The other day I was walking across my drawbridge to do some sweaty, greasy routine maintenance on the south end. I was in my sweaty, greasy safety vest and my hard hat. (Incidentally, why do I have to wear a hard hat on an open sidewalk? What am I protecting myself from? Meteor showers? Low flying planes? Beats me. I just do what I’m told.)
As I walked, I was lost in thought. Gazing at the sunset, humming a little tune, I suspect that I wouldn’t have noticed if Peter Dinklage had walked past me in full Game of Thrones finery. Thusly, I found myself in the midst of a film crew without even realizing what I had walked into. I have no idea what they were filming, but there were about 8 of them out there. I picked up my pace, hoping I hadn’t interrupted anything critically important.
As I left the “set”, I heard one woman whisper, “She looks so official in her green shirt.”
First of all, huh? I was literally wearing a green t-shirt that I had picked up at the Goodwill ages ago. What’s so official about not wanting to get grease on any prized garments?
I couldn’t work up the energy to turn around and ask what she meant by that. It didn’t seem hostile. I don’t think she was making fun of me. She sounded sincere. But what on earth?
Mulling it over later, I realized that no one would have said that about a man. Men don’t look official in their green shirts. It’s just assumed that they’re official, full stop. It wouldn’t occur to most people to even remark about them.
So now I’m a bit irritated. But I wasn’t put on this earth to teach every random stranger that I encounter about gender equity. I’m just workin’, here.
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Most of my life, I’ve toiled in male-dominated fields. More than once I’ve been told that a woman should not be (fill in the blank). I know what it’s like to be looked at with suspicion and not taken seriously. I know what it’s like to want to be one of the guys.
I recently witnessed a woman in the earliest stages of trying to fit in under these circumstances. She’s taking the, “I’m every bit as manly as you are,” route. She’s tough. She’s aggressive. She’s territorial. She’s cold as ice. She’s a show off. She’s even condescending to her fellow female coworkers. If this were her natural state, I’d say, “Fine. Go for it. Be your insufferable self.” But it’s so clearly a show that it’s annoying the guys she works with. They find her to be pushy and rude. It’s making her become even more of an outsider.
Don’t get me wrong. I think women have as much right to be pushy and rude as men do. But I think that behaving that way simply because you think it will make you be accepted is the wrong way to go. Nobody likes an obnoxious person, regardless of gender.
Yes, I do things to adapt to my environment. Everyone does. I’m not going to carry a purse up to my bridge, or wear high heels. This is partly because I’d be laughed at, but mostly because these things would be safety issues. I expect to get greasy, and so I dress the part.
I also tend to be a straight shooter. I tell it like it is. But that’s in my nature. I think guys appreciate it, though. They don’t want to waste time having to read between the lines.
I knew I had made it as far in to the inner circle as I ever would when the guys started joking around with me like they do with each other. That is an achievement. I’ll take it.
I never wanted to get so far in there that I had to listen to locker room talk or discuss sports that don’t interest me. They can have that. I don’t want it.
But I think that I crossed my highest hurdle when I came to realize and accept the fact that no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to fit in completely. And that’s okay. Now, instead of feeling like a turd in that punch bowl, I look at myself as an exotic piece of fruit: Never quite blending in, and perhaps unexpected, but adding to the overall flavor in a significant way.
No matter how you look at it, I’m still here. And somewhere along the line, I stopped caring. For the most part, so have they.
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It was the day after Seattle got more snow in a 24 hour period than it usually gets in a year. There was 4 to 9 inches of the stuff covering most of the city. Most people had the good sense to stay put.
Not me. I’m a bridgetender. I have an obligation to be there. But driving 25 miles in that crap did not appeal to me, so my husband was kind enough to get up with me at 4 a.m. and drive me there in our truck. (He’s a keeper.)
The commute took 3 times longer than usual, but we made it on time, and I trudged up to the tower door of the University Bridge in calf-high snow, losing a glove in the process. If I had known how the day was going to go, I’d have stayed in bed.
