Nineteen Years a Bridgetender

Well, tempus certainly does fugit, doesn’t it? When I first got a job as a bridgetender in Florida, six short, surreal days after 9/11, I figured I’d only be at it for 6 months or so. I looked at it as a brief respite from “real work”. Now, after opening 9 different bridges in 3 different states, I honestly don’t think I’m fit to do anything else.

When you consider that for the first 13 years of my career, I was in Florida, a “right to work” state, and got paid peanuts and had no real benefits to speak of, you have to chalk up my staying power to a real love for the job. And I do love it. I always have. It suits me. Very little human interaction, minimal supervision, and plenty of time to blog. Perfect.

Plus, I’ll admit, it’s pretty darned cool. Whenever I tell someone I’m a bridgetender, they’re fascinated and want to hear more. I wouldn’t get that reaction if I were a… well, just about any other job I can think of. I was even asked for my autograph once. That was amusing.

And I’m constantly surprised that this job constantly surprises me. The weirdest things can happen on a drawbridge. People can be really strange. I enjoy observing them from a distance. This job is an excellent source for blog posts.

Growing up, this was not the life I had envisioned for myself.

It’s so much better.

Who, me?

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Just a Leisurely Swim in the Shipping Lane

The drawbridge I work on is the University Bridge in Seattle, Washington. It’s located between Lake Union and Portage Bay. There are a lot of houseboats in the area, as well as people who live aboard their boats. It’s also a heavily trafficked waterway, used by sailboats, pleasure craft, research vessels, cruise ships, Coastguard cutters, and the daily transit of a 3000 gross ton gravel barge.

So imagine my shock when I looked out the window to see something I’ve never seen before in the 6 years I’ve worked here. There was a woman doing a leisurely backstroke in the shipping lane. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, where to begin.

I immediately jumped on the marine radio to warn a very large research vessel that was headed my way. He was grateful for the head’s up. But not all vessels monitor their radios, as stupid as that may sound.

As a matter of fact, a very inattentive motorboat was aimed straight at her, and she was too busy enjoying her swim to notice. I tried calling the boat. No response. I tried blowing my horn. No reaction. I tried shouting out the window. Nothing. They missed caving in her head by about 12 inches. She behaved as if this was business as usual.

I called 911, but by the time the Harbor Patrol arrived, she had already swum back to her boat. She did a few pull ups on her ladder for good measure, then calmly toweled off, and entered the cabin. I told the Harbor Patrol which vessel it was, and they approached it, but she either refused to come out or miraculously didn’t hear them.

I am stunned that there are so many people in this world who don’t think of the consequences of their actions. Get yourself killed through your own stupidity all you want, but don’t do it at the mental and emotional expense of the person who accidentally kills you or those of us who have to bear witness. That’s just not right.

If anyone knows the woman on the blue-hulled vessel called the Jenny II here in Seattle, please tell her, for me, that she’s a selfish fool who is very lucky to be alive.

Jenny II, the home of the errant bather.

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StoryCorps Has Animated Me!!!

Recently, and/or a lifetime ago, before this pandemic made the world fall apart, I was contacted by StoryCorps. I was thrilled. I love StoryCorps. Whenever I’ve been in touch with them, it has changed my life.

My first encounter with them was back in 2009, when I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I signed up to do a StoryCorps interview about what it was like to be a bridgetender. By then, I had been at it for 8 years, and I was chock full o’ stories. At the time, I figured that I have a unique job, so why not talk about it?

Anyone can record an interview with StoryCorps. And that 40 minute conversation is now easier to do than ever before. Check out their website for details. And the coolest part about it is that you become a part of history. The recordings are archived at the Library of Congress. I genuinely believe that everyone has a story, so I strongly encourage you to contact StoryCorps and tell yours. And also support them while you’re at it!

It was really fun, entering that little trailer and speaking in that sound booth. And they gave me a CD of the interview to keep. Nifty!

