On Tuesday, August 14th of 2007, I came home from work to the Park at City West Apartments of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. I found the building's parking lot blocked off by police cars and fire trucks. I parked my car in the lot of the strip mall further up the block and walked back on foot to see what was going on. As I got closer, I noticed police cars from Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Hopkins, as well as fire department trucks from two of those cities. There were also several unmarked vehicles and a truck marked Explosives Ordnance Disposal, meaning they had called in the bomb squad. My memory is hazy now, but I think there might have even been paramedics on scene. Most of the first responders were gathered up near the driveway, 100 feet or so away from the entrance to the parking garage of the building. Three or four maintenance employees from the apartment complex were standing around on the far side of the fire trucks, watching the proceedings.
As I walked past that scene to head toward the main entrance and see if the whole building had been evacuated, I looked back and saw a KARE-11 news van pulling up. The news crew began to set up a camera on the grassy median, ready to take shots of the scene. Oh shit, I thought. We're going to be on the evening news.
Wait, maybe I should back up a bit.
In the summer of 2005, Walking Shadow Theatre Company produced a play for the Minneapolis Fringe Festival called 10-Speed Revolution. It was written by John Heimbuch, a creative director in the theatre company and a long-time friend of mine. The play is a satire about grassroots political activism, following three Minneapolis anarchists as they form a protest movement to bring down the bike lock industry after their communally owned bicycle is stolen. The three friends are overly obsessed with process and form, and as a result the actual goals of the movement gradually begin to get away from them. The climax of the play focuses around the group getting their hands on a Soviet-era surplus nuclear warhead that they found in the dumpster behind Ax-Man. It's a sensitive and intelligent play with a kickin punk rock soundtrack, and it's been on my mind a lot lately because I think it speaks to something very true about the origins and excesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The play has since been rewritten for a dramatic reading and has seen production by several other theatre companies. John told me that when he saw it staged by Mirror Rep as part of the No Boundaries festival, he noticed that a lot of the jokes about Minneapolis city politics didn't work for the New York audiences. The bomb prop was a 100-gallon propane tank (or maybe a hot-water heater, nobody I've spoken to has been really clear on that point) that the show's prop designers had ganked from a salvage yard. They covered up a big hole in the tank with wooden fins, and used spray-paint to stencil radioactive hazard logos on one end and the hammer and sickle logo on the other. The production archive on the theatre company's website has a photo of the prop at http://www.walkingshadowcompany.org/10speed3 but does not explicitly discuss what happened to the prop after the production concluded: my roommate at the time called dibs! after the final performance and hauled it home in the back of his Volkswagen New Beetle. The prop remained in his bedroom for the next two years or so.
In fall of 2007, my roommate enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He started making preparations to move out into a much smaller studio apartment so that he could be close to school. Before he began packing, he spent a long weekend throwing away everything he didn't think he would need as a student living in cramped quarters. The bomb prop was one of the first things to go. The following Monday morning, as I left our parking garage on the way to work, I saw the prop in the dumpster. As he had dragged it through our squalid and overfull living room, the prop had picked up a yellow and black bumper sticker advertising Brother Ali's Shadows on the Sun that I had left on the floor. I smiled about that because I felt like Brother Ali would have liked what the play had to say about the Minneapolis activist community, but beyond that thought nothing further about the prop as I came and went that night and the next morning. Garbage pickup was noon on Tuesday, which brings us back to where I started this writeup.
I took a closer look at the scene unfolding in front of my apartment complex. The bomb prop that had been in the dumpster when I left that morning was leaning outside the open door of the garage. The news crew was getting ready to shoot B-roll until their reporter arrived to interview the cops about whatever was going on. I had this mental image of my and my roomate's faces side by side as a graphic on the night's lead story. In my vision, I saw Mike Pomeranz going to the first break, shaking his head, and saying
What a couple of assholes, as he slipped out for a quick smoke. Did my roommate accidentally cause first responders to evacuate our apartment building while they investigated a potential terror threat? Well, there's only one way to find out.
