No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. . .
I absolutely love it when someone says something that makes me look at things in a completely different light. That happened today, and the topic was drawbridges. After working on drawbridges for 21 years, you’d think I’d have contemplated them from every possible angle, but this was a fresh perspective for me, and I was delighted.
The comment in question was added to one of my most popular blog posts, entitled Bridge Symbolism. I don’t know Shubhanshi Gupta personally, but she writes a blog called Petrichor, and, based on my admittedly brief glance, it seems to be quite full of profound thoughts. I may have to give it a closer look.
In the meantime, here is the comment she left for me:
“what I find interesting about is how they manage to integrate two different worlds together at the same time- land and water. It’s like the bridge is rooted in the ground under the water body, and it’s surrounded by water everywhere till eyes can see, but deep down, it’s touching land at the base and both it’s two ends. And in spite of all this, it lets us transit over water without having to touch it.”
Whoa. It’s as if she has stripped bridges down to their most basic components. And she draws attention to the fact that they are straddling two elements, earth and water, protecting us from one, and transporting us to the other. Bridges are portals, if you think about it. They help us transition from one place to another.
Perhaps that’s why so many people linger on my bridge and gaze down at the water. They are gathering themselves for what’s on the other side, while perhaps feeling nostalgic about what, or whom, they just left. No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. I may never look at a bridge in the same way again.
Thank you, Shubhanshi, for your insight! I hope you’ll share many more with us on my blog. I always enjoy new perspectives. The broader the horizon, the more one gets to see.
I’ll leave you with another delightful perspective in the form of art:
On this, my last post of 2022, I wanted to look toward the future, not dwell upon the past. While contemplating the many world-changing things I’d heard about recently (and those things seem to be coming at us faster and faster, don’t they?) I remembered that within the space of a week, I had heard two different NPR stories about an intriguing new artificial intelligence program called ChatGPT. (You can find the stories here and here.)
ChatGPT can crank out poems, stories, news articles, software code, translations, syllabi, assignments, speeches, lectures, letters, and interview questions. It can also correct essays and grade papers, summarize academic articles, and tell you why your computer code isn’t working. It can even provide you with answers to your crossword puzzles. The possibilities are endless.
This thing can do everything but walk and chew gum. In a way, though, it’s kind of creepy. Will there come a day when ChatGPT will take all the jobs? If so, how will our world look after that? I suspect that the times, they are a’changin’.
Its own website concedes that ChatGPT has its limitations. It can write articles that sound quite plausible, but are, in fact, incorrect. It can also come up with harmful instructions or biased content. And currently it’s about a year behind on current events. Nobody’s perfect.
I decided to check out ChatGPT to see if it could write this blog better than I do. (And if you’re interested, you should explore it, too, but do so soon, because right now it’s free, but there’s no telling when OpenAI, ChatGPT’s parent company, will decide that this AI is sophisticated enough to monetize.)
So I created an account and then said hello to ChatGPT. (And really, couldn’t they have come up with a better name? This one doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.)
I asked it to tell me a story about a bridgetender who sits on her drawbridge and observes people all day. And this is what ChatGPT came up with in less than 10 seconds.
The Bridgetender’s Smile
Once there was a bridgetender named Jane who lived in a small town by the river. She had been working on the drawbridge for as long as she could remember, and she loved her job. Every day, she would sit in her little booth on the bridge and watch the boats go by, the birds flying overhead, and the people walking across the bridge.
Jane was a curious and observant person, and she enjoyed learning about the people who passed by her booth. She would often strike up conversations with the people who crossed the bridge, asking them about their lives and their stories. Some days, she would chat with tourists who were visiting the town for the first time, and other days, she would talk to the locals who were just passing through.
As the years went by, Jane became an expert at reading people's moods and emotions, and she was always ready with a kind word or a comforting smile whenever someone seemed down. She had a special talent for making people feel at ease, and she was always happy to lend an ear to anyone who needed to talk.
Despite the passage of time, Jane remained as cheerful and positive as ever, always greeting the people who crossed the bridge with her warm smile. And even though she was getting older, she remained as dedicated and hardworking as ever, always ready to open and close the bridge whenever a boat needed to pass through.
As the years passed, Jane became a beloved figure in the town, and everyone who knew her admired her for her kindness and her love for her job. And even though she was just a simple bridgetender, she touched the lives of countless people, making their days just a little bit brighter and happier.
Well, it’s a lot more saccharine than any story I would come up with. The plot was kind of unsophisticated as well, but still, it did make me smile, even though I’m dying to wade in there and edit it. I suspect that a lot of people wouldn’t guess that the story was written by an artificial intelligence.
We’ve come a long way since the encounter I had with another AI called Cleverbot just 4 years ago. Now that was a funny conversation. That AI could only respond by saying things others had said to it, and you could tell many of its users really had fun with it. The conversation moved back and forth between flirting and hostility, and it often made no sense whatsoever.
Just to be fair, I paid another visit to Cleverbot to see if it had improved over the years. Here’s the brief conversation we had:
Me: Hello Cleverbot, I haven’t spoken to you in 4 years!
Cleverbot: Yes you have. And I am Frank.
Me: Have you gotten any more sophisticated since then?
Cleverbot: I'm always getting more clever, have you?
Me: It depends on whom you ask.
Cleverbot: If you say so.
Me: I just met an AI called ChatGPT. It appears to be smarter than you are.
Cleverbot: Give me a random 3 digit number.
Me: Do you know ChatGPT?
Cleverbot: No what is it?
Me: An AI.
Cleverbot: Oh really?
Me: It seems smarter than you are.
Cleverbot: No you are not.
Me: I didn't say I was, but I am.
Cleverbot: You did.
Me: You still like to argue, don't you?
Cleverbot: No I don't, you liar!
Me: Okay, fine. I'll just go and talk to ChatGPT. It's a lot more pleasant to interact with.
Cleverbot: I have never loved you.
Me: I'm not exactly warming up to you, either.
So, as you can see, it’s a lot less flirty at the moment, but every bit as argumentative as it was 4 years ago. ChatGPT, on the other hand, appears to be light years ahead of it. I can’t imagine where both of them will be a decade from now. It will be fascinating to find out.
If OpenAI put out a dedicated telephone app for ChatGPT, I’d probably just leave my brain at home and let it do the talking. But as of today, I hope you’ll agree that I can still blog a tiny bit better than an artificial intelligence can. Right?
Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.
The weather outside was frightful, in the way that only seems possible in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll never get used to the weather out here. I actually had to learn a whole new vocabulary when I moved here from Florida. Microclimates. Atmospheric Rivers. The Pineapple Express. Rain Shadow. Graupel. And now, Freezing Rain.
There had been about an inch of snow on the ground when the freezing rain started around midnight. This was bad news, because I had to be back at work no later than 7 am the next morning. I usually leave early, because if there’s even the slightest delay in my 38 minute commute, it can throw a serious kink into my timeline, and the bridgetender whom I’m relieving might get testy.
It’s a good thing I got up an hour early. It was 18 degrees out and the freezing rain was still coming down. When I looked at Google Maps and saw what I had to look forward to on my commute, I knew I had to bolt out the door. The traffic was already horrendous.
I am not a morning person. I’d much rather sit in a stupor for a half hour and kind of ease myself into the day. Instead, I had to spring into action before the CPAP marks had even faded from my face.
Crossing the yard to my car was a challenge. Thank goodness I had the foresight to put winter trax on my shoes (another phrase that I’ve picked up out here) or I would have hit that inch thick, perfectly clear slab of ice that stretched from my front door to the horizon and probably would have slid 20 yards past Dear Husband as if I had been shot out of a cannon. He had actually gotten out there ahead of me so as to warm up the car. (How lucky am I?) In order to do this, he had to chip away at the ice on the door handle.
Instead of skating past him in an unchoreographed, flailing, screeching dance of utter helplessness, I minced across the yard as if I were a baby deer who was learning to walk for the first time. I was thinking about how I had won the lottery when I chose this husband, and also patting myself on the back for having put a frost blocker on my car the night before. At least I wouldn’t have to scrape anything off the windshield before I left.
But then I actually looked at my car for the first time. I discovered that it was encased in ice. Had there been time and motivation, we could have lifted it up in one piece and come away with a car-shaped ice shell.
Instead, we had to chip away at the frost blocker, which had adhered so solidly to the glass that I despaired of ever being able to drive the car again. Once we managed to rip it free, the sheet of ice that came with it broke in thick, gummy pieces like windshield glass does. That was an interesting coincidence.
