Breakthrough!

Whenever I work the day shift, once I’ve survived the commute and parked my car, I make my way over my drawbridge to the bridge tower. I’m usually not living my best life at that exact moment. I could never be mistaken for a morning person.

But during that foggy-brained walk, I almost always pass a guy who is walking in the opposite direction. I could set my watch by him. We both are creatures of habit, it seems.

I often wonder about this guy. Where is he going? Where is he coming from? He’s a bit scruffy, but he’s punctual as all get out.

So, about 9 months ago, I decided that I would say good morning as we passed each other. He did not even look up at me, and he said not a word. But this is Seattle, after all. People don’t just say good morning to strangers, as a general rule. It’s just not done. (I’ll never get used to that.)

The next day, I thought that maybe this time, my good morning wouldn’t take him by surprise. But I got the same reaction. No eye contact, no response.

Okay, this has become a challenge. I began to want, very badly, to get a good morning out of this guy. I was determined.

Months went by, and I continued to do my daily experiment. It became a bit of an effort to keep my pleasant tone when I could only assume I was going to get nothing back. But I did so because, when all is said and done, I really did hope he had a good morning.

After all that time with no eye contact whatsoever, I began to wonder if this gentleman had some sort of anxiety disorder. If so, were my good mornings construed as a type of bullying? Was I adding stress to his life? That certainly wasn’t my intention.

But I really didn’t know a thing about him. Maybe he was just less of a morning person than I was. Maybe he was a Seattleite from birth and his greeting muscle had atrophied. Maybe he doesn’t speak English. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone, but on the other hand, maybe he’s desperately lonely and just socially awkward.

I decided to press on, because if he never responded, it wasn’t like I’d beat him up or something. He’s an adult and can make his own choices. I’d just be a little sad.

Somewhere around month three, he began to give me eye contact. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t give me a hostile glare, either. Progress.

By the end of month six, I began to detect a change in expression. Was that a very slight, hesitant smile peeking out of his scruffy beard? Yes, I think so.

Then in early February, I got really sick with the head cold from hell, and I missed a week of work and sidewalk greetings. I wondered if he noticed. But I didn’t dwell on it, because I was too busy coughing up my lungs.

When I came back to work, to be honest, I still felt like utter crap. I’m sure I didn’t exactly look like my old self, either. I was so busy trying to ambulate through my vertigo that I didn’t bother to say good morning, or even look up, to him or anyone else, for about two weeks.

The following week, though, I was back to our old routine. This time I got the biggest smile ever. That really made me happy.

After that, his smile was more subdued, but it was still there. I’d like to think that I was a bright spot in his morning. I hoped so, at least.

And then today, it finally happened. I said good morning, and he smiled brightly. “Good morning!” he said.

I almost jumped for joy. I wanted to dance the rest of the way down the bridge. I wanted to look over my shoulder at him, but I didn’t want to intimidate him in any way, so I just walked, casually, to the bridge tower, climbed the stairs, and then started jumping up and down. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do I plan to escalate this contact? No. I look forward to exchanging good mornings, of course, but I’ll leave it at that. We are strangers, and I’m perfectly content to let it stay that way. But now we’re strangers with benefits of a rated G sort.

Can I get a high five for persistence?

Good morning!!!!!!

colbert_high_five

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That Moment When the Hair Stands up on the Back of Your Neck

So, I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a typical day on my drawbridge (if you can call any day on a drawbridge typical). I’d been there for several hours. I was thinking about lunch. That’s when I saw the half-eaten food in the recycle bin.

My first instinct was to be irritated. Not everyone takes recycling as seriously as I do. I sighed, and transferred the food into the regular trash can. But then I realized that the last employee who had been on the bridge was… me.

I had gotten off work at 11 pm the night before, and had returned to work at 7 am that morning. No one had been there in the intervening hours. Let me rephrase that. No one who was supposed to have been there had been there. And yet, there was that food.

I tested the window beside the desk. It was unlocked. We never leave it unlocked. I looked at the lock on the outside of the window. It had been tampered with. (See below.) Someone had been there.

This felt like a violation, as if someone had rifled through my underwear drawer. Granted, nothing of value was taken. Then I realized that some of my food items were missing from the fridge. And I had left the toilet seat up after cleaning the bathroom the night before. Now it was down.

Someone had broken in to get out of the wind and weather, and had made themselves at home, helped themselves to my food, and used the bathroom. Thank goodness they weren’t still there when I arrived in the morning. What would I have done? I wouldn’t have seen them until I reached the top of the stairs, which would have made it awfully hard for either one of us to beat a hasty retreat.

And then I realized that they could still be there.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Suddenly the closed closet door behind me felt like it was radiating heat. I turned slowly. I looked at that door. My heart was pounding.

But surely no one had been standing in there for 4 solid hours, amongst the mops and buckets, as I sat all alone not two feet away, without me hearing a sound. Surely not.

Still…

I slowly opened the drawer where the heavy industrial flashlight was housed. I gripped it tightly. I took a deep breath and opened the closet door.

Nobody. I felt sick with relief. I felt resentful that my safe place no longer felt safe.

