Scary, Scary Bridge People

When I first became a bridgetender back in 2001, I assumed I wouldn’t be dealing with people very much. That was part of the appeal for me. It suits my introverted nature. I don’t really understand a lot of people, especially when they are acting unpredictably. And those are the very people I’m forced to interact with on my job.

Oh, goody.

So, in honor of Halloween, I thought I’d tell you about some of the people who have scared me over the years. Some of these are kind of funny in retrospect. Others, not so much.

  • The scariest person I’ve ever come across was the barking man. He thinks he’s a dog. But he’s no golden retriever. He thinks he’s a very large, aggressive, rabid dog. He was someone I dealt with regularly on one of my Florida bridges. He never touched me, but a couple of times he got close enough to where I felt his slobber on my face as he barked and growled. Bad dog. No treats for you.

  • Then there’s the serial rapist who got out of jail and spent his nights fishing at the end of my bridge. How do I know this? Because I used to have a side job transcribing the interviews of ex-prisoners for a study at the health department, and he mentioned my bridge by name. I heard this while sitting on that very bridge all alone, late at night, and it felt much worse because I had no idea what he looked like.

  • For some reason, people like to come by and pound on the tower door and run away. It has happened on all 9 bridges that I’ve worked on. This often makes me jump out of my skin. Especially on the graveyard shift. Fortunately, I have a strong heart.

  • But I nearly soiled myself the time that three young boys came by at three a.m. and rattled the doorknob for 15 minutes, saying, “Come on, lady, let us in!” Yes, I called the police. No, they did not show up while the scofflaws in question where still present. A few days later those same kids showed up and asked how to get a job as a bridgetender. I told them, for starters, not to act like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.

  • Young males, aged 13-25 can quite often be bad news. You never know what these guys are going to do. They climb things. They like to jump the gap of a partially opened bridge. They shout impatiently. They crawl under the gates. They do backflips into the water. They think they’re immortal, and they must be, because if anyone else behaved that stupidly, they’d probably be dead by now.

  • When people throw eggs or tomatoes or beer bottles or even, one time, a pumpkin, it sounds like a mortar shell has hit the building. This happened all the time when I worked in Florida. It has yet to happen here in Seattle, and it never happened in South Carolina, either. But I’ve never worked on a bridge that hasn’t had its window shot out at least once. (I hope I didn’t just give someone an idea.)

  • One gentleman used to like to dress up in a green satin, spaghetti strapped dress, and admire himself in the convex mirror right outside my door. For hours on end. That part didn’t bother me so much. Live and let live. What bothered me was when he’d stand in the road and start screaming incoherently. The police had to escort him off my bridge on more than one occasion, but he’d always make his way back eventually.

  • Just the other day a guy told me that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to do my job, and that he studied engineering at the University of Washington, and therefore was better at judging what was safe and unsafe, and when an opening should be started. He then proceeded to crawl under the gate and cross the bridge before I had even driven the locks to keep it from bouncing up.

  • One of my coworkers watched someone assemble an IKEA lamp at center span, and then walk away, leaving the lamp sitting there. He thinks of that guy whenever he turns the lamp on, as it goes perfectly with his living room décor.

  • Another guy was so upset that the pedestrian traffic gate was down and he couldn’t cross the bridge that he ripped it free, bolts and all, with his bare hands. Well, that’s one way of dealing with the situation, I suppose. Another way would be to wait your freakin’ turn.

  • People abandon rental bikes at center span all the time, too. In hopes that they’ll fall off the rising bridge and hurt someone? I have no idea. But the wheels won’t move unless you provide a credit card, and I’m here to tell you they are really heavy when I have to lift them up to carry them off the bridge. That, and the automated voice that’s telling me not to steal the bike is really annoying.

  • There’s a lady here that I call the suitcase lady because she has several of them. If you get too close, she curses like a sailor. I’m fairly certain she could beat me senseless if properly motivated, such is the level of her rage. I do my best to avoid her, but one day I happened to step out onto the sidewalk at the exact moment when she was passing by. I braced myself. She jumped toward me. But this time she shouted, “I got a new shirt!” I wasn’t expecting that, so I had no idea what to say. I have to admit, though, that it was a really nice shirt. Red is her color. Good for her.

  • There’s one guy who likes to cross the bridge while dribbling an imaginary basketball. He seems fairly harmless, but where is he in his mind? And what happens next?

  • By far, it’s the drug addicts that rattle me the most. I never know what their version of reality might be. What do they see when they look at me? A humble bridgetender, or the devil incarnate who must be disposed of?

People are scary, man. They don’t even need costumes.

Happy Halloween.

nosferatu

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Immortalizing a Fool

I fell in love with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer when I was introduced to it in high school. It’s a satire of 14th century England, and it lampoons a whole series of character types. The characters are fictional, but some people link them to actual people living at the time. Either way, it’s brilliant.

