Sunday, January 26, 2014

Not Zen 95: Bridge of Promise

Between two small towns by a river, residents wanted to build a bridge. Their great-grandparents had tried. Their grandparents had continued the effort and had left tall pillars a third of the way into the river. Other generations had made attempts in the distant past, too, but no usable bridge had ever finished. For commerce between towns, the residents used ferry boats. Eventually their national government stepped in to examine the problem and decided that the towns would not be permitted to build. Instead, the government would erect a smaller bridge upstream.

The local townspeople filed protests over the decision. They called their government corrupt. They said the ferry boat captains had bought influence in the capital. Nevertheless, the order remained.

One day, a man appeared in one of the river towns saying that he'd gotten a permit to build a bridge. The permit didn't say exactly where he had to build it. He showed his papers to the local leaders.

"You see?" he said. "It says that I can build it across your river. I could put the bridge farther upstream but I could also place it here. It's more expensive to do construction at your location but I know I would make more money in the end."

"The permit says very little," agreed the mayor. "You could build anywhere on the river with this."

The man with the permit wanted to talk about the money to be made. He was not interested in a narrow, civic-minded structure or a floating bridge that would need constant maintenance. He showed them plans for a grand, for-profit span with heavy tolls. Such a bridge would last for centuries although it would need many investors in the beginning. The investors would be paid back from their shares of the tolls.

Everyone in the town grew excited. They had been waiting all of their lives for this project. Only one of the town aldermen sided with the ferry captains against building the bridge. He was shouted down in the town council. The council and the mayor raised tax money to invest in the bridge. Families emptied their bank accounts to buy shares. The town bankers put in their own money. The bridge contractor took a ferry to the town across the river. He drummed up more investors in his project. He created a rivalry between the two towns. He took bids to begin the construction. He awarded contracts for the widening of the local roads.

One day, the bridge contractor left to get the large equipment that would be needed to build support structures in the depths of the river. He said he would return in a week. Two days later, the national police arrived.

"We came to investigate suspicious money transfers," a police officer told the town councilmen. "Now we find that you're building a national bridge without a permit."

"We're not building it!" explained the council members. "We're only investing. The contractor you hired is doing all of the work."

"The government hasn't decided on a contractor," reported the police after they confirmed their suspicions.

"Impossible!" shouted the mayor.

"Tell us about this person building a bridge."

The police spent several days investigating what they decided was a scam. When they understood the scope of the deception and the money involved, they called for more investigators. The analysis lasted for weeks. Eventually, it became clear that the vast majority of residents in both towns had been duped. That meant the citizens who hadn't fallen for the scheme came under suspicion.

Some of the residents had been too poor to invest. Those who hadn't come into money in the meanwhile were dismissed. Likewise, the ferry boat operators were questioned briefly and released. Only a handful of citizens remained suspected of being accomplices to the scam.

One of them was the alderman who had spoken against the bridge project in the first place. As it turned out, he had placed a substantial bet against the construction of the bridge. He stood to collect more than a year's worth of salary.

"How did you know this was a scam if you weren't part of it?" the police asked him.

"The national government said it was against the bridge here," he said. "There were good reasons for the decision. The river is wide, so it's easier to build upstream. The sediment runs deep, so there are hundreds of feet of silt to go before reaching solid rock. A bridge would need to be built on large pylons at great expense. It could also be a floating structure but that probably wouldn't last through our storms. Everyone knew these things. No one wanted to think about them except for the ferry boat captains."

"Why were you not fooled?"

"This is the way of our lives. Everyone wanted to fool themselves. I did, too. But I made myself look at how things are. I knew that bridge would never be built. I knew it couldn't be built even if the bridge contractor wasn't a crook. And because I knew that, I was sure he was a crook."

"Are you against having a bridge here?"

"I'm all for having a bridge. But still I'm against ignoring how things really are."


  1. This is so true: I really l liked your story which really drives home the moral. :)

  2. It's uncomfortable for everyone when someone points out that things are not how we want them to be. But it usually hurts worse when we deny the facts rather than acknowledge them and adjust.

  3. I had a lot of fun writing this story. It felt like timeless news.