And then there were the phone calls and the paperwork and the police report and the debate about best methods to amp up security. Those things kept me busy. Those things prevented me from digesting the experience.

That night, before security measures could be put into place, an employee was posted on the bridge overnight. And at 1 am, someone tried to break in again. My coworker scared them away, but couldn’t give a good description. Great.

Now, a few days out, what strikes me most is how abruptly the atmosphere in that room had changed for me. One minute, status quo. The next… Someone had been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been. In my sanctuary.

And it could happen again at any time.

Tranquility is such a tenuous thing.

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The Drawbridges of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Washington

Recently my husband and I took a mini-break to Ocean Shores, Washington. During the drive we talked about retirement, even though it’s a very distant long shot for me. So I was in that frame of mind when we drove through the little towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Washington.

We were discussing how the cost of living would be a lot cheaper in these places, and right as that topic was raised, we came across a drawbridge. And then another. And another. I thought, “These bridges are calling my name. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could retire and work part time on them?”

By that time I’d be bringing about 25 years of bridgetending experience to the table, so you’d think I’d be a shoo-in for any vacancies that might come up. So I decided to do a little research. First of all, I excluded the area drawbridges that are owned by train companies. It’s been my experience that these places never hire “civilians”, because a lot of the union workers look at these jobs as ways to finish out their careers in peace and quiet. I could never break through their seniority to wind up as a train company bridgetender at this late date. So I decided to focus on the other drawbridges in the area.

Thanks to the amazing resource, Bridgehunter.com, I learned that there are 5 drawbridges in the area that I could operate. All of them are owned by Washington Department of Transportation.

In Hoquiam, there’s the Hoquiam River Bascule Bridge and the Hoquiam River Bridge which is also known as the Riverside Avenue Bridge. That one is a vertical lift bridge.

In Aberdeen, you have the US 101 Chehalis River Bridge, which is a bascule, and two bridges over the Wishka River: The Wishka Street Bridge is a bascule bridge and the East Heron Street Bridge is a swing bridge. Both of them are shown below, with a railroad bridge in the foreground.

So not only would I have plenty of bridges to choose from, but I’d have three styles of bridges as well. Fortunately I have experience on all three styles, so that would be in my favor, too. Things were looking up.

So I tracked down a contact number for the department that maintains these bridges, and talked to an extremely friendly woman who gave me good news and bad news. She says since these bridges are so rarely opened, they don’t employ full time bridge operators. Boats have to schedule openings hours in advance, and then they send one of their mechanics out to do the bridge openings. In essence, all their mechanics are bridgetenders.

Well, that’s a bummer. But she did give me a further contact number, because when she heard of my experience and my potential plan, she said it would “never hurt to put a bug in their ear.”

I now have that contact on my phone. It would be kind of fun to be an on call bridgetender in my golden years. And I’m sure their mechanics have much better things to do than to drop everything on the occasional moment when one of these bridges requires operating.

I won’t bother the contact now, because my potential retirement is many years down the road, and who knows where we’ll decide to go. But it’s a nice dream. I know I’ll miss this work when and if I ever do retire. It would be nice to keep my hand in the game.

Aberdeen bridges

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Lightning Stories

I find lightning fascinating. From a distance. And from inside a safely grounded shelter. You don’t see much of it here in the Seattle area, though, and I miss it.

But I also have a healthy respect for lightning. At the age of 10, I moved from Connecticut to Florida, and quickly discovered that Connecticut’s lightning is child’s play by comparison. Florida has epic downpours with thunder that rattles the fillings in your teeth and lightning that can render you speechless. In fact, Florida is the most lightning-prone state in the U.S.

That kind of weather gets magnified tenfold if experiencing it for the first time while living in a tent as I did. Back then, I was terrified by Florida storms, and used those unsettling events as an opportunity to wail and howl out my rage and fear about having been rendered all but homeless at a time in life when I had absolutely no control.

With age and an improved living situation, I learned to take shelter and enjoy nature’s free light shows whenever possible.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Holland, so I took her to the beach. She wandered along the shoreline as I sat and enjoyed the Atlantic waves. But storm clouds rushed in from the East, and me and the rest of the savvy Floridians took off for the safety of our cars. I was desperately hopping up and down and motioning to the black, looming clouds and waving at her to come the eff on, and you’d think that that, and the fact that she suddenly had the beach to herself, would have been some sort of a clue. But no. She continued to slowly amble down the shoreline. When she finally came back, I explained to her how much danger she had been in, but she simply got angry with me for rushing her. She rarely took me seriously. For a variety of reasons, we’ve lost touch.

Later in life, when I worked for the State of Florida Department of Transportation, I was friends with the district lighting inspector. One of his tasks was to drive around at night and make sure street lights were functioning, and report them for repair if they were not. One night he drove up to a light pole just after it had been struck by lightning. The pole was in sand, and the sand was still glowing. He came back after it cooled and dug up several chunks of multicolored glass from the ground. He gave me one. I still have it. Somewhere.

Another time he showed me a dead turtle, frozen in place, its legs extended, its neck outstretched. He said that it had been struck by lightning before his very eyes. You never knew what you’d see when you worked in the field.