What I love about writing is it immortalizes the subject in question. No mater what that person does after that time, his or her behavior is trapped, like a fly in amber, forevermore on the page, all at the whim of the author. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Chaucer has shown us buffoons that, if living, would now be 700 years old. If you’re an idiot, beware, because a writer could be watching you, and you will be forever linked with your muddleheaded behavior. Take that.

Although I’m no Chaucer, in memory of him I’ll now immortalize a fool that I encountered once in my bridgetending career. I’ll call him the Hot Pink Glasses Guy. He shall wear those tacky glasses forever more within this blog, long after his taste in fashion has (hopefully) improved.

One day I was at work, and I began a bridge opening for a very large gravel barge that was making its way to a concrete processing plant. This barge passes back and forth on a daily basis. I’ve probably opened the bridge for him a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep if I didn’t care so much about minor things like not getting people killed.

It was a beautiful day, so I had the windows open. Because of that, I could hear someone shouting as he walked down the sidewalk. “Too soon! Too soon!” he screamed.

Oh, great.

I had the bridge completely open by then and the barge was slowly passing through, so I looked out the window at the shouter. It was a skinny white guy, in his early 20’s, jumping up and down in extreme agitation, causing his hot pink glasses to fairly dance on his tense little face. “Too soon!”

Then he crawled under the gate and approached the bridge, which at this point is about 1 million pounds of lurching, swaying concrete and steel.

“Uh, sir, you need to get back behind the gate for your safety.”

“Safety? What do you know about safety? You’re an idiot! You don’t know how to do your job! You opened the bridge way too soon! I studied engineering at the University of Washington. I know what’s safe and what’s not! How is this not safe?”

I could have talked about the fact that the barge weighs more than 3000 gross tons, and can’t exactly slam on his brakes or do a u-turn in the narrow channel, and therefore needs a lot of lead time for safe passage. I could have listed all the people who have died on drawbridges while doing stupid things. I could have talked about my 18 years of experience. But what would be the point? Sigh.

“Well, sir, for starters, you’re behaving irrationally and I don’t know what you’re going to do next. I can’t close this bridge until you get back behind the gate.”

He sat down on the concrete, looking smug. So I added, “Sir, do you see all these other people? You’re holding them up. I could call 911 and wait for them to arrive, but you’re going to have a very angry crowd to deal with until then.”

And sure enough, people started shouting at him. (There’s nothing like public humiliation to get a bridgetender’s desired results.) He slinked back under the gate, but not before one more petulant retort. “Idiot,” he grumbled.

I closed the bridge, but before it was completely seated, this genius walked across the street, crawled under that gate, and crossed the still-closing bridge. Because that’s safe. Because he’s an engineer. He can do anything.

Hot Pink Glasses

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The Dancing Man

The first time I saw the dancing man, he was standing beside my car. That made me uncomfortable, because drawbridges seem to draw an unusual number of characters, and as a bridgetender I can’t really leave the tower unattended simply because I fear for my paint job. So I had to stare helplessly out the tower window and hope for the best. In other words, it was my average day at work.

I used to wonder what it was about drawbridges that attract strange people. I’ve blogged about my unique encounters before. But my latest theory is that there’s nothing special about drawbridges. These people are everywhere. It’s just that I get to be a full-time observer of them here. I look at it as my own little sociological investigation of a cross section of humanity.

Anyway, back to the dancing man. I gave him that name because of what happened next. He went to the front driver’s side corner of my car and did what I can only describe as a ritualistic dance. The steps, while rudimentary, seemed full of purpose.

But this is Seattle, so people took note but continued to walk by, letting him do his own thing. Next, he moved to the front passenger side and did the same dance. He repeated the process until he got to all four corners, and then he walked away.

I was confused. I was mesmerized. I was a little charmed. But mostly I was relieved that no damage had been done to my car.

Since then, I’ve watched the dancing man perform this ritual on at least a half dozen occasions. I’m increasingly delighted every time. I’ve chosen to view it as some sort of blessing he is bestowing upon my vehicle. Maybe I’ve avoided an accident because of this magical love bubble that he’s placed on my car. Who knows?

Recently he stopped by to get his groove on during shift change, and I pointed him out to my coworker. “I just love that guy,” I said. Apparently, mine is the only car he interacts with, but he is still a regular fixture on other shifts.

My coworker said, “See that coat he’s wearing? I gave that to him. He was walking past and he looked like he needed one, and I had an extra.”

