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Originally published Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 8:27 PM

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Danny Westneat

'Wake' for a lost bridge

Bill Owens is only 52, but he's pondered death enough already to set aside a bottle of Powers Irish Whiskey.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Bill Owens is only 52, but he's pondered death enough already to set aside a bottle of Powers Irish Whiskey.

It's not for him. It will be uncorked, someday, at his own wake. The hope being that his friends get so rowdy in remembrance they'll rouse him from his eternal slumber.

"I'm Scotch-Irish," Owens says. "We party when someone dies."

So a while back Owens was sitting in his houseboat on the Duwamish River and he got to thinking: Who will raise a glass to his neighbor? The one scheduled to die at exactly 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 30, at the age of 79?

"She's an old girl whom the government can't be bothered with," Owens says. "You'd think after 79 years of faithful service, at least a gold watch would be in order."

Owens' neighbor is the South Park Bridge. When it opens for a barge he hears the worn gears laboring, the steel leaves straining. To the point that he wonders: Is it going to make it this time?

Next week King County plans to shut the drawbridge permanently, by leaving it in the up position. It will be torn down later this year or next.

There is not enough money, yet, to build a new bridge. Meaning as of Wednesday night South Park will be a neighborhood cut off from its own city. It will be a dead end. Business owners wonder whether it will become a ghost town.

That the county and city have failed to provide such a basic necessity has become a symbol for local government dysfunction. But Owens says people are done being angry.

"The mood down here is more fatalistic," he says. "It's not the first time government has screwed over South Park. So the mood is: 'Fine, then we'll get by without those fools.' "

It's summed up by a T-shirt popular right now in South Park. "Rest In Pieces," it says, beneath a picture of the old bridge. "Thanks for nothing, Seattle."

The mood is ideal, in other words, for an Irish wake.

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Owens' plan is to set up a beer garden and break out the whiskey a half-hour before the bridge closes. The Duwamish Tribe will lead a drum and prayer procession across the span.

Then, at 6:55 p.m., Owens has lined up two bagpipers. Starting at the middle, one will walk north, toward Georgetown, the other south, toward South Park.

Then there will be a moment of silence as the bridge opens for the last time.

Bill Pease, a South Park resident who has been working for a new bridge for years, noted how symbolically fitting it is that one bagpiper will be stuck on the other side. With no way to get back to the newly isolated South Park. Just like the 20,000 cars and trucks a day that currently use the bridge.

"Someone will have to drive all the way around and get him," Pease said. "Or maybe he can come back across the river in a kayak?"

Bands will play into the night. Artists have been asked to paint murals on the cracked concrete arches. Suggested themes for the murals include "impermanence, sudden change, loss of connection."

I'll toss one into the mix: "political neglect."

"If the bridge was a sports stadium, it would've been replaced years ago." That's about the truest statement I've seen yet about this fiasco. It comes from Jeff Gilbert, co-owner of Feedback Lounge, a West Seattle bar that is also holding a bridge funeral that night.

Owens says bitterness is an ingredient in a wake. But South Park is marking the end of a bridge. Not the end of the world.

"I see it starting out as a dirge," he said. "Then going into a jazz funeral. By the end, we'll be dancing in the streets."

It's like that bottle of whiskey he set aside. Wakes aren't for the dead.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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