When I first became a bridgetender in Florida, I quickly got used to lightning striking my bridges. All of our structures came with lightning rods which were attached to copper cables that stretched down to the water, but the fishermen often harvested said copper, so you never knew what was going to happen from one strike to the next. But when the lightning was at a distance, I enjoyed the light show, along with the blue glow of transformers being struck on the horizon, with the accompanying patches of dark city skyline.

Nature, man. It’s awesome.

Recently I learned about something to add to my bucket list. The Maracaibo Beacon, also known as the Catatumbo lightning is a phenomenon that happens in Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. Lightning can strike up to 280 times per hour, 160 days a year, for 9 hours at a stretch. It happens so much that it draws tourists, but it also kills residents, and drastically impacts economic pursuits, so scientists are attempting to predict these storms as much as three months in advance. I wish them luck.

There are several theories about these storms. The most reasonable one is that the warm, moist Caribbean air is forced upward into the cold surrounding mountains, causing electrical storms. Another has to do with the methane in area swamps, while a third mentions the uranium in the ground.

It’s hard to say, but it sounds like it would be a fascinating place to indulge in my lightning fetish! I only wish the politics of that country were a little more stable. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with watching this amazing video.

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Catatumbo lightning

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Because Unions

I saw the recent raise in my paycheck and I felt sick to my stomach. Not sick because I was disappointed at the amount of the raise. No. Sick with relief. For the first time in my life, I’m financially stable. The stress relief that accompanied that realization was leaving me a little nauseated.

You see, for most of my life, I lived in Florida, a “Right to Work” state. I can count the number of raises I have received in that state on one hand. And I had worked there for nearly 40 years. Benefits were paltry at best. I could be fired for any reason at all, or no reason whatsoever. I was unappreciated, unsupported, and I never felt safe. My pay never kept up with the cost of living. I often woke up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay the bills, or what would happen if I became too sick to work. If they needed me to work a 16 hour double shift, I had no choice but to do so. I had no recourse when an injustice was visited upon me. When I was exposed to lead paint and the accompanying toxic fumes, my boss told me (I swear to God), “Just drink milk and you’ll be fine.” The future was very dark.

Now I’m working in the state of Washington, for the City of Seattle, and I’m protected by a union. I get raises. I have health insurance and disability and dental and vision and sick leave, and if the stuff hits the fan, the union will send a representative to sit in on any subsequent meetings. I cannot work more than 12 hours a day, and I am allowed to say no if I only want to work a regular 8 hour shift instead. Can you imagine? I can say no. Such a little word, but it means so much to me.

It’s the same exact bridgetending job that I had in Florida, but I make three times as much money. Do you have any idea how much that means to me and to my life? I eat better food. I don’t suffer from stress-related maladies. I don’t wake up in a cold sweat. I can relax and enjoy my loved ones. I have a reliable car. I don’t live in a ghetto. The future is bright.

Thanks to union-busting federal legislation, I’m no longer required to pay union dues. But I do, and I always will. My union has saved my bacon on multiple occasions.

If you honestly think that your employer will treat you decently without a union having your back, good luck with that. I’ve been on both sides of that situation, and I know for certain that unions, the institutions that gave us the 40 hour work week and did away with child labor, are the only ones who are truly on the side of the 99 percent. They need our support. They are a gift. That gift should never be taken for granted.

Thank you, PTE Local 17, and all the unions out there that still exist, for all that you do. You have given me quality of life. I’m told I’m good with words, but I find myself at a loss to adequately explain how much that means to me.

Union staff have stressful jobs, holding back the tide of inequity, but what they do really, truly matters and won’t be forgotten. Please join me in staying union strong.

Unions

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Pigeon Shims

I’ve been opening and closing drawbridges for over 18 years. With this job comes a dirty little secret. It’s not something that they tell you about during the application process. Perhaps they should.

When you are operating what’s basically about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel, occasionally, there will be consequences. While most of these consequences are unintended, they can be unavoidable. I hate to say it, but I’m kind of used to killing pigeons by now.

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough to unsettle your stomach. You’ll be closing the bridge, and it will be slowly going down, down, down… and you’ll see an unsuspecting bird waddling toward a place that will soon only be fit for a tortilla. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Pigeons aren’t known for their intellect. These birds refuse to listen to reason. So, the result is death by drawbridge.

The worst part is when they get far enough into the machinery to clog it up. We call these pigeon shims. Then the bridge can’t be fully closed until the feathery corpse is dealt with, and by then, traffic has backed up for miles, and you have half the city screaming for your head. So you go from killer to potential victim in the blink of an eye. It’s rather surreal.

Yes, I’ve shoveled my share of carcasses. Fortunately, it’s much easier to operate the bridge while someone else does the grizzly part. I’m happy to say I haven’t had to face my dirty deeds head on in many years.

But if you own a sailboat and have ever requested an opening from a bridgetender, please bow your head for a moment of silence for the many pigeons that have given their lives for your pleasant day upon the sparkling waves.

Every job has its dark side. Mine just happens to be the callous murder of innocent flying rodents for your boating pleasure. Sorry about that.

Savannah, GA : Savannah River

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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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