So there you have it. The one who bestows blessings had a completely unrelated blessing bestowed upon him. I really love how the universe works sometimes.

break_dance_PNG84

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The Motives behind Graffiti

When I left work the other night, all was right with the world. When I came back 8 hours later, it was to this travesty:

I take pride in my drawbridge and in my city, so when people deface them in this heinous manner, it breaks my heart. This kind of wanton destruction, this desire to make things ugly, is beyond my comprehension. In an attempt to better understand the motivations behind graffiti in general, I did a lazy Google search on the subject and came up with dozens of articles, most of which seemed to occupy two distinct camps.

In the more positive camp, the best article I found was this one. It discusses the desire of those oppressed to express political opinions. It also gets into the longing for fame and popularity, and even gives an example of a tagger who then went on to collaborate with companies and thus became accepted by mainstream society. It talks also about graffiti as a form of self-expression that reveals a secret and thus draws the reader into the community by the simple act of sharing that secret. It then discusses graffiti as a form of positive affirmation. It only mentions gangs in passing, and finds it ironic that governmental authorities and most citizens see it as an anti-social activity. In conclusion the article says,

According to an ex-graffiti artist, one must understand his or her own motives and not create graffiti simply to destroy public space. An artist must have a clear motive, whether it is to communicate a social/political/religious message, to shock or amuse people, or merely to defy legal authorities.

Well, that certainly paints a pretty picture. Unfortunately, I don’t think the artists who chose my bridge as their palette had such a squeaky clean image. They were vandals, pure and simple. This article discussed this type of tagger.

It mentioned that “in the year 2000, vandalism accounted for $1.6 billion in damage to households alone” in this country. It says vandalism is one way that juveniles use to vent anger. It’s also a way to fit in and be accepted by a gang.

I think this ugly, incomprehensible crap on my bridge is gang related. It has no value and sends no message other than, “we can get away with destroying things.” It’s like dogs claiming territory by peeing on a fire hydrant. It’s an exercise in ignorance and rage, and I can’t wait until the city heeds my report and  comes out and gets rid of it.

_______________________________________

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On Being Good at Your Job When No One Is Watching

In order to be a bridgetender, you have to be able to function well with little or no supervision. You have to be the type of person who takes a job seriously, believes in maintaining standards, and is very self-motivated. I am that person. And I happen to consider being left alone to be its own reward.

The downside is that praise is very thin on the ground. If you thrive on attaboys and kudos, this is not the job for you. Taking pride in having done the job well has to be enough.

The other day, I had five different vessels headed toward my bridge from both directions, and at different rates of speed. I also had vehicle traffic backed up for miles, and dozens of pedestrians and cyclists in a wide array of moods. Some were being cooperative, and some were not.

On days like that, opening the bridge is like being the conductor of a very unruly orchestra. There are a variety of moving parts to consider. When do you start your opening so as to back up the minimum amount of traffic? How do you keep all of the traveling public safe? How do you time it so all the vessels get through at once without crashing into each other or damaging the bridge?

Communication is key. You need to make sure all the vessels know what the plan is. Sometimes you have to be firm and tell a captain that he’ll have to wait for the next opening. (We try to keep our openings less than 10 minutes long to avoid traffic delays.)

That particular opening went off without a hitch. Everyone was appreciative and all went well. At the end of it, I did a little dance and thought, “DAMN, I’m good!!!”

I was feeling proud and all in the zone, and mighty pleased with myself. I was thinking that it was a shame that no supervisors were around to see the pure artistry that was that opening. I felt great.

And then the phone rang.

It was my supervisor, saying someone just called and complained because I had made him wait because I was trying to avoid a long opening that would back up traffic for miles.

Sigh. And just like that, my head shrank back down to normal size.

But it was good while it lasted.

proudcupcake

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Several Days of Bureaucratic BS

Pedestrian safety on drawbridges is a huge issue. Without naming names, I was asked by a certain organization to write some drawbridge do’s and don’ts that would help people increase their chances of actually surviving around a million pounds of moving concrete and steel, and I did so. They took these suggestions, sanitized them a bit, and made them into an oversized postcard with a gorgeous, souvenir-worthy picture of one of our drawbridges on the front side. They made several thousand copies. I was very proud of this work and knew it would make a difference…

Until someone further up the chain of command of that organization decided that they shouldn’t be distributed to the public. And now they’re gathering dust in some closet somewhere. No comment.

In other news, after I got married, I had my middle name legally changed to my husband’s last name. This caused a whole host of interesting bureaucratic encounters.

I had to pay a fortune to show up in court and swear that I wasn’t making this change against my will. (You can change your last name when you get married without the court hassle, but not your middle name.)

I went to the Social security office to have my information updated with them. I brought my court ordered name change with me. I had to wait an hour to see someone. While working on the change, he gave me a print out and asked if everything on it was correct. I said no, my mother’s maiden name was spelled incorrectly.