For starters, I had to shovel the snow off the sidewalk and bike lanes, on both sides of the entire length of the movable span. I had been told there would be help coming, but none came. So I shoveled, and shoveled, and shoveled, for 2 solid hours, moving hundreds of pounds of snow, until I thought my heart would explode. And even after that, I had only cleared a partial trail from both sidewalks. Under that, it was so hard packed and icy that it would have taken a blow torch to remove the stuff.
Pedestrians kept stopping to thank me. One even gave me an almond croissant. They couldn’t believe I was trying to tackle this project on my own. “Doesn’t the city have a snow blower?” Yup. But we weren’t allowed to use it for some insane reason.
I never shoveled the bike lane. I called someone further up in my chain of command and told him I needed help. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. He told me to shovel no more, and that he’d send help. None arrived.
And then a sailboat asked me for an opening. What a sailboat was doing out in that weather I’ll never understand. But ours is not to question why. So I opened the bridge for him.
I gave the bridge a full opening, in hopes that some more of that snow would slide off. I even “bounced” the bridge a tiny bit in hopes of shaking the snow off. But no. It was like concrete.
The sailboat successfully transited, and I closed the bridge. Well, sort of. Once the bridge is properly seated, the next step is to drive a lock that’s kind of like a slide bolt underneath a bridge. This keeps the bridge leaves from bouncing up individually as cars cross. You don’t want that. The next car could have a nasty surprise.
The controls said the bridge was seated. I double checked as I always do. It looked seated. So I drove the locks.
It wasn’t seated.
Imagine trying to drive a slide bolt home when it isn’t properly aligned. Something is going to break. And something sure as heck did. The two shafts split like hot knives going through butter.
The mechanics said it was bound to happen sooner or later. The lock was fabricated in 1933. It’s been sliding home for millions of openings, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, every day since then. Metal fatigue, anyone? I just happened to draw the short straw, and be present for the opening that finally did it in.
Of course, nobody was sure that the lock was broken at first. Which meant I had to crawl down beneath the bridge, on an ice-coated, metal grate catwalk suspended 42 feet above the frigid canal, to try to manually crank the lock closed. Meanwhile traffic started to back up for miles.
When I reported back about my total lack of success, it was assumed that I didn’t know what I was doing. As with every male dominated workplace, it wasn’t until they arrived on the scene and couldn’t get the locks to budge either that they finally realized there was more to the problem.
The last time a lock was broken here in town, it was on the Ballard Bridge, and it cost the city about $50,000 to replace it. (It’s not like you can run down to the nearest Home Depot and pick up a replacement part.) But this time it was two shafts, not one, so I shudder to think how much this will cost.
The locks won’t be repaired until at least April. Meanwhile, we still have to open the bridge for vessels and then lock it to make it safe for traffic, so we have to employ pinsetters to run out to center span for every opening and shove a heavy metal pin in between both leaves and lock them together. This means the openings take a lot longer, and require much more team work. But you do what you have to do.
(Oh, and I tried to set the pins when the bridge first malfunctioned, so that the traffic could cross while we were trying to figure out what was wrong. The on call supervisor assumed that I didn’t do that right either. But you can’t set a pin on an improperly aligned bridge. So I climbed that ladder and lifted the 15 pound pin over my head, all while freezing to death, for absolutely nothing, not even appreciation for the effort.)
By the end of my shift, I was exhausted. My husband picked me up. I was so glad I wouldn’t have to drive home.
As I was getting into the truck, my ice-caked boots slipped off the running board and I fell face-first into a snow bank, wrenching my already aching back. I really earned my pay that day.
So imagine my shock when I returned to work a couple days later to hear that several of my coworkers accused me of not shoveling at all, and breaking the bridge due to my own negligence. Mind you, none of them had been there, and didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired.
No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.