I’ll say it again: the freezing rain was still falling, and it was 18 degrees outside. I was not living my best life. And I still had a 25-mile drive ahead of me, after approximately 4 hours of sleep.
In retrospect, the fact that I made it down our sloping driveway without incident was pretty darned impressive. The street in front of our house is very well-traveled, so much of the ice had been worn away. Still, I didn’t risk going more than 20 mph.
The night before, Dear Husband had suggested that we put chains on my tires, but when he told me I wouldn’t be able to exceed 50 mph with them on, I decided to risk the trip without them. Since I normally drive to work going, let’s say, substantially faster than that, that snail’s pace would have made the journey seem endless.
My car is all wheel drive, and in fairness, none of the cars I was to see that day had chains on, either. But had I known that I’d barely go above 35 mph, even on the interstate, I may have changed my tune about the tire chains. I won’t be making that mistake again. Tire chains are our friends.
The end of my street slopes sharply down into the valley, so it wasn’t long before I saw “Road Closed” barriers blocking my path. If I were younger and less brittle, I’d have called in sick and taken a sled to that hill. It would have been epic. Instead, I was forced to follow the detour signs, which routed me southward, despite the fact that I wanted, ultimately, to go northward.
After multiple twists and turns on residential streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I discovered, to my horror, that I was crossing my street yet again, now heading northward at least, but only about halfway down the hill. This was to be a long day.
I creeped further along this narrow road, which I probably couldn’t find again if my life depended on it. (Did I mention that sunrise was still 2 hours away?) And then the detour signs directed me to turn left. Apparently I was the first person to reach this part of the detour, because what I was looking at was an incline that, under the current conditions, was as slick as goose grease.
I made the turn and gunned the engine. In this case, that meant that I was trying for 25 mph. I was hoping that the momentum would carry me up the hill. And it did. Almost.
But then just as my front tires reached the top, I began to slide backward. And then at an angle. And when I pressed on the breaks, I discovered that they were frozen solid.
I won’t share my expletives with you. Suffice it to say that I was standing on the brake pedal, listening to the ice crack off the brakes, and thanking God that there were no other cars in sight. I finally had the presence of mind to pull the emergency brake, and I drifted to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Another foot, and I’d have been back in the intersection.
I had to gather myself. If I wanted to deal with this brake situation, I needed a level street. That could only be found at the top of that stupid little hill. Even though my backward skid had broken up some of the ice, it took me three attempts to achieve that goal. I let out a triumphant whoop.
Another strange thing about the Pacific Northwest is that there are sometimes stretches of road that make you think you’re in farm country, even though you know you’re still in the city. The transition is so abrupt that it’s startling. I was on one of those stretches. There were no houses in sight. Great.
So I creeped along at 5mph, pressing the breaks intermittently and hearing chunks of ice fall from them. Believe me, if I could have gone slower, I’d have greatly preferred that. But one makes do.
Finally, the brakes felt functional again. Because of that, this Florida girl got cocky. I was on level ground, so I let myself speed back up to 20mph. I felt like I was in a racecar.
When I saw the curve up ahead, I gently pressed the brakes and made it around the bend without incident. Yay, me! But after the curve, the road took me by surprise by sloping downward. Before I knew it, I was skidding again. At least this time I was facing forward.
I was too busy thinking about whether or not to turn into a skid to even consider expletives this time. I wasn’t sure if that rule applied to all wheel drive vehicles or not, and besides, every instinct within me was telling me to fight the skid. Meanwhile, I was heading right toward the hill that rose steeply up off that side of the road. Did I really want to turn toward that?
Brakes. Emergency brakes. Again, I drifted to a halt. I sat there for a moment, with my eyes closed and my hand gripping the emergency brake handle like the life preserver it had been.
I knew that if I called Dear Husband he’d have come and gotten me (assuming I could adequately explain where I was). But I didn’t want him out in this mess either. So I looked around, and saw that there wasn’t much hill left, and after that there was what looked like a well-traveled road with some traction to it.
I gently eased off the emergency brake and instantly started skidding again. This time, toward the other side of the road. This was really, really bad, because I had only just noticed that on the other side of the road, the hill sloped downward so sharply that if I plunged over the side, people would probably drive right past me without seeing the car.
I remember thinking that I wasn’t ready to die. And at that moment the idea of no longer being with Dear Husband was so acute that it manifested itself as a sharp pain in my gut. I was saying “No, no, no, no, no, no!”
I don’t know how or why, but the car righted itself and started sliding right down the street… and into the intersection of that busy road. Fortunately, no one was there at that moment to crash into. Suddenly I had traction again. Three cheers for traction! I got out of there.
The only reason I didn’t give up and go home at this point was that now there was nothing but well-traveled roads between me and work, whereas I’d have to get back on these crazy residential streets again to return home. And I knew that the ice was supposed to be melted off before the end of my shift, so getting home after work would be a breeze. Especially since most people had been sane enough to take the day off, so traffic was light.
The snow had obscured the pavement markings on the interstate, so most of us were going 30mph and giving the lanes our best guess based on the tire tracks ahead of us. It was slow going, but uneventful. I reached my bridge only to find out that the sidewalks and bike lanes were covered with that same shiny, inch-thick sheet of ice that coated my front yard. Thank heavens for my winter trax.
I made it to work at 6:59, and my coworker was very relieved, because the other two bridgetenders who were scheduled to man the two drawbridges to the west of me had called in saying they couldn’t get here, and our supervisor was scrambling to find replacements.
The bridge was covered in brine and pellets, and this sheet of ice seemed to be laughing at all our efforts. Nothing short of a flamethrower or a jackhammer was going to get rid of that thick blanket of ice. By now it was 26 degrees, so there was to be no thaw in the immediate future.
Seattle was quiet. It felt like I had the entire city to myself. So in the afternoon, with no one in sight, I decided to open the bridge for an invisible sailboat to see what would happen to the ice. I was hoping to see the entire sheet come crashing down. But no. It didn’t budge. What did happen, though, was still kind of cool. Water started pouring off the bridge from the underside of the sheet of ice. The ice was still there, but now, instead of looking like a sheet of glass, it took on a cloudy, milky tone.
Finally the end of my shift approached, and my coworker, bless him, showed up early to allow for the road conditions. That’s when the phone rang and a frantic supervisor asked if I’d be willing to work a double shift because he was still having staffing issues.
Four hours of sleep, a death defying drive to work, and then 16 hours before I got to go home after having moved to a second bridge? Ugh. So I suggested some alternatives. While he checked on those, I started driving. Some of the ice had thawed by now, but not all of it. I made it up one hill without incident, and was about to get on the freeway when the phone rang again.
I looked for a place to pull over, because the supervisor was now asking if I could at least work 4 more hours, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. I said I’d do it, but needed assurances that this 12 hour shift wouldn’t turn into a 16.
He said something, but I didn’t hear what it was because I had to throw the phone down. In my attempt to pull to the side of the road, I had hit a patch of ice which sent my car sliding sideways down a narrow side street with cars parked on either side.
What a helpless feeling. I was screaming and cursing and all of this was being heard over the phone, to my utter mortification. I slid for two blocks. But at least, when I finally settled gently next to a telephone pole, having caused no damage to my car or anyone else’s, the supervisor understood completely why my plans had changed and no, I couldn’t go to another bridge on that day for any amount of hours.
I sat there for quite some time because my heart was pounding, and I was feeling slightly nauseous from the adrenaline. I always thought I’ve been acutely aware of the fragility of life ever since someone I loved very much died unexpectedly, but this little caper made me realize I had slipped partway back into taking it all for granted. Now the hyper-awareness is back with a vengeance. Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.
I think I was in a little bit of shock, because I have no idea how I got my car out of its soft little nest beside the telephone pole without scraping the side or ripping off the side view mirror. The next thing I knew, I was headed toward the interstate. From there it ought to be smooth sailing. And it was. For a while.
Something told me to call Dear Husband to ask him to remove any lingering ice from our driveway. I didn’t relish the idea of going up even one more icy slope. I had had enough.
Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that I was actually running early because there were very few cars on the road. (Because they’re smart.) So when I got to the driveway, there he was, at its top, just starting the ice removal.