I was told that they wouldn’t be able to fix it in that office, and I was only given a vague indication of how it could be done, elsewhere, with more paperwork. Screw it. I’ve gotten this far in life with them having that incorrect information. And I did try.

I had to apply for a brand new passport, even though my old one was only a few years old, because now my middle name on my passport did not match my middle name on my ID. We went in with what we thought was all the necessary information, and met with a brick wall in the form of a bureaucrat who was in a foul mood. Rather than tell us how to jump through all the necessary hoops, he decided to tell us why we couldn’t accomplish our goal. We left there frustrated.

We came back the next day with everything we needed, and got the same guy. But this time he was in a good mood and everything went smoothly. See, now? Was that so hard?

But before that, we had to get a new passport photo at Costco. We went in, waited about 15 minutes for the lady in the photo department to get to us and take the picture. She said it would be about 20 minutes to process. So we went shopping, and bought a bunch of Costco stuff that we really didn’t need, as one does. Then we returned to the photo department. No photo.

There was a different woman working the counter, and she told me that the photo would have to be taken again, because with passport photos, you cannot be showing any teeth, you must have a neutral expression, and most of your ears must be showing. So we took the photo again, and had to wait another 20 minutes for it to be processed.

While processing the photo, we decided to bring our groceries outside to the car. The person who was checking the items against the receipt at the exit discovered that the cashier had forgotten to ring up one of our items. So we had to go back to customer service and have that straightened out. Good save on her part. We believe in paying for what we buy. But after days of dealing with stupidity, it kind of rankled.

Again, a certain organization is desperate for bridgetenders, and I know the perfect person, who would happily start tomorrow if given the opportunity. So we submitted the resume, and middle management would love to hire him. But upper management is being… well… You can imagine. Several of our positions have been vacant for more than a year.

I went to the county courthouse the other day with my husband, and we had to place our items on the conveyor belt and pass through the metal detector. I got yelled at for picking up my husband’s items in an effort to hand them to him and speed things up. Like I was some kind of criminal. Like I was stealing my husband’s wallet right before it detonated, or something.

So I made a point of walking on the grass on my way out.

Power to the people.

Zootopia Bureaucracy

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The Heart of My Drawbridge

I have been opening drawbridges for a living for 18 ½ years. I’ve operated 9 different bridges in three states. I’ve operated bascule bridges, lift bridges, and swing bridges. I’m pretty proud of those statistics. I can only think of one bridgetender in this country who can (by just one bridge) beat that, and he’s now retired.

But here’s something I’ve never done until recently: I’ve never been down below, deep in the mechanical inner workings of a drawbridge, while a bridge opening was in progress. I knew what happened down there, because I have to help maintain the equipment, and I know what each moving part does. But I’ve never actually gotten to witness it in all these years, because it was always me operating the bridge during the opening. You can’t be two places at once.

Well, finally, a few weeks ago, I got to be down below while someone else was doing the driving. I was so excited! And of course I wanted to take videos to share with all of you.

My first concern had to be for my safety. There is about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel down there. Stand in the wrong place, and you can be partially or entirely crushed. That’s why we are always extremely cautious when there are workmen on the bridge, and will not do an opening unless we are assured that each one is in the clear.

So, after assuring my coworker that I was in a safe place, he commenced with the opening. I chose to be standing on a portion of the catwalk that is suspended above the pit where the counterweight sinks into the ground when the bridge goes up. This catwalk does not move, but the entire room basically spins around it.

Wow, what a rush. To see a drawbridge doing its well-choreographed dance everywhere you look is like nothing else on earth. I was suddenly proud that I’ve been part of this dance for all these years. It’s beautiful. I actually got tears in my eyes. Sniffle.

Anyway, I did manage to take these videos for your viewing pleasure. I wish I could adequately explain what’s going on. I know the lighting is poor, and I couldn’t get a good angle that would give you a better sense of where I was and what exactly is going on. I did the best that I could.

In the first one, you see the pinion (a large gear), rolling down the rack during the bridge closure. This is what allows the bridge to move. There’s another behind me, and a set on the north side of the bridge that is doing the same thing to operate the other bridge leaf. The counterweight (to the right) is lifting up, and the bridge leaf (out of sight to the left) is lowering down.

In the other video, I’m standing in basically the same place, but I’ve turned to look out towards the water. This one was taken as the bridge was opening for a boat. You’ll see the bridge leaf lift up, and a sailboat go through. You can also see the other leaf, on the other side of the water, lifting as well. In this one, the counterweight is dropping down behind me, and the pinions are also out of sight, but are rolling to the left and right of me. That’s when I started getting all sentimental. I just love my bridge.

I hope this makes at least a little sense, and that you enjoy seeing a drawbridge from a whole new point of view!

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