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.

Catatumbolightning (4)
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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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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