I have to admit that I didn’t think much more about it after that. Part of it was played on my local NPR station and some of my friends heard it, so that was cool. But the world continued to revolve around the sun.

Having done that interview planted a seed in me, though. It made me realize that I could tell stories. Maybe I had something to say after all. But back then I was so weighed down by poverty and depression that I really couldn’t see my way clear to do anything about it.

I didn’t start this daily blog until December of 2012. I thought it might be a 6 month experiment, because surely I’d run out of things to say by then, but no, it’s been going strong ever since. I genuinely credit StoryCorps for planting that seed within me.

So imagine my surprise when StoryCorps contacted me again, wanting to include my interview in an anthology that their founder, Dave Isay, was putting out entitled, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. By then I had moved to Seattle, and was building my life back up from scratch, so needless to say, I was thrilled to participate! I’ll take whatever positive energy I can get! The book came out in April of 2016. You can find me right there on page 17.

From there, things got really crazy. Dave Isay did a promotional tour of the book, and one of the stories he featured in the tour was mine. And he sort of called me a poet. Wow.

Next, as part of the book’s promotion, I was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, in Parade Magazine (which you’ve probably seen inserted in your local newspaper, back when people still read actual newspapers.) From there I wound up in O Magazine in the September, 2016 issue. Which means Oprah Winfrey knew my name for about 2 seconds. Imagine. I was also mentioned in Time Magazine and Forbes. When I googled my name just now, I got well over 3,000 results. It still blows me away, just thinking about it.

Needless to say, all this positive attention gave me a great deal of self confidence, and from there, with a lot of help from friends, I had the courage to publish an anthology of my own. Taken from some of my favorite posts from my blog, it’s called, “A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude”. I donate a dollar from every sale to StoryCorps. Sales are modest in the extreme, but hey, every penny counts.

Fame, of course, is fleeting, and all the hubbub died down eventually. Which was actually fine with me. I didn’t become a bridgetender because I enjoy the roar of the crowd. I started settling into life in Seattle, where I could write my daily blog while at work on my bridge, and I could come home and hug my dogs.

Every once in a while someone will recognize me as “that bridgetender who blogs”. It always startles me. It also makes me proud.

My husband-to-be actually got to know me through my daily blog. That’s what won him over. So I guess you could say that StoryCorps is what caused my happy marriage, too.

Even though they have been an integral part of my life, I was not at all expecting to hear from StoryCorps again. And yet hear from them I did, just prior to the pandemic. They asked if it was okay to turn excerpts of my 2009 interview into one of their animated shorts. Uh… heck yeah!

They said that they had been wanting to do so for years, because they felt that what I said was poetry. (Again with the poet thing! It makes me blush.) But each season they pick a theme, and my story never quite fit the theme. But this time it did.

After that, they asked me to send pictures of the bridge I used to work on, and pictures of the view, and of me, and they had me sign a release. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

Once the pandemic came along, all deadlines sort of fell by the wayside, and if I’m honest, I kind of forgot about it unless a friend asked the status of the project. I didn’t really want to think about it, because I didn’t want to jinx it or get disappointed. Life went on, and my bridge continued to open and close, day after day.

And then suddenly in August they contacted me with a link to the preview! I was under strict orders not to share the link with anyone. It’s their copyright, after all, and it hadn’t been released yet. But that was hard. I wanted to share it with the world.

It was beautiful. They really captured the view from Ortega River Bridge perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that it gives me goose bumps. It’s a work of art. And they drew me skinny! Woo hoo!

I kind of feel bad, because the first thing I say is that the pay is horrible and the benefits are worse. That was and still is true for bridgetenders in Florida, a “right to work” state, but it’s not at all true here in Seattle, where I have a union, and the pay is fantastic and the benefits are even better. So I have all of the joy for the job that I had back then, but none of the anxiety. Life is good.