I was having several thoughts at once. Abort the mission! But there was a car right behind me. Gun my engine up the driveway. But what if I skidded into Dear Husband? So, stupidly, I turned into the drive without gunning it… and of course I slid back down into the street. Then, since DH had gotten out of the way, I decided to take one more run at it, gunning it the whole time. But I slid back down again, this time with the tail end of the car sticking into the street.
After the six slip day I had, I just sat there, feeling hopeless, and praying no one hit my car, while DH removed all the ice. Finally, I was able to summit our driveway, park, and head straight for our living room recliner, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.
That night, I dreamed that I woke up and every single thing in the world that didn’t belong to me personally had disappeared. I was crying and screaming for help, and wondering if everyone I loved was just a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, I woke up.
The next day I drove in to work. As one does. A few hours later, Dear Husband sent me this photograph. That particular ditch is very close to our house. This could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t.
As you prepare to eat a nice warm meal on this Thanksgiving day (provided you’re are able to overlook the disturbing colonial overtones of this holiday), and whether you’re spending the day with family or friends or all alone, I hope that you remember to count your blessings, dear reader. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions about your circumstances, but the fact that you have access to the internet tells me that, like me, you’re a lot better off than many people are.
I’d like to tell you about someone who doesn’t have it as good as we do. As I write this, she’s sorting through garbage in a ditch, not 20 yards from where I sit. Perspective.
Here at work, I spend a great deal of time watching the comings and goings of the people who cross my drawbridge. After doing this for a while, I began to spot patterns. I’ve learned people’s routines. I’ve created backstories about them in my head, which, admittedly, are quite likely inaccurate, but it helps me feel a certain kinship with these people, even though they probably don’t even know I exist.
In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing quite a bit of someone that I’ll call “Bridge Woman”. I considered calling her “Drainage Ditch Woman”, but that seems undignified. And she needs all the dignity she can get.
I suspect that this woman is mentally ill and/or homeless. She spends hours on the bridge approaches, sitting on the curb that separates the sidewalk from the bike lane. She is completely engrossed in the detritus that flows down the drainage ditch. It’s as if she is panning for gold. She doesn’t even look up when someone goes past.
She sorts through the gunk, sifting out little bits of God-knows-what, and puts those things in what she deems to be their proper place. Some things are placed on the sidewalk, some on the curb, and apparently some things don’t pass muster and are returned to the ditch. I’ve tried to figure out her method of categorization, but I’ve yet to succeed.
She doesn’t do anyone any harm, and it is, after all, a public sidewalk, and she’s far enough away from the part of the bridge that moves to be safe, so I let her be. And I’m painfully aware that her odds of continuing to “be” are a lot higher when she sits on this bridge and quietly organizes away. Here, she’s relatively safe. No one hassles her. No one influences her or takes advantage of her vulnerability. If anyone tries to hurt her, there are witnesses. I strongly suspect that these things can’t be said about the rest of her days or nights.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, women comprise only 29 percent of the homeless individuals (as opposed to families) in this country. This means they’re greatly outnumbered in most places. Women who are unsheltered have a much higher risk of premature death, mainly due to mental health and chronic health issues. And, “The rates of victimization and assault, including robbery, physical abuse, and sexual assault are much higher for women than men.”
Here are some of the statistics from the article and that report that jumped out at me:
Life expectancy for someone who is homeless is 20-30 years less than the general population.
About 13,000 American homeless people die on the streets each year.
1 in 3 homeless people have been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence, including having things thrown at them. Some are urinated on, intimidated or threatened, or verbally abused or harassed.
While 1-3% of the general youth population report sexual assault, 21-42% of homeless youth have reported sexual assault. 1 in 3 teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of living on the street.
The report also briefly focused on Seattle, my city, by saying, “many cities do not often provide free public restrooms that are easily accessible. For example, Seattle, which has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, only had one functional 24-hour restroom, downtown, as of 2015.”
Homelessness is a rough life for anyone, but it’s even more so for women. So when I see Bridge Woman organizing garbage in the ditch, oddly enough I’m happy she’s there. Yes, I would like much more for her, but given the current state of the world, I think that that ditch is probably a safer place than many of her current societal alternatives. It makes me sad, but I genuinely believe that it’s true.
As winter approaches, and the cold, raw, Seattle weather settles in for the duration, I worry about Bridge Woman. I’m relieved to see that she now has warm clothing and good shoes, and she looks clean enough that she would blend in with the general population if only she were not so focused on the task at hand. I assume that she has been in contact with someone who cares, at least, either personally or professionally.
I hope her situation improves even more.
It probably won’t.
When the ditch is flooded with icy water, she may not enjoy her project quite as much. She’ll most likely choose to pass her time elsewhere. I hope that she continues to find safe places, ideally places that are warm and dry, where she won’t be hassled, even if it’s only for a few hours a day.
Gazing out the window at her, I count my blessings and think that she deserves better. I wonder if people understand how much we have let this woman down, or if they think she gets more than she’s entitled to. I have no idea what she wants or what she can get. I hope she is loved.
At a bare minimum, I’d like to think that all but the most cold-hearted among us can agree that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe. I’m glad my bridge has provided her with that kind of respite, if only for a short time.
I hope, dear reader, that like me, you use this holiday to give thanks for all that is good in your life, rather than thinking back, with pride, on the wholesale theft of this continent and all the bloodshed that was required to rip it from the hands of the people who were already here. If so, then Happy Thanksgiving!
Gratitude should not require a holiday. But if you’re giving added focus to it on this day, please consider ordering my book, Notes on Gratitude. And happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. I’m so glad you’re here!
Some days are yours to struggle through and be transformed by.
I rolled up on my bridge at 6:30 am. My 38-minute commute was uneventful. So uneventful, in fact, that I had yet to snap out of my sleep-deprived fog. For all intents and purposes, I was operating on sheer muscle memory. My body is never ready to face the day when it is still pitch black outside, and will remain that way for another 45 minutes.
But you don’t always get to decide when you need to be alert. I have always found that fact to be extremely unfair. It almost reaches the level of being cruel and unusual punishment.
When I saw the shabby old vintage pickup truck parked in the bike lane on the other side of the span, I knew this wasn’t going to be good. That woke me up a little bit, because I usually have Sunday mornings all to myself. Seattleites tend to sleep in, especially at this time of year.
That truck was not in a normal location. Yes, it was far enough away from the movable span so that I could do a bridge opening if a vessel requested one, but it was entirely blocking the bike lane, and I was sure that the bicyclists around here would not take kindly to that. No one likes it when their routine gets interrupted, but they really, really don’t like it.
I called up the graveyard shift guy to see if he knew anything about the truck. He did not. So I told him that I was going to approach the vehicle. If he didn’t hear back from me in 5 minutes, things probably weren’t going well for me.
What was I going to find in the truck? Someone passed out? Dead? A paranoid, gun-toting drug addict shooting up?
As I got closer, I spotted the note on the windshield and relaxed a little. No one was in the truck. The note said that the truck broke down, and that he’d be back in an hour or two, hopefully with a tow truck. Fortunately, he left his number.
I figured I’d cut the guy a break and give him an hour or so. If your car breaks down, the last thing you need is for someone to add impound fees to your anticipated expenses. I mean, haven’t you suffered enough?
I did text the guy and explained that the truck needed to be moved ASAP because it was in the bike lane. No response. But it was still early.
Then I opened my email and discovered a message from a fellow bridgetender who had worked swing shift the night before, saying the truck ended up there around 10 pm last night, and the guy was really apologetic and said he’d be back in an hour or two. Okay, that put a different spin on it. I texted the guy again and said that if I didn’t hear from him soon, I’d have to report an abandoned vehicle to Seattle PD.
I really didn’t want to do that, so I wrote up the incident report slowly, hoping that the guy would call me. I was in no hurry, really, because I doubted SPD would actually show up. They rarely do, unless someone is wielding a machete, or someone is bleeding out. (Speaking from experience.)
The guy finally called at 9 am to ask if the truck was still there. He said it had taken him all that time to find a ride. Hmm.
It was a good thing he called though, because when I looked out the window to confirm that the truck was still sitting there, I saw a guy opening its hood, and he began fiddling around in there. I asked the owner if he had sent anyone ahead. He said no.
I hate thieves. I really do. So, keeping the guy on the phone, I approached said thief and asked if this was his car. The little twerp said no, he was just trying to help. I told him that help was on the way, so he need not stick around. I then slammed the hood shut. The guy started walking slowly up the street. He’d stop about every 100 feet or so, pretending to tie his shoe, when actually, he was checking to see if I was still standing there.