I walked up to one of the police officers, and said
Hey, is all this about that thing down by the garage?
The cop was in crowd control mode. I could almost hear him thinking Step back, sir. Let us do our jobs. I got a guarded
Yes, it is, out of him. Respond but do not engage.
Well, I know what that is!
A little more interest in the cop's eyes now.
What is it? he asked.
It's a prop from a play some friends of mine did a couple of years ago. My roommate took it home as a souvenir, and he put it in the dumpster the other night. I can put you in contact with the people you made it, if you want.
He told me to wait for a few minutes while he conferred with his colleagues. I took the time to call up Amy Rummenie, who had directed the play. I had a vague idea that since the theatre company had made the prop, I would get them to deal with the problem. After Amy answered the phone, I jumped right into the story.
Hey, I'm at my apartment building. There's a whole bunch of first responders here. Police, fire, bomb squad, news crew, everything. They shut down the whole place because somebody found that prop from 10-Speed in a dumpster and thought it might have been put there by a terrorist.
Amy told me that she was actually at a board meeting for the theatre company at the moment, and said
Hold on, I'm going to put you on speaker. Can you repeat that?
I did, and heard a whole room erupt into laughter. Did I mention that my mom sits on the board of that company? Not cool, Mom. I held while the board conferred for a little bit in the background. When Amy got back on the phone she made it clear to me that their opinion was that since my roommate had taken possession of the prop, the issue was no longer the theatre company's responsibility. I don't blame them for taking that position, the liability issues around a thing like this could sink a small non-profit, especially if someone got the idea that the whole snafu had been a publicity stunt.* The laughter felt a little unfair at the time, though. Amy agreed that if necessary I could call her back later if the police needed any production notes to corroborate the origin of the prop.
After I got off the call, the cop brought over a couple of other guys and asked me to repeat what I told him. I did, my tone of voice getting more impatient as I went on. Come on, guys, get this circus out of here before the news crew rolls tape. They indeed wanted corroboration of my story before they sent everyone home, and they didn't really care where the prop had been made. They wanted to know how it got into that dumpster.
I called my roommate on his cellphone and explained the situation to him. I told him that I had spoken to the police and told them how the prop got there.
He was startled, angry.
What? Why did you do that?
I had no sympathy. To this day, standing only a few feet away from the police, I remember my next words almost verbatim.
Don't be an asshole! There are like five different emergency departments here! We're going to end up on the news if we don't get them to wrap this up in the next few minutes. Talk to the guy and tell him what happened!
He agreed, reluctantly and with exasperation. I handed the phone to aviators-and-full-mustache and my roommate talked to him for a couple of minutes. After the call ended, the guy asked me to stick around for a few minutes, and had me confirm the contact information for my roommate that he had written down in his notepad. He also held up the Brother Ali bumper sticker and asked if I knew what it was. I explained that he was a local rapper and that I thought the bumper sticker had gotten stuck to the propane tank as my roommate hauled it out of the apartment. I remember thinking that the cop seemed disappointed, and that Ali's name must have had something to do with the size of the response. I asked the cop if they had seriously thought the thing was a bomb, and a little defensively he said that they had taken it seriously because there was an odor of natural gas coming off the thing. He then told me that they were going to start packing up but that I needed to talk to the fire marshal before they left. As he was departing, he said to me that I should tell my friends in the theatre company that next time, they should put some kind of a label on their old props before disposing of them. A company name and a prop number, contact information, that kind of thing. I dutifully relayed that point to my friends a couple of days later, and they just laughed at me again. I understand why, but it didn't seem all that funny at the time.
The fire marshal took a serious business tone with me, telling me that I was lucky they didn't ticket me for improper disposal of a propane tank. I told him that I wasn't the one who put the thing in the dumpster in the first place, my roommate did. The fire marshal said that my roommate could very well be on the hook for over $400/hour in costs for the time of every one of the 20-plus first responders on site. He made it clear that my roommate and I needed to get rid of the thing properly, and had no specific advice for what "properly" entailed.