So there you have it. I’m now animated. If you’d like to see The View From Here, here are the links. You can see it on the StoryCorps Website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Right now I’m feeling like the luckiest woman on earth.

Thank you, StoryCorps, for all that you’ve done for me.

TheViewFromHere
A still capture from The View From Here, Copyright StoryCorps. To actually see the video, click on one of the links above in the blog post.

Bridges as Barriers

As a bridgetender for nearly two decades, I’ve come to view bridges as ways to connect people. They can often be the fastest route from one side of a river to another. They’re a delightful transition from here to there.

At the same time, I’ve known many people who see bridges as things to avoid. If it takes you 5 miles to get from point A to point B, and there’s a bridge along the route, many people will go 7 miles to avoid what they see as a bottleneck. The thing is, they’re often using interstates to avoid these bridges, even though the distance between exits is much longer than the average bridge, and in fact they’re often going over several overpasses in the process. Interstates tend to jam a lot more often than drawbridges. So I don’t get this aversion that people seem to have about them.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about this subject, so when a friend came across an article entitled, “In Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago, Bridges Have Become Barricades”, she naturally thought of me. (Thanks, Jen!) But this adds a whole new spin to my rant. Mayor Lightfoot is intentionally causing bridges to hinder passage. This horrifies me.

It seems that during recent Chicago riots, the mayor has been ordering the city to raise the drawbridges and keep them raised. Yes, I’m sure this is rather effective in keeping looters from their targets, but there are several issues with this concept that bother me. First of all, I can’t imagine that this is putting the city’s bridgetenders in the most comfortable position. They can now be targeted by the rioters and will be every bit as trapped as the rioters are. Also, I would hate for Chicago’s beautiful bridges to be the focus of vandalism.

But the thing that bugs me the most about this concept is the inhibition of the free flow of Americans. I’ve spent my entire career trying to make my bridge openings as short as possible to avoid impeding traffic too much. We are even told that we should continue our bridge openings even if there’s an ambulance or a firetruck en route so as to speed the vessel’s passage through and close as soon as possible, but every bridgetender worth his or her salt will raise a traffic gate back up for an emergency vehicle if it’s at all possible.

Using a bridge as a barricade is making it perfectly clear that some neighborhoods are better than others. It sends the message that more privileged areas need to be protected from the unwashed masses. It pits one part of a city against another.

I love bridges. I look at them as sacred. I hate the idea that they are being politicized in this fashion.

I think a better idea is making the protestors feel heard. Listen to their needs. They deserve accommodation as much as any other citizen does. If they’re treated with dignity rather than met with teargas and walls, they will be more willing take pride in the community in which they are an integral part.

Another side rant is that the article I link to above refers to us as “bridge tenders”. Would you call someone a bar tender? No. It’s bartender. It’s bridgetender. I don’t care what your spell check says. Get it right.

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Officially Odd

Recently, this sign was installed on all four corners of my drawbridge.

Bridge Sign

No one gave me a heads up about this. I just looked up one day and saw the workmen drilling holes on my beautiful bridge. It kind of felt like a violation. I take pride in my job and I love this bridge.

First of all, let me just say that I agree that jumping from a bridge is a really bad idea. You don’t know what jagged, rusty debris has been lodged beneath the surface over the years. You could hit a protection pier and break every bone in your body. (This has happened.) You could hit a passing boat. If the bridge is tall enough, it’s most likely going to be suicide by stupidity.

But can I just say that this is a very weirdly worded sign? Fist of all, why is “consequences” capitalized? Second, not all jumps are fatal. Third, “tragic” is a little vague. And why would it come after fatal, and not before? Aren’t fatalities tragic? Do they have to be broken out into their own little horrifying groups?

For an official city sign, it seems rather foreboding, emotional and repetitive. And dare I say that these signs are not going to prevent the stupid young boys, who are wont to do the jumping, from exercising this particular Seattle rite of passage? I wish people took signs seriously, but they don’t. If they did, I can think of a half dozen other signs that are needed here, based on the daily shenanigans that I witness.