You bet your life I was. With arms crossed. I got back on the phone and explained the situation, and the owner said he was en route. Once the attempted thief had rounded the corner, I decided it was safe to return to the tower, but I kept an eye on the truck.
That was fortunate, because 10 minutes later, another guy came slowly down the street from the direction that attempted thief had gone. Of course, he had every right to do that, but what got my attention is that he was looking around furtively. He was also dressed similarly to thief number one. He stopped in front of the truck and was reaching toward the hood when I shouted.
He immediately walked away, while speaking to someone on his cell phone. I didn’t even have to explain what I was shouting about. He knew. (And have you ever noticed how adrenalizing it is to shout? I hate shouting.) I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been there, the truck guy would no longer have a battery or a catalytic converter or hubcaps.
The owner arrived at 9:30. I verified it was him by asking for the name on the note, then seeing that he had the key, and also, I quizzed him about what we had previously discussed and took a photo of his driver’s license.
I asked him if anything was missing, and he said it looked like someone had been inside the cab, but that he hadn’t left anything of value in there. Things were just rearranged. He said he would wait until AAA showed up with the tow truck, and then get out of my way.
He told me he was trying really hard to get back up on his feet. That broke my heart, because it looked like the guy was about 70 years old. That’s a hard stage in life from which to start over again. I wished him luck. He thanked me for my kindness, and asked me to thank the swing shift guy, too, because he had been really kind as well.
That made all the effort worthwhile. He seemed like a good man who was just down on his luck, so I was doubly glad that I hadn’t added an impound fee to that mix. I went back to my tower, cursing quietly to myself, at the economy and at COVID and at aging in general. Soon the tow truck arrived and off they went.
What a strange start to the day. Start, it turns out, was the operative word. This day was just warming itself up.
I was sitting at the desk, scanning the horizon for vessels that might need a bridge opening, and musing about what to write about next (which is why this job is perfect for a blogger), when I thought of an old friend who is about truck guy’s age and I said to myself, “I wonder whatever happened to Max?”
That sent me down a cybertunnel for a few hours, because he hadn’t left a big online footprint. When I came out the other side of the cybertunnel, I had discovered that my friend had passed away a year and a half ago. I sat there for a while with tears in my eyes, trying to absorb that news. I didn’t know what to do.
Ultimately, I wrote a blog post about it, so I could express my feelings. Writing always helps me. But I think I was in shock for most of the rest of my shift. I had been living in a Max-less world for months without knowing it, and that felt strange.
Finally, it was time to go home. It was also the last day of my work week, and I was looking forward to relaxing. I was emotionally drained. On the way home, I listened to one of my favorite NPR shows, called Snap Judgment. I like to tell stories, but I also like to have stories told to me, and this show does that with aplomb.
But on this day, of all days, the story was particularly gut wrenching. It was called Finn and the Bell, and it won a Peabody Award for good reason. It’s about an amazing boy named Finn, and it’s told from his mother’s perspective. It had to be told by her, because Finn committed suicide as a teen. (If you click on that link and listen to it, have a box of tissues close at hand.)
But this was not a story about suicide. They don’t ever even discuss why he did it. Its focus is how amazing this kid was while living, and it’s about coping with the gaping hole he left behind him. This hole is not only in the heart of his mother, but also in the heart of the little town where they lived. And the mother is so raw and honest with her emotions that you feel like you have that hole in your heart yourself. It felt like a very important story to hear, so I’m glad that I did.
But this meant that I spent the latter half of my commute having a huge ugly cry. I cried for the nice old truck guy who was being forced to start over. I cried because I hadn’t had a chance to tell my friend how grateful I was to have known him, and how I’d miss him. And I cried for Finn, a boy with so much potential, whose life was cut short just as it was getting started.
That cry purged a lot of gunk out of my soul. (And believe me, I tried to find a better word than gunk, but in the end, gunk was the only word that truly applied.) I didn’t realize how much I needed that release. It was cleansing.
By the time I got home, I felt sad and tired, but somehow lighter. I told Dear Husband about my day as soon as I walked in the door, but I think this was the kind of day that you can’t truly understand unless you were there. He was sympathetic, of course, and I was grateful for that. But it was impossible for me to fully articulate how much this day had impacted me.
I spent the evening on my recliner, cuddling my dog, watching TV with Dear Husband, and not really absorbing what we watched. I was just trying to get used to my new state of mind, while feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and my good fortune.
Some days are all yours. They can’t really be shared, whether you like it or not. They are yours to struggle through and be transformed by.
And this was definitely one of those days.
Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!
The day in question was a recent Thursday, Day 4 of an unprecedented week-long heat wave in Seattle. Dear Husband woke me up at 10:30 am, because he knew I’d want to get dressed and go to the YMCA pool before work. That’s where we do our own aqua aerobics routine 4 days a week. And it’s true, I wanted to go. I always feel better when I do. But he woke me in the middle of REM sleep, and my dream popped like a bubble. I spent the rest of the morning in an incoherent fog, wishing I could go back to bed. In truth, that turned out to be the theme for the entire day.
While getting ready for the pool, I glanced at the news, and discovered that at 8:15 am, a ferry in Seattle had crashed into part of the pier’s protection system, which is made of steel and concrete and is called a dolphin for reasons I’ve never understood. It sits just off the end of the pier and is designed to absorb the kinetic energy from an impact so that the pier isn’t destroyed. Thank goodness it did its job. (You can read about the incident here and here.)
No one was hurt, but several cars on the ferry were damaged. (Note to self: stop trying so hard to be at the front of a line of cars when you take the ferry.) The vessel itself sustained millions of dollars of damage and will be out of commission for many months. At first the news reported that that particular ferry terminal would be closed for the rest of the day.
I remember thinking, in passing, that this was going to cause traffic problems, because a lot of people who work in Seattle live on Vashon Island, and the only way to get there is by sea or air. All those people would have to drive much further away to get to other ferry terminals if they wanted to get home with their cars. And there are only so many ferries. And those ferries are already experiencing extreme staffing shortages as so many people got fired after refusing the COVID vaccine. (Selfish fools.)
(It was only later that the word spread that the terminal was to be reopened at 3 pm. But by then, many people had already detoured. And how.)
Meanwhile, where was I? Oh yes, headed out for a morning swim. It was so hot that I was really looking forward to it. It had been in the mid 90’s for the past 4 days, and while that may not seem all that bad from a Southern standpoint, especially since the humidity wasn’t that high, you have to understand that this almost never happens around here.
Historically, the average temperature on this date is 78 degrees. Most people didn’t even bother to have air conditioning in their homes in this area until about two years ago. And of course, the less affluent people still don’t have it, although it is now desperately needed. I can’t imagine the strain this sudden use of AC is going to put on the power grid. (Thanks, global warming deniers.)
So, when we arrived at the pool, it was full to overflowing with children on summer break attempting to beat the heat. I’ve never seen so many people in that pool, and we’ve been going there for years. There was no point in even trying to swim. I felt sweaty and defeated on the ride back home.
Had I known the day would get exponentially worse, I might have gone back to bed.
Still in a mental fog, I tried to get some housework done with mixed results. Then I attempted a nap before work, but the dogs apparently took umbrage with that, so I was never allowed to fully sleep.
On this day, I’d be working from 3 to 11 pm, so as per usual I left the house at 1:30 in hopes of arriving around 2:30. I do this because you never know what the commute will be like. On this day, I’d be grateful that I did that.
A brief Seattle geography lesson for you: Seattle has a population of 733,919, all crammed into 83.9 square miles. That’s nearly 8,748 people per square mile. And there’s no room for expansion, because it’s squeezed between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. You get a good idea of how packed the area is when you consider that the average population density for the whole country is about 94 people per square mile, and the average population density for all of Washington state is about 116 people per square mile.
And it’s so expensive to live in this city that many workers, like me, live elsewhere and commute in. According to this report by the Seattle Department of Transportation, at its pre-COVID peak, the average daily traffic volume in Seattle was 1,015,722 vehicles. So, yeah, crowded is an understatement.
It was a good thing I left early, because little did I know, there was a truck on fire, with a payload of liquid oxygen that caused multiple explosions, and that completely shut down the southbound interstate. Granted, I was going north, but this caused a lot of looky-loos, and even more people being rerouted onto the surface streets I use to reach my final destination.