Call a scrapyard or something. The maintenance guys who were nearby said that it would be a violation of my lease to bring the thing back into our apartment until we could figure out what to do with it.
I called my roommate back and told him that disposing of the thing was his problem and that it needed to happen tonight. He called a friend of his who owned a big truck and spread of land in rural Shakopee. I think he told me that the prop ended its life as a lawn ornament somewhere in the guy's front yard. I didn't stick around to see the thing get hauled away, though. I went out to dinner, ordered a strong drink, and told the story to my server. It's been a good bar story ever since, and not just for me, either. The creative directors of the theatre company think it's a great footnote to that production, and have apparently told the story many times. They even introduced me to an actor from the production, who had no idea who I was until they mentioned the bomb scare.
the actor said.
You're that guy!
Tell me about it.
At a Walking Shadow donor-appreciation event a couple of years later, I asked John and Amy how they had planned to dispose of the prop before my roommate took it off their hands. One of them said to me,
Well, we just sort of walked out of the salvage yard with it. I suppose we would have just walked it right back. In retrospect I think that they would have had some trouble doing that. I'll bet an employee there gave them a wink and a nod and held the door for them, all the while thinking of the money his company was going to save because they wouldn't have to pay some company to dispose of the damn thing. My roommate's friend will probably be cursing all of our names whenever he finally ends up selling all that land to the Mdewakanton Sioux reservation nearby; my understanding is that their profits from the Mystic Lake Casino have been going to buy up a lot of the land around that area and bring it back under tribal control. Then again, the Mdewakanton Sioux might not have a problem getting rid of the thing themselves: I suspect the relevant state laws don't apply to them. After all, it's not like a propane tank with a huge hole in the side is actually an explosive hazard anyway. I digress.
As far as the play went, I'm told that this was a one-time issue: most of the subsequent stagings used a much smaller object for the bomb prop.
A footnote to this story: How did the first responders end up out there in the first place? I have a pretty good idea. The garbage company showed up, probably refused to take the thing, and called the maintenance staff for the apartment. The maintenance staff now had the problem of paying a costly fee to dispose of it, with no idea of who to charge it back to; I think someone in the management office might have told them to call the police rather than deal with it themselves. If they called it a possible bomb, the ensuing police investigation would lead back to the jerk who stuck them with an empty propane tank in the first place, and then they could make that jerk pay the disposal fees.
I have this idea because when I closed out the lease six months later, the management office told me that they were going to forward me a bill for several thousand dollars from the Department of Homeland Security. I flatly refused to accept it, telling them that I hadn't put the thing in the dumpster, and hadn't called the police in the first place. My roommate was also on the lease, and if they wanted someone else to pay that bill, they needed to take it up with him. He told me that he refused to pay, and an agent at DHS told him that until he did, he would be on some kind of list. He said that the only real impact of being on the list would be that it might make it harder for him to get a federal government job. I had the sense that if he and I ever planned to get on an airplane together, we should plan an extra hour or two to get through airport security.
I travel occasionally for business, and every time I get diverted to secondary screening I wonder if this whole tale is the reason why. Even if it is, and even though diming out my roommate in a terror investigation put a long-term strain on our friendship, I think it was worth it in the end. How many people get to say they once had to break up a bomb scare?
I've Googled around a little bit over the years looking for any evidence that this ever happened. Some must exist, otherwise how would Homeland Security have had grounds to send us a bill? The closest thing I've found to outside evidence so far was bad feedback about the Park at City West Apartments; mostly it was about noisy neighbors and pet odors, but there was a little unexplained note in there that read
Bomb scares. If anyone who got locked out of their apartment that night is reading this: Sorry, guys. I used to make a joke that the best way to dispose of dead batteries was in other peoples' trash. For what it's worth, this experience taught me to stop telling that one.
* Someone should make a node about the January 2007 incident in Boston where something similar happened to an ad agency that had been doing guerrilla marketing for Cartoon Network and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The marketing worked, too well: the Mooninites made the national news. I haven't checked, but I'm pretty sure I remember hearing that the ad agency went out of business.