I have been opening drawbridges for a living for 18 ½ years. I’ve operated 9 different bridges in three states. I’ve operated bascule bridges, lift bridges, and swing bridges. I’m pretty proud of those statistics. I can only think of one bridgetender in this country who can (by just one bridge) beat that, and he’s now retired.
But here’s something I’ve never done until recently: I’ve never been down below, deep in the mechanical inner workings of a drawbridge, while a bridge opening was in progress. I knew what happened down there, because I have to help maintain the equipment, and I know what each moving part does. But I’ve never actually gotten to witness it in all these years, because it was always me operating the bridge during the opening. You can’t be two places at once.
Well, finally, a few weeks ago, I got to be down below while someone else was doing the driving. I was so excited! And of course I wanted to take videos to share with all of you.
My first concern had to be for my safety. There is about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel down there. Stand in the wrong place, and you can be partially or entirely crushed. That’s why we are always extremely cautious when there are workmen on the bridge, and will not do an opening unless we are assured that each one is in the clear.
So, after assuring my coworker that I was in a safe place, he commenced with the opening. I chose to be standing on a portion of the catwalk that is suspended above the pit where the counterweight sinks into the ground when the bridge goes up. This catwalk does not move, but the entire room basically spins around it.
Wow, what a rush. To see a drawbridge doing its well-choreographed dance everywhere you look is like nothing else on earth. I was suddenly proud that I’ve been part of this dance for all these years. It’s beautiful. I actually got tears in my eyes. Sniffle.
Anyway, I did manage to take these videos for your viewing pleasure. I wish I could adequately explain what’s going on. I know the lighting is poor, and I couldn’t get a good angle that would give you a better sense of where I was and what exactly is going on. I did the best that I could.
In the first one, you see the pinion (a large gear), rolling down the rack during the bridge closure. This is what allows the bridge to move. There’s another behind me, and a set on the north side of the bridge that is doing the same thing to operate the other bridge leaf. The counterweight (to the right) is lifting up, and the bridge leaf (out of sight to the left) is lowering down.
In the other video, I’m standing in basically the same place, but I’ve turned to look out towards the water. This one was taken as the bridge was opening for a boat. You’ll see the bridge leaf lift up, and a sailboat go through. You can also see the other leaf, on the other side of the water, lifting as well. In this one, the counterweight is dropping down behind me, and the pinions are also out of sight, but are rolling to the left and right of me. That’s when I started getting all sentimental. I just love my bridge.
I hope this makes at least a little sense, and that you enjoy seeing a drawbridge from a whole new point of view!
I get it. It’s hot out. And thanks to climate change, each summer is going to be worse than the last. But that’s no reason to check your brain at the door.
Check out this video of a kid doing a backflip off one of the drawbridges here in Seattle, Washington. Well executed. And I bet it felt great.
But this is how to give a bridgetender a heart attack.
He could have fallen backward off the railing and been badly hurt, or worse yet, fallen on to one of the millions of bicyclists or joggers that go past, their heads in clouds, and then both would have been hurt.
He could have hit his head on the railing while doing the back flip and broken his neck.
He could have landed on some unseen debris in the water and been impaled.
He could have taken his plunge just as one of the motor boats came speeding through the channel, which happens, oh, about every minute or so. (A diver in Jacksonville, Florida had his face ripped off by a motor boat that didn’t see his dive flag. Now add the person falling from the sky into the mix, no flag in sight, and you get the idea.)
And thank God I wasn’t working on that drawbridge at the time. Here’s the thought process:
“Oh sh**, that kid’s going to get himself killed!”
“I’m going to be blamed and lose my job.”
“Now I get to hold up the stereotype of the bridge troll by running those kids off the bridge.”
“Never a cop when you need one.”
“What if I need to open the bridge and this fool is too busy playing around to move?”
It amazes me that any of us survive to adulthood. Stay safe, everyone.
It happened again the other day. A captain, in an attempt to compliment my bridge, said, “She’s a real beauty.”
He meant well. And I took it in the spirit in which he intended it. But it still got on my nerves. At least he didn’t go on to say, “She has a hard time getting up when it’s cold, just like my wife,” as another captain has been known to do.
Can someone please give me an example of an inanimate object being referred to as a he? Please? I’m not talking about the gender designations of nouns that some languages use. That’s different.
No, I’m talking about those smarmy, affectionate references to cars, boats, drawbridges, and all things mechanical. Yes, maybe it’s because those objects are, more often than not, worked on by males, and they feel uncomfortable loving these things if they’re not female. Maybe it’s just the average hetero guy’s fear of being considered homosexual. (Heaven forfend.)