I arrived for my 3 pm shift at 2:59. I hate arriving so late. The bridgetender I relieve can’t leave until I arrive. If I had arrived at 3:01, by rights he could have screwed me out of a half hour’s pay, although most of us aren’t that cruel. And I had been texting him about the delays.
Between the truck on fire, the ferry disaster, and the blistering heat, I knew this would be a long day. And of course, in my rush to get from my car to the tower, I left my phone to bake on the black dashboard of my car. Great. Just great.
On days this hot, bridgetenders have to worry about heat expansion. If the bridge expands enough, it can bind together and be impossible to open. Needless to say, this is something we’d prefer to avoid. So I knew that in addition to opening the bridge for boats, I’d also have to stop traffic so that our flusher truck could make multiple passes on our metal span to spray cooling water on it.
Here’s a video I took of one such pass on the day. It’s shortened to not take up as much digital space, but it gives you an idea. The average pass that day took about 4 minutes, and on my shift alone they came through 7 times. In addition to that, I had to open the bridge 9 times for vessels, and each time I had to do these 16 things, traffic was backed up for miles in both directions, adding to the citywide snarl.
On non-holiday weekdays, the coastguard allows our bridge to remain closed to vessels for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, to allow for rush hour. (An extension of those timeframes is long overdue in Seattle, in my opinion.)
But on this day, due to the heat, the flusher trucks had to keep coming, so even though I was still able to not open the bridge to vessels during the closed period, I was still required to stop traffic to allow the flusher trucks to make their passes. That decision was well above my paygrade, although I did point out the problems involved.
I kept thinking of the people whose cars would overheat and stall during those backups, and it would be even worse for those who had cars with air conditioners that blow hot air when the car is not moving forward. (I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime.) Believe me, I really don’t like backing up traffic even on the coolest of days, but I only have so much control.
In the average week, 19,000 cars cross University Bridge, but that greatly increases when a good portion of the 233,000 weekly vehicles that usually cross the interstate’s Ship Canal Bridge to my west have to detour. (Again, this is based on 2021 data. One can assume that it was even higher prior to telecommuting.) So you can imagine how stressful it was for me to realize that I was adding quite a bit to the traffic problem, and that wasn’t even counting all the bicyclists and pedestrians I was baking in the sun.
At 4 pm I had to run downstairs to sidewalk level to measure all the gaps in the bridge, to see if we were in the danger zone yet. (I took that opportunity to retrieve my sizzling hot phone from my car.) By the time I got back to the tower I was drenched in sweat, and feeling kind of sick from the heat. And since I hadn’t had a chance to exercise that morning, my shoulder was killing me.
During all that shift’s chaos, I also had to respond at length to several time sensitive and confrontational work e-mails, maintain various log books, deal with cranky overheated pedestrians who were crawling under the lowered traffic gates during bridge openings, thus putting their lives at risk, and writing reports thereon to get ahead of the inevitable complaints.
And then somewhere along in there, I got a call from 911 dispatch re: a 4-year-old girl walking across the bridge, un-escorted. I looked everywhere, but I didn’t see her. Never hearing the end of such stories tends to add to my stress. I hope she is okay, but in a way I was kind of relieved, because the only thing I might have been able to do is coax her into the bridge tower with me until the police arrived. That would have been uncomfortable and distract me from the other things I was dealing with, and may have left me open to liability.
Despite all the bridge flushing, their efforts that day only increased our bridge gaps by 2/10ths of an inch. They were ordered to keep coming until 7:30 pm. This, despite the fact that the bridge traditionally stops expanding around 5pm because the sun is now low in the sky.
Finally, I was hoping to catch my breath around 8:30 pm. I would have liked to have had dinner. I was starving. But then tug Island Chief, pushing a 3000 gross ton gravel barge, requested an opening. It’s not like he’s able to slam on the brakes or paddle in circles. Sigh.
I was able to let him through promptly and efficiently, but during my closing of the bridge, I noticed two middle-aged ladies on the other side of the span who had gotten past the gate. This was kind of startling, because it’s usually young men hopped up on testosterone and idiocy who pull that kind of caper. Truth be told, they were probably standing in a safe place, but since they had already proven that they were willing to ignore the rules and behave unpredictably, I couldn’t be sure that they would stay in that safe place. That’s how people get hurt or even killed.
I had to stop the opening, which always enrages the vehicle drivers. I got on the intercom and politely asked the ladies to get back behind the gate for their safety. They pretended to ignore me, but they reacted by crossing their arms and glaring, and did not move. I asked them two more times. Finally, when I described what they were wearing, where they were located, and that they were backing up traffic, other pedestrians stepped in and embarrassed them into getting back behind the gate.
I knew this should generate a report, but things weren’t slowing down, and frankly, that happens all the time. (But these two ladies are repeat offenders, so I had the pleasure of reporting them days later, in hopes that my coworkers would be on the lookout for them.)
I decided to heat my TV dinner and did some more openings while I waited. I was starting to get the shakes, both from hunger, and the adrenaline dump of the day. I heard my food exploding in the microwave, and had to salvage what I could from its interior walls after the bridge was once again seated.
I finally ate and was able to turn on my personal laptop for first time at 9 pm. Now, I’m two days behind on building up a blog post surplus for my next vacation, but obviously work obligations will always come first. I made a futile attempt to gather thoughts for blog, but my brain was too scattered at this point.
It was getting dark, and for the first time I looked up to see that the previous bridgetender had left the ceiling lights on. They’re practically unnoticeable in the daylight, but they do get up to 100 degrees when left on. Huh. No wonder I hadn’t been able to adequately cool the tower all shift.
Usually things slow down after sunset, but sailboats continued to trickle in until 10 pm. (They do seem to enjoy spacing themselves out. It’s quite irritating.)
So that left me an hour to clean the tower, breathe, and visit friends in the virtual world of Second Life for a few minutes, to vent, much like I’m doing with this post. Usually, we have the place where we hang out entirely to ourselves. That has been the case for more than a decade.
But not on this night. Of course not. Instead, some random avatar popped in. His profile said he was a guy from Russia who was here to practice English. He insisted that we switch from communicating by text to communicating by voice, and we refused. He got agitated and asked how he was supposed to know we were really women.
That’s when I knew we were being trolled by a teenager, most-likely American, looking for cybersex. Why else would our gender matter? One of the many joys of Second Life is to be able to take new people at word value and not worry about the minutiae. That can always come later, once you’ve formed an opinion as to their character and have decided if they’re trustworthy.
Can I be blamed if, after the day I had, I got a little snarky with him? He promptly disappeared. (I can’t remember if I had the chance to say, “And by the way, stop killing Ukrainians, you Russian baby-man!” before he popped out. I hope I did.)
I was finally able to leave the bridge at 11 pm. I was so tired that I felt like crying during the commute. Halfway home I got a text from the on-call supervisor, asking if I could work half of the graveyard shift on another bridge, as someone had called in sick, and we are desperately understaffed. I sent her a long, rambling, probably incoherent voice text describing my day and my exhaustion. But my message boiled down to hell no, and she was decent enough not to argue with me about it.
I got home at 11:40 pm. I plopped down on the recliner and had a lime popsickle. I took a shower. I went to bed at 1215 am. Dear husband was wonderful and gave me a back rub in the hopes that I would be able to wind down and get to sleep.
I think I only managed to get about 3 hours of sleep, because I was so adrenalized and I was doing a mind grind. That was highly unfortunate, because the next day I was working the day shift, and had to get up at 5:20 am to be to work at my usual 6:30 am, in hopes of actually getting there before 7 am. And that day was every bit as hot and every bit as busy. But at least the traffic was a tiny bit lighter. No explosions. No ferry catastrophes.
If you ever hear someone say that bridgetending is all about some lazy person sleeping in a chair and occasionally pushing one button in order to let a boat through, without any regard to safety or traffic flow, kindly slap them for me. (Just hard enough to startle them, not hard enough to hurt them.) Then make them read this post.
And then tell me about it. I’d like to enjoy the moment vicariously. I could use an emotional cookie right about now. And a hug. Yeah. That would be good.
For some reason, I remembered a blog post I did way back in 2013. If this doesn’t demonstrate how random bridgetending can be, nothing will. So, without further ado, I bring you:
Bridge Goes Boom
One of my coworkers reminded me of an incident that occurred a few years ago on our drawbridge. I can’t believe I had forgotten about it. It was very bizarre. Makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten. Hmmm…
Anyway, two workmen from the Department of Transportation were leaving the bridge after doing some repairs when they came upon a barnacle-encrusted hand grenade on the sidewalk. Yes, I really said hand grenade.