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I’ve been making people late to work for more than 18 years. I open drawbridges for a living. And I love my job. Getting cursed at is, unfortunately, part of that job.
Once, a supervisor gave me some sage advice. “If you’ve safely opened the bridge and then you hear someone shout, don’t look. Because you probably won’t like the gesture or projectile that follows.”
It’s true. I’ve been pelted with eggs, rotten vegetables, and once, a full glass beer bottle, which shattered and drenched my clothes. I’ve also been flipped off, threatened, and called any number of unsavory names. Par for the course.
Here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) Bridgetenders are not trying to ruin your day. Truly, we aren’t. There are simply certain rules and federal regulations we are required to follow. Specifically, Coastguard Federal Regulations 33 Part 117. These regulations dictate when a bridge must open, when it can be delayed, what signals we must use, what equipment we must have, how we operate in an emergency.
Not only are we required to follow these federal regulations, but according to 33 U.S. Code 499, if we don’t, we can be fined up to $2000 and/or be thrown in jail for a year. Nothing personal, but I’d much rather make you late to work.
In less legal terms, consider this: Maritime law was around hundreds of years before cars existed. And heavy vessels can’t exactly slam on the brakes or take a side street if some bridgetender doesn’t want to hurt a motorist’s feelings.
So, yeah, from street level it may seem really annoying when one slow moving boat is backing up traffic for a mile. Even worse, the bridge may require an opening for maintenance purposes when there are no boats in sight. It may make you want to curse and throw things. But, you know, you should have thought of that before you chose this particular route. (Harsh, but true.)
So next time you’re waiting impatiently for a drawbridge to close, please remember that the bridgetender’s one and only goal is to maintain the safety of the traveling public. All of them, including you. And that may mean you have to wait your turn. At least try to enjoy the spectacular view while doing so.
For a really interesting podcast on this same subject, check out KUOW’s SoundQs “Um, why does that boat get priority over Seattle drivers?”
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At the risk of sounding outrageously egotistical, if you know me or read this blog with any regularity, then you most likely think of me whenever you see a drawbridge. They’re rare enough, and most bridgetenders tend to keep a low profile, so yeah, I am rather rare myself.
I like the concept that even years from now, some poor shmuck will be stuck at an open bridge and will say to his or her passenger, “I used to read a blog by someone who opens a drawbridge…”
That’s the closest I’ll ever get (and indeed the closest I want to get) to immortality. Some people have kids. I blog. If you do anything unique that makes people think of you when you’re not present, then you have that immortality thing going on, too. Feels pretty cool, doesn’t it?
I also get a kick out of the idea that if you’re not thinking of me when you see a drawbridge, maybe you’re thinking of Vincent Van Gogh. Or both of us. For a split second, I get to stand beside an amazing artist. I’m honored.
Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to cut my ear off. I’m practically blind without my glasses.
Incidentally, if you are into drawbridges, please consider joining my Drawbridge Lovers group on Facebook!
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At work, I spend a great deal of time watching boats float by on Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal. After a while, you start thinking of it as just another road. It’s water, but it seems solid. Slippery, yes, but solid.
Until it doesn’t. It’s a transit system, but people swim in it, and jump in it. People fall off paddle boards with a screech. Dogs leap in after balls. Fish jump out of it, and back in. Raptors dive in and pluck those same fish out. Occasionally a vessel sinks. People drown.
The one time I had the opportunity to take a kayak on it was very unsettling. Suddenly the whole depth thing was very, very, real. That, and if I wasn’t careful, I could actually get wet. What a concept!
It’s hard to remember how deep the water is, because all you deal with, usually, is the surface. (Before you ask, it has an average depth of 32 feet. But I had to look that up.)
You stop thinking about what lies beneath. The truth is, you can never be completely certain what’s down there. We humans do not enjoy uncertainty.
Looks can certainly be deceiving. But that’s mainly because most of us never bother to delve deeper. I think we’d all be much better off if we did.
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