But I suspect that if you scratch the surface, what you’ll see is that many men like to play with mindless, passive things that will do their bidding without question. And even if they aren’t from the 19th century, somewhere, in some underground curriculum that we women are generally not privy to, they are all taught the same thing: that all those qualities mean that this thing must therefore be female.
I’m sure that most guys who do this haven’t even given it much thought, but I’m telling you, it’s offensive. It cramps my little lady-brain, just thinking about it. And I find it even more offensive on the rare occasion when a woman does it, because a woman should know better. It’s just one more microaggression in the sea of microaggressions that women have to swim in every single day. So please knock it off.
As a tiny form of resistance, I’ve always given my cars male names. But even then, I can’t bring myself to refer to them as he. My car will always be an it.
Women are not wind up dolls, and your classic car isn’t going to kiss you back. Well… unless you’re an objectophile. Then it’s a whole different ballgame. Read my thoughts on that here.
There’s a really fantastic fundraiser that has happened every spring for 37 years here in Seattle. It’s called Beat the Bridge to Beat Diabetes. It’s sponsored by Nordstrom to benefit JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It’s a run/walk/fun run that starts at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium and ends at University Bridge, the drawbridge I just happen to operate. This year it will be held tomorrow, May 19th.
I am thrilled that so many people get behind this very worthy cause. I’m also gratified when we can come together in a large group and be a force for good. What I’m not thrilled about, however, is the tradition of beating this bridge.
At the end of this race, at exactly 8:50, I will be raising the bridge. If you haven’t crossed it by then, you haven’t beaten it. But it’s actually fun not to beat it, because there’s a live band and entertainment while you wait.
Here’s the thing, though. I have operated 9 different bridges in 3 different states, and I’ve never, ever seen such a tradition of drawbridge risk taking as I’ve seen on the drawbridges that span the ship canal here in Seattle.
Every single day, I see pedestrians ignoring the warning bells and the flashing lights in order to cross my bridge as I’m preparing to open it for a vessel that can’t slam on its brakes and has no option for a detour. I’ve seen people standing center span, taking selfies, while a 2000 ton gravel barge is bearing down on them. I’ve even had people attempt to cross this bridge when it has already started to rise. I’ve had people climb under the gates and approach the million pounds of moving concrete and steel that could crush them like a bug with no concern at all for their life or limbs, simply because they’re impatient for it to close. Someone actually climbed up the fully opened Ballard Bridge, and the local paper, The Stranger, reported on it as if it were a big joke.
If you were to Google Death and Drawbridges, you’d quickly see that playing around on drawbridges is no laughing matter. People get killed on drawbridges every year, and it’s usually due to their own foolish behavior. Fortunately it hasn’t happened in Seattle yet, but I have no idea why, other than the extreme professionalism of the bridgetenders here. Still, I suspect that it’s only a matter of time.
I’m not trying to say that the Beat the Bridge fundraiser is solely responsible for the behavior of Seattleites, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. Additional factors are the use of ear buds and cell phones, which greatly reduce attentiveness; the fact that we have so many institutions of higher education in the area, full of young adults who think they’re immortal; and the cultural standard of this city that encourages people to break rules and live unique, sometimes reckless lives.
It would be wonderful to see Nordstrom partner up with Seattle Department of Transportation for future Beat the Bridge events, and allow them to have a table that promotes bridge safety. It could be manned by bridge operators that could answer questions about the bridges, because the public is naturally curious about them. The general message could be, “It’s okay to beat the bridge this morning, for this worthy cause. But please don’t beat it the rest of the year!” I think this is a public relations opportunity that SDOT should not ignore.
So yes, that will be me, tomorrow, raising the University Bridge promptly at 8:50 am, as hundreds of joggers run toward it. I’ll be doing it for a good cause. And while I’m not speaking for all of SDOT, please know that even as I do this, I’ll also be gritting my teeth.
I just sent an e-mail to the director of the University of Washington Press. I’m more nervous about it than I thought I would be, so I decided to blog about it, because all of you in Drawbridge Nation have always been a source of support and encouragement for me.
Whatever happens, I firmly believe that you can’t have great experiences without taking great risks. So wish me luck.
This is the body of the e-mail that I sent:
You don’t know me, but I’ve probably made you late to work on more than one occasion. I am a bridgetender for the City of Seattle. I operate the University Bridge on Roosevelt, but have operated 4 others in town as well. In fact, in my 17 ½ years as a bridgetender, I’ve worked on 9 different bridges in 3 different states, which is better statistics than any other bridge operator that I know of in this country. I’m rather proud of that, especially as a female in a male-dominated profession.