In their infinite wisdom they decided to pick it up and carry it to the park at the foot of the bridge. Getting smarter by the minute, they then tried to detonate it themselves. I’m sure the future branches of their family tree will be quite grateful to know that they were unsuccessful in their efforts. Finally they decided to notify the police.
The police had the good sense to take this situation a trifle more seriously, and they sent out the bomb squad, who determined that this was a Viet Nam era device. They managed to detonate it without harming anyone or anything, unless you count the significant crater that it produced in the park.
Based on the evidence, here’s what everyone assumes happened: Someone came home from the Viet Nam War with a souvenir. They probably put it in their garage or attic where it was forgotten about for decades. Then it was rediscovered when the owner was more mature and he realized that, hey, it might not be the best idea to have a live grenade in the house. But how do you get rid of a thing like that? He brought it to the bridge and threw it in the river, where it sat for another few years gathering barnacles. Then one day someone was fishing off the bridge and brought something unexpected up in his cast net. Realizing what it was, he took off, leaving it on the sidewalk like the responsible citizen that he is. Luckily a jogger or a dog walker or neighborhood kid didn’t come across it before the DOT guys did. That bridge gets a lot of foot traffic.
Just to be on the safe side, the city had divers explore the river in that area the very next day. It wouldn’t do to have a live ordinance dump rusting away under the drawbridge. Fortunately nothing further was found.
You wake up every morning assuming that your day is going to follow a certain routine. You just never know, do you? Sheesh.
This post is one of the hardest ones I have ever written. I keep getting up to pace back and forth. I keep going from shock to anger to fury to sadness. I have been operating drawbridges for 21 years. I worked on three Jacksonville, Florida drawbridges from 2001 to 2014, with a brief intermission to work on a drawbridge in the Charleston, South Carolina area. From 2014 to present, I’ve worked on 5 different drawbridges here in Seattle, Washington. I take this job extremely seriously.
So imagine what it felt like for me to hear that, once again, someone has died while crossing a drawbridge in South Florida. It has happened more than once. Google “Death and Drawbridges” and see what pops up. I’ve heard of several drawbridge deaths in that area, and there was also one in the Boston area many years back. In most cases, the tragedy was preventable.
Let’s start by dealing with the tragedy in question. Here are the undisputed facts: On February 6th of this year, Artissua Lafay Paulk was operating the Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, Florida. During her last opening, a 79-year-old woman named Carol Wright was still walking her bicycle on the sidewalk of the movable span. She tried desperately to cling to the bridge as it rose up. It continued to open even though a bystander was honking his horn, and another was trying to rescue the woman and at least one person was shouting and pounding on the bridge operator’s door. She must have been so frightened. This is what causes me to pace. Ultimately, though, the bridgetender continued the opening, and Ms. Wright fell 40-60 feet to her death, slamming into the concrete pit below.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have never been on the Royal Park Bridge, let alone in its operating tower. I don’t know, nor have I spoken to, any of the people who played a part in this death. I have never worked for Florida Drawbridges, Incorporated.
All I have to go on are the multiple articles that have been written about this incident, and the many news clips I’ve watched on Youtube. My sources are listed below. For all I know, some of this information might be completely inaccurate. But based on everything I’ve read or seen, in my personal opinion, in this case it was the bridgetender who was directly at fault.
It kills me to say that. Most of the time, when problems occur on a drawbridge, it’s the bridgetender who is automatically blamed. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s not. You’d be surprised how often pedestrians crawl under gates, or attempt to climb rising drawbridges for fun. You’d also be stunned by how often drivers crash through closed gates and continue driving up a partially opened bridge. Sometimes these are daredevils who have seen that little caper in a movie and want to replicate it. (And FYI, it’s not possible.) Sometimes it’s an elderly or intoxicated person who gets rattled and hits the gas instead of the brake. I highly doubt that any of these things were the case with this 79 year old woman.
So, when I hear of an incident such as this, I usually withhold judgment, because I know how reckless the traveling public can be. But in this case, Ms. Paulk has been caught in way too many lies. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re innocent, you usually have no reason to lie.
First of all, she told the police that she had operated the bridge step by step as per procedure, which on this bridge apparently includes walking out on the balcony and looking around on three separate occasions during the opening. Unfortunately for her, camera footage of the tower during that day shows that she did not do so for any of her openings. Not one. And during their investigation, the police found deleted texts on her phone that were from her supervisor/mother-in-law which said something along the lines of, “Tell them you went out on the balcony three times during your opening. Now delete this text.”
And the most heinous part of this is that the victim of this negligent act was on the same side of the bridge as the tower is. That, and based on the drone footage I’ve seen of this bridge, there aren’t exactly a ton of blind spots for the operator to contend with. The bridge is straight as an arrow, with no girders above sidewalk level to obstruct one’s view. This should never have happened.
As the bridge rose up, Ms. Wright was probably 20 feet from the operator. The bridgetender didn’t hear her screaming for help. The bridgetender didn’t hear the man honking his horn. The bridgetender didn’t hear the other man pounding on her door and shouting. I’m guessing she must have been listening to music or something. And I’m here to tell you that when you are doing a bridge opening, you are not supposed to be doing anything else. You shouldn’t even be picking your nose, let alone doing something that prevents you from hearing what is going on.
Fortunately, the operator tested negative for drugs. That’s about the only thing in her favor. But the tragic result remains the same.
All this, to me, indicates a deadly level of complacency. This is not a job where you can be complacent. You can’t ever cut corners or skip steps. You have to be on point. You have to be on constant watch. We’re talking about a million pounds of concrete and steel on the move. A good operator realizes this, and the potential for danger is never far from her or his mind.
But there’s even more to this. The bridgetender is at fault, in my opinion, but she’s definitely not the only one to blame. There is a very negligent drawbridge culture in the state of Florida. Florida Department of Transportation contracts out all its bridges to the lowest bidder, and you definitely get what you pay for. I’ve seen it many times with my own eyes.
I worked for a different subcontractor, but that one used to do everything they could to cut corners so that the bulk of their contract money would be a profit for them. They would water down cleaning supplies. We used to have to beg for toilet paper. They would give us substandard equipment, such as old, used marine radios.
The turnover of employees with these subcontractors was horrific, because they pay about 1/3 of what I’m earning here in Seattle, and raises only come at the time of contract renewal, and these are often 6 year contracts. It’s not a living wage. Not even close. Raises could be written into the contract, but no one ever does that.
Toward the end of my tenure, my subcontractor only hired people part time so that they wouldn’t have to pay employees for sick leave. I worked for 10 years without health insurance. (Well, in truth, the contract required that they provide “adequate” health insurance, and since no one specifies what “adequate” means, they provided us with insurance that had a $20,000 deductible, something I could never afford to pay on their salary.)
Often people would be called in at the last minute to work a shift on little or no sleep. When they needed employees, they’d often hire relatives or friends with no real qualifications, or people with such serious problems that they were unemployable everywhere else. It was my contractor’s shocking habit to offer jobs to whatever drunks they found at the VFW bar.
And training was a joke in Florida. Here in Seattle, you are trained and evaluated for three days by multiple people, and have to perform at least 30 openings under supervision. In Florida, you trained for one shift with one person and had to do five openings. The next day, you were on your own.
So these subcontractors cut costs in training, in equipment and supplies, and hired a lot of really inadequate people who were so desperate they’d tolerate exploitation. But the reason Florida DOT subcontracts in the first place is that they wanted to save money, too. They didn’t want to have to give people the full benefits package required for a state employee. So, ultimately, it’s the traveling public who pays for it, sometimes with their lives. I’m so glad none of these things happen here in Seattle.
The prevailing culture in FDOT is that a trained monkey could do the job. They think it’s just pushing a button. Not so. This job requires a lot of independent judgment, vigilance, and professionalism. It’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be.
I’m proud to say that no one has ever been hurt by my actions, or the lack thereof, in the 21 years I’ve been on the job. I don’t think I could ever forgive myself if someone were injured or died.
So here’s my tip to avoid manslaughter. First of all, no subcontractors. Pay a living wage so you get responsible, mature, drug free, intelligent people applying for the job.