I have no idea who designed these signs, or what prompted them to be put up at this particular moment in history, but here they are. I suspect that we’ve merely provided people with another place for their graffiti. I also suspect that these signs will always bug me. But these things are way beyond my paygrade.

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A Bridgetender Thanks Frontline Workers

About two months ago, I decided to blow my bridge horn every night at 8 pm, to thank frontline workers for all they are doing in the face of this horrible pandemic. I’ve been doing it every time I work swing shift ever since. I’ve blogged about it in more detail here.

I’ve gotten some positive feedback from people in the neighborhood. And often, when I blow my horn, some of the larger vessels in the area join in. It’s all very gratifying.

But the sound of my horn only goes so far. And mine is a humble little blog, only read by a limited number of people. And I really want to thank all the frontline workers that I can. It’s the very least I can do.

So I made this video and posted it on Youtube. You can tell I wasn’t exactly made to be in front of a camera. I’m nervous. The words aren’t  flowing smoothly. Hitchcock and Tarantino would not exactly be jealous if they saw this thing. But hey, it’s heartfelt.

Please, if you know any frontline workers at all, whether they’re in the healthcare field or are first responders or are considered essential workers in any way, it would mean a great deal if you would share this video with them.

Thank you. Stay safe.

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Any Excuse to Be Angry

There have been a lot of Facebook fights of late. People are scared, and they’re only brave enough to lash out if they can do it from a distance with very few consequences. I try really hard not to feed the trolls, but, as with everyone else, my patience is paper thin.

As I write this, I’m watching a live video feed with my governor and multiple nurses, in celebration of National Nurses Day. Even as these heroes talk about what it’s like to work on COVID-19 wards, trolls are commenting that it’s all lies, and that no one is really sick, and that this is just some twisted conspiracy to keep people from working. Attacking nurses on National Nurses Day seems like a new low to me.

I was also attacked online the other day for saying that as a bridgetender, I blow my horn at 8 pm to thank the frontline workers. This guy immediately jumped on there, infuriated by the number of times we bridgetenders have made him late to work. He said a bridge opening for a sailboat would often cause him a 20 minute delay.

First of all, the average bridge opening only lasts 4 ½ minutes from the time the traffic light turns red to the time the traffic gates rise back up, and I’ve never, EVER seen it take an additional 15 ½ minutes to clear traffic afterward. I’ve never seen that in 19 years as an operator. It may feel like you’re sitting there for 20 minutes, but trust me, you’re not.

I often wonder why people who get so irritated at drawbridges don’t simply take a different route. But I think it feels safe to be outraged at an inanimate object. Those iron girders can take it.

I think a lot of people are angry about any number of things, and don’t have the skills to deal with their anger, and therefore express anger at ridiculous things instead. That guy that jumped on my case told me that Seattle drawbridges are a pet peeve of his, and that any time a bridge opens, it infuriates him.

Um…  Get over it? It’s a situation that isn’t going to change. Why would you allow fury into your life several times a week? Either take a different route, or reframe it as an opportunity to step out of your car and get some fresh air, or maybe try and figure out why you have so much anger inside of you, and get some help to learn how to deal with it effectively.

Becoming infuriated by something you know you’ll be exposed to multiple times in the course of your life seems rather self-destructive, and frankly, insane, to me. Getting upset at a drawbridge is about as silly as getting upset every time it rains. Rain happens. Bridge openings happen. What on earth is the point of all your impotent rage?

I suppose, in light of all the anger that’s floating around out there, the rest of us just need to breathe deeply and not let their anger enter into us. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t become one yourself.

But man, that’s easier said than done these days.

trollfeed

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Breakthrough!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I get a high five for persistence?

Good morning!!!!!!

colbert_high_five

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The Drawbridges of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aberdeen bridges

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Pigeon Shims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savannah, GA : Savannah River

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