a few personal intricacies about Dwayne's life, too: He doted on his young nephew. He had a thing for women with, ah, bountiful assets. And he publicly apologized for not believing in God.

Dwayne endeared himself to me.

Obviously, Dwayne's death is a great shame. I'd prefer he were playing catch in the backyard with his nephew right now. But he ain't. When heartrending things like Dwayne's death occur, people tend to say that it's unnatural that someone dies in such a manner, and so young.

No. It's rare, but it's not unnatural.

Sometimes the river flows upstream.
Credit: Dwayne

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