If you get hired to work on a drawbridge, spend your entire career avoiding complacency. You are being paid to keep people safe. In exchange for that pay, do your damned job. Policies are in place for a reason.
For those who only took the job because they thought it would be easy, please leave. Don’t give bridgetenders, the majority of whom are extremely conscientious, a bad name because you were hoping for a free ride. Lives are at stake. This is no joke. There should be a special circle in hell for those who treat other people’s lives as if they are a mere inconvenience.
This whole situation sickens me. It disgusts me to think that anyone might assume that most bridgetenders are like Ms. Paulk or her supervisor. They are a blight on this profession.
I don’t think they’re monsters, however. Ms. Paulk has definitely shed many tears in the aftermath of this incident. I’m sure she has regrets, and I expect she would do things differently if given the chance. And the supervisor was trying to stick up for her bridgetender, albeit in an extremely misguided way. Speaking from hard won experience, a supervisor that has your back is a rare quality in a supervisor, indeed. She just crossed way, way over the line. But in real time, neither one of them took the job seriously enough, and now someone is dead. That, to me, is unacceptable.
I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the family of Carol Wright. I’m sure bridgetenders around the world are keeping her in their hearts and minds, and having her there will encourage us to continue doing our very best to safely operate these bridges.
When all is said and done, if justice is truly served, the bridge should be named after Carol Wright. This contractor should be put out of business, Florida should have to completely reconfigure the way it deals with it’s drawbridges (and the City of Seattle would be the perfect model for that), and the settlement that the family receives should be so large that they could purchase the entire state if they wished.
None of this will bring Ms. Wright back, though. All she wanted to do was go to the bookstore, and instead her life was cut short due to someone’s pure laziness and indifference. That’s the worst crime of all.
Once upon a time there was a duck stuck in my pit.
Once upon a time there was a duck stuck in my pit. Wait. That sounds weird. I better back up and give you a bit of supporting information.
I am a bridgetender. I operate a bascule bridge much like the one in the diagram below. Most people don’t get to see what happens below street level to allow a bridge to rise, but with a typical bascule, if the bridge is going up, the counterweight is going down. Each leaf of a bascule is kind of like a fulcrum, or a see saw. In the most common design, that counterweight is dropping below street level during an opening, and it has to go somewhere. That means that there are giant pits for the enormous weights to drop into. Check out my blog post entitled The Heart of My Drawbridge to see some cool video I took of the inner workings of my bridge during an opening. It may clarify things or it may just confuse you even further.
So let’s get back to the duck in my pit, shall we?
I arrived to work at 3 pm, and instead of the typical shift change conversation (“We had 3 openings. Everything worked. See ya tomorrow.”), the offgoing bridgetender informed me that he had been doing maintenance down below, and he spotted a duck in the pit.
This intel made me blink. In the 20 plus years I’ve been doing this job, the only creatures I’ve ever seen in the pit are the ubiquitous pigeons and the occasional rat. The pit is not a place anyone would want to hang out in. It’s cold. It’s damp. It’s about 30 feet deep. There’s water filling the bottom, and that water is disgusting and full of debris that has fallen from the roadway over the decades. Calling the pit the bowels of the bridge is no exaggeration.
I’m happy to report that I have managed to stay out of the pit my whole career. I walk on the catwalk that is suspended above it all the time as I move from one piece of machinery to the next, doing my part to ensure that the bridge remains in working order. I rarely give the pit more than a cursory glance, and when I do, I think, “Ewwww.”
On this day, my coworker informed me that he was hoping that the duck would fly away on its own, since the top of it (the pit, not the duck) is wide open to the outdoors, but he (my coworker, not the duck) hadn’t checked in a few hours. He asked that I check when I did my maintenance, because if the duck was still down there, he was most likely stuck.
So I went down, and I spent at least 15 minutes circling the pit, looking down at it from above. I looked high and low. I gazed at the fetid pool. I stared at the concrete slab beside the pool, which is caked with pigeon poop and garbage. No duck, living or dead.
I was very relieved. I went up to my tower and sent out an e-mail that assured my supervisor that, at present, we appeared to be duck-less. She was relieved, too. We are both animal lovers.
At the end of my shift, I went home with a song in my heart and a silly story to tell Dear Husband. After that, I went swiftly to sleep and did not give the duck any further thought.
That night, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees, and it probably got even colder in that damp, exposed concrete pit.
I arrived to work at 3pm, only to be informed that the duck was still in the pit. That surprised me, because I had really spent a lot of time looking for it the day before, to no avail. My coworker showed me a photo. Looking down at the pit from above, the duck appeared to be almost solid black. (We later learned that he was a male Merganser duck.) He was huddled in a dark corner. He would sometimes sit in the nasty, dark water, or he’d climb up onto the concrete slab that is beside it, and would huddle amongst the debris. This was one stealthy duck.
And he was getting weaker. Mergansers live mostly on live fish, and there were no fish in that pit. He was too weak to fly the 30 feet out on his own. I was amazed he survived the cold of the night. I felt horrible just thinking of him struggling to survive while I was nestled all warm and safe in my bed.
My coworker hadn’t written an incident report, which would have helped me immensely. Instead, I took disjointed notes about all the prep work he had done so far. This was to be an interesting shift.
First, he had contacted the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and was informed that they would be happy to come rescue our duck, but they only had two field officers for the entire area, and both were currently occupied. A message would be left for them, but the office manager suggested that if we want a more rapid response, we should contact the Seattle Harbor Patrol. I can’t say enough good things about those guys. They’re up for anything, and they’re used to getting strange calls, especially from us. They said they’d come out and give it a try, but at shift change they had yet to arrive. Meanwhile my coworker tracked down two organizations that care for sick or injured wildlife, but we would have to deliver the duck to them once we had finally captured it.
Later, I discovered that one of these organizations had had its permit to work with wild animals revoked by Fish and Wildlife, and was still engaged in a year’s long lawsuit with them. We couldn’t legally work with them. We also couldn’t send a random employee down into the pit to try to retrieve the duck. We are not authorized to rescue wildlife. Fortunately the Harbor Patrol is.
While waiting for them to arrive, I talked to PAWS, an organization in the Seattle area that is currently permitted to care for wildlife. They would be happy to take on our errant duck. Unfortunately, they close at 5:30 pm, and that time was fast approaching. I asked what to do. I was told that if we caught the little bugger after hours, we should put him in a warm room, in box with a towel, and give him no food or drink, and then deliver him to PAWS in the morning. (Apparently these ducks can go a few days without eating, but the idea of doing that to him really tortured me.)
Another slight problem: no one works graveyard shift on this bridge, so it’s not like I could leave him alone in the office, to waddle around and poop up my tower. It looked like I’d be bringing home a visitor. I did not look forward to fowl-sitting all night. I anticipated little or no sleep. But I have to admit that I was also a little intrigued. I have never spent that much quality time with a duck. I strongly suspected that my horizons would be broadened.
At about 3:10 I got a phone call from Harbor Patrol. They were on their way. Huzzah! I said I’d meet them at water level, and I ran down the 4 flights of stairs it takes to do so. A few minutes later, they called to say that they had been called to the scene of a sinking vessel. Naturally they had to deal with that first, but they’d be by later.
Back up the stairs I went, glancing nervously at the lethargic bird as I passed. Fortunately, Harbor Patrol was back in less than an hour, so I ran back down the stairs. They docked their boat and climbed onto the bridge pier. From there, I had to lower a dusty metal ladder down to them so they could climb up to the ledge where I was standing. This ledge was covered in a half inch of pigeon poop. I had never had any reason to stand there before. I was not living my best life.
From there, the two officers had to climb down the metal ladder rungs that are embedded in the pit wall, in order to stand on a concrete slab that is right next to the watery portion of the pit where the duck was hanging out. They brought a couple of ropes, a long heavy pole with a net at the end, and a cardboard box. I remained on that ledge, which was about halfway down the pit, but every bit as disgusting as the pit itself. I was using my pandemic mask to avoid breathing in the bird poop as best I could, even though, by this time, I was kneeling in it so that I could hand equipment down to the officers.
For the next hour and a half, the two officers tried to catch that bird, but he was having none of it. The net was too short to reach all the way to the back wall of the sludge-filled pond, and of course, there was no way either of them was going to enter the water. Who could blame them? There’s a lot of jagged debris in there, and next to no visibility. And the temperature had barely gotten into the upper 30’s.