On my commute to work the other day, I was listening to NPR and I heard them do a book review of Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots. It occurred to me that there needs to be a book about drawbridges. People are fascinated by my job. I was even once asked for an autograph, to my shock and mortification.
After that book review, I rushed home to see who the publisher of the levee book was, and it turns out to be the University Press of Mississippi. Needless to say, my book probably wouldn’t be an ideal fit for them, but I think it would be for the University of Washington Press.
The good news is, the bulk of the material is already written. I’ve written a daily blog for more than 6 years. It’s called The View from a Drawbridge, which is “the random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.” I have more than 600 followers and I average 105 views a day.
Is this blog all about drawbridges? No. It really is as random as I claim. However, there is a drawbridge subcategory in there, and if you look at that, you’ll see that I have more than enough fascinating bridge stories to fill a book.
In addition, I’ve already self-published one anthology from the blog. A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. It did not treat the subject of drawbridges, but it was number one on the Amazon best seller list for its subcategory for, oh, about three days.
One of my stories has also been featured in a StoryCorps anthology entitled Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, which caused me to be on NPR’s Morning Edition, and in O Magazine and Parade Magazine.
I realize that this is probably a rather unorthodox way to submit a book proposal, but I’ve lived a rather unorthodox life. I hope you’ll consider my idea. I certainly look forward to hearing from you.
So, I came to work the other day to a sheet of plywood covering one of our windows. It seems that some drug addict scaled the bridge to the upper floor and tried to bash the window in with a 2×4. I don’t know what they were hoping to get. There’s nothing much worth stealing in here, especially if you then have to carry it back down to ground level. But ours is not to reason why.
The thing is, the fool tried to do this right at the beginning of the shift, so a coworker caught him in the act and called 911. He bolted, but by some miracle the police caught him right down the street. My coworker identified him, for what it’s worth, but I’m betting he’s walking free again even as I write this.
It’s amazing how much an evil outside force can alter your worldview. I used to feel safe here. Now I keep seeing movement outside the window out of the corner of my eye. And I also wonder what would have happened if the idiot had gained entry, and whoever came to work didn’t notice the broken window, unlocked the sidewalk door, came up the stairs, and was face to face with a drug addict wielding a block of wood. What would have come next?
A friend pointed out that there’s no point in playing the “what if” game. You can’t live your life in constant fear. At least, you shouldn’t do so. And to a certain extent I agree. But it never hurts to have a contingency plan.
From now on, I plan to drive by and take a look at that window before parking. When I unlock the door, I’m going to pause to see if I hear anything, such as the kind of noises one would only hear from an open window. (Or some disembodied voice saying “Redrum,” or something.) I bet the guy didn’t smell very good, either, and I have the nose of a dog. So there’s that.
What I resent most, though, is that my sense of security has been shattered. Take all the stuff you want, but leave my comfort zone alone.
I’m sure I’ll relax again eventually, but until then, I wouldn’t advise you to sneak up on me. You could be in for a nasty surprise.
The other day I was walking across my drawbridge to do some sweaty, greasy routine maintenance on the south end. I was in my sweaty, greasy safety vest and my hard hat. (Incidentally, why do I have to wear a hard hat on an open sidewalk? What am I protecting myself from? Meteor showers? Low flying planes? Beats me. I just do what I’m told.)
As I walked, I was lost in thought. Gazing at the sunset, humming a little tune, I suspect that I wouldn’t have noticed if Peter Dinklage had walked past me in full Game of Thrones finery. Thusly, I found myself in the midst of a film crew without even realizing what I had walked into. I have no idea what they were filming, but there were about 8 of them out there. I picked up my pace, hoping I hadn’t interrupted anything critically important.
As I left the “set”, I heard one woman whisper, “She looks so official in her green shirt.”
First of all, huh? I was literally wearing a green t-shirt that I had picked up at the Goodwill ages ago. What’s so official about not wanting to get grease on any prized garments?
I couldn’t work up the energy to turn around and ask what she meant by that. It didn’t seem hostile. I don’t think she was making fun of me. She sounded sincere. But what on earth?
Mulling it over later, I realized that no one would have said that about a man. Men don’t look official in their green shirts. It’s just assumed that they’re official, full stop. It wouldn’t occur to most people to even remark about them.
So now I’m a bit irritated. But I wasn’t put on this earth to teach every random stranger that I encounter about gender equity. I’m just workin’, here.