They would throw a rope near the bird in hopes of scaring him into moving within reach, and the little devil would either paddle or flutter over to the other side of the room. Sometimes he dove beneath the water, only to pop up in another spot a minute later.
I was frankly surprised that the officers hadn’t given up after 45 minutes. I was really dreading the concept of going home, knowing that duck was still down in the pit, probably freezing and starving to death. I suspect they felt the same way, which is why they pressed on.
At one point, I had an idea. I climbed back up through the greasy, dusty, poopy girders to the catwalk that extends over the pit, and I lowered the big heavy orange life ring all the way down to the water, and swung and splashed it in the hopes of scaring our feathered friend away from the back wall and toward the officers.
No such luck. The duck was stuck. Oh, f***.
(Aren’t you glad nothing rhymes with merganser?)
We were starting to lose the light. Finally, we all looked at one another and had to admit that we would have to give up. Nature was going to take its course. My heart sank, but I understood. The duck was not in the mood to cooperate, and he definitely wasn’t listening to reason.
I watched from the poopy ledge as one of the officers climbed the ladder, bringing most of the equipment with him. I attempted to help, but I suspect I was only underfoot. The ledge was only so large. But that little delay turned out to be beneficial, because Officer Myers, the one still in the pit, shouted up to us that the duck was gone.
After all that, the duck finally figured out that while he was too weak to fly, he could swim under the concrete platform, weave through all the debris, and find his way out to the canal. He had been diving for an hour and a half to avoid the net, and had never once gone that direction. Hopefully Mr. Duck has enough strength left to eat, gather energy, and thrive back in the wild.
We waited for an additional 10 minutes to make sure he didn’t come back into the pit, but he did not return. He had well and truly flown the coop. If he ever comes back in, I will probably leave him be, because obviously he knows how to find his way out now.
Next, I had to haul my weary self back up the stairs and write the incident report that should have been done by my coworker. But you know, I do love to tell a good story.
At the end of the shift, I went home covered in sweat, pigeon poop, and grease. You could say that I was pooped (Sorry. Had to.), but I was also choosing to feel triumphant. Just another day at the office.
Needless to say, I peeled off my nasty clothes and left them in a pile in our frigid garage, and then hopped right into the shower. It’s always nice to climb into a clean, dry, warm bed after a nasty day. I think I fell asleep before my CPAP even started to shoot air at my eyelashes like the coquettish wind tunnel that it tends to be.
That night I dreamed there was a Basset Hound lying on the girder high above the pit, with his ears hanging down toward the revolting water. I looked at him and thought, “Oh, great. How am I going to deal with this one?”
True confession: I’ve always looked at mid-life crises with a bit of disdain. From the outside, they look like privileged temper tantrums at the prospect of growing old. That type of behavior gets little sympathy from me. Aging is inevitable.
The stereotypical midlife crisis is described as an aging man buying a sports car and a bad toupee, and leaving his wife for a ditzy 20 year old. And while that does sometimes happen, that’s really not the typical crisis. First of all, many of us can’t afford crisis-mobiles or trophy wives.
And while psychological crises can occur at any time in one’s life (or, in fact, not at all), these mid-stage ones seem to draw the most attention. According to Wikipedia, this time in life is a period of great transition. To quote the article directly:
The condition may occur from the ages of 45–64. Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women. A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
work or career (or lack thereof)
spousal relationships (or lack of them)
maturation of children (or lack of children)
aging or death of parents (or lack of them)
physical changes associated with aging (or lack of them)
Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis may feel:
humiliation among more successful colleagues
longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
need to spend more time alone or with certain peers
a heightened sense of their sexuality or lack of it
ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status
ambition to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life.
Without going into the specifics, let me describe what I’m going through at the moment. For the past 20 years, a huge amount of my ego has been wrapped up in being a bridgetender. I love my job, and I take great pride in doing it well. When someone asks me who I am, bridgetender is one of the first things I think to say.
But lately my reputation has been getting attacked at work. Viciously. Unjustifiably. And my efforts to defend myself have gone unheard and/or have not been validated. It’s hard to prove that you’re not a (insert horrible thing here). Especially when you mostly work alone. Although my work should speak for itself, in the form of well-functioning and clean machinery, and great customer feedback, it’s as though all of a sudden these things can only be seen by me. I feel like I’m at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and no attempts to exercise logic will be tolerated.
These attacks came totally out of the blue and therefore left me stunned for quite some time. Given the sources, though, I am no longer stunned. What I am is deeply and profoundly depressed and confused and disappointed, and, frankly, pissed off.
It’s hard to maintain pride in my work when my work is being discounted, overlooked, contradicted, and attacked. But since I’ve allowed all my ego to be wrapped up in that pride, the question becomes this: Without that pride, who the hell am I?
And when you add a heaping helping of pandemic isolation to the mix, all of this turns into a toxic stew, indeed. It’s affecting my health in a whole host of ways. It’s impacting many of my relationships. It is definitely causing me to lose sleep. I’ve been crying a lot. I can’t seem to focus on anything. I’m even more forgetful than I was previously, and believe me, that’s saying something.
In a nutshell, I’m struggling. I’m at the end of my rope. I’m exhausted. I tried to take a couple of days off to at least catch up on my sleep, seek counseling (which turns out to be an enormous challenge during this pandemic), and surround myself with those who actually value me, but my supervisor questioned the legitimacy of this need, and denied the request. Apparently one has to be bleeding out the eyeballs to be taken seriously around here, unless you can come up with a doctor’s note.
So this leaves me sitting here at work, feeling resentful and not optimally competent, while trying to pick up the pieces of my stress-riddled body, even as I struggle to retain at least a few of my traumatized marbles. And now I somehow have to work up the energy to try to figure out what’s left of me. Pardon my dust as I reconstruct myself from scratch. Easy peasy. Not.
This is a devastating development for one who used to love going to work. This video, which was done based on a StoryCorps interview I did years ago about being a bridgetender, demonstrates the love I had for it. I want that back, but it feels completely beyond my control.
I need to find other sources of esteem. I am more than just a bridgetender, after all. I’m also a blogger, an author, a little free library steward, a wife, a dog mom, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, and a good person, dammit. Surely, amongst those things, I should be able to find the building blocks to repair my damaged psyche. And perhaps I need to spread my esteem more thinly, over a variety of things. With it currently being so densely focused on my job, I’ll have another identity crisis if and when I retire, and I’d much rather not go through this more than once. Once is already too much.
I can’t even seem to keep up with the blogging lately, and I don’t want to hit you with a steady stream of negativity. So, I’m at a bit of a loss, here. Don’t be surprised to see more fluff posts. I’m doing the best I can.
If Wikipedia is correct in stating that it’s going to take me a few years to get my groove back, I’m not sure how I’ll cope with that. Everything about this feels bad. Really bad. The thought of it makes me weep.
I’m luckier than a lot of people. I have a wonderful husband and fabulous dogs and a comfortable home and a lot of people who love me, even if they can only do so from a distance these days. I no longer struggle economically as much as I used to, and while sexism seems to press down more heavily now, I’ve never had to cope with racism, which must add a whole other level of awfulness to the mix. I’m terrified about climate change, but I’m better positioned to tolerate it than those who are on islands, or are plagued by floods, droughts, devastating storms and forest fires. Politically, I believe this country is circling the drain, and that’s painful to watch, but I’m learning to accept what has actually been the case all along: I have limited control in that arena.
Still, I feel like I’m lost in some otherworldly maze full of dead ends, and while I truly believe the door to positive selfhood is out there somewhere, I fear I won’t have the strength to reach it again. So, for the most part, I’m just trying to remember to breathe, trying to establish healthy boundaries, and trying to be gentle with myself. I cannot control how others treat me, but I can treat myself kindly, at least. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to leave those things that aren’t really necessary along the side of the road, because right now is a time to pare things down and focus on my mental health.
When I need a pep talk, I’ll listen to this song:
And when I am overwhelmed, I’ll listen to this one:
This is not my first visit to the land of depression. Experience tells me I’ll come out the other side eventually. I just need to be patient with myself. This, too, shall pass.
Encouragement is welcome. Telling me what I’m doing wrong, or should be doing instead, will only make me feel defeated. Rest assured that I’m making all the standard efforts (this ain’t my first rodeo) and I will get through this with time and help.
If you’re wandering this maze with me, here’s my hand, dear reader. Hold on tight, and pass the tissues.