A Delightful Drawbridge Perspective

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:

Surreal Waterdrops by Mousette on DeviantArt. Check out her full body of work here.

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Bridge Woman

Everyone deserves a place where they feel safe.

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.”

An article entitled, “Rates of violence against the homeless are worse than you think” spells it out in upsetting detail. It also contains a link to a comprehensive report entitled, “Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness which details stats from 2016-2017.”

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.
  • 1 in 3 homeless youth engage in survival sex.
  • The experience of violence in the lives of homeless women: A research report, showed that 78.3% of homeless women in the study had been subjected to rape, physical assault, and/or stalking. Those who experience such assault while homeless also lack access to legal, medical and mental health services, which can worsen the post traumatic effects of the experience.
  • 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!

A Weird Day on the Drawbridge

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.

HEY!

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!

Exploding Trucks, an Abandoned 4-Year-Old, and Drawbridge Heat Expansion: One Helluva Day

I need a hug.

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.

Now is the perfect time to stay at home and read a good book. Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

How Bridgetending Turns into Manslaughter

This whole situation sickens me.

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.

Sources:

Artissua Lafay Paulk: Florida bridge tender charged with MANSLAUGHTER after woman’s deadly fall

‘I killed a lady on the bridge’: Details emerge about woman’s fatal plunge on Florida drawbridge

Bridge tender, supervisor involved in West Palm Beach deadly bridge fall fired, company says

Legal Liability after Woman Falls to Death When Drawbridge Opens

Miami Herald: Tender, supervisor fired following death of woman on rising West Palm Beach drawbridge

Video: Woman Plunges to Her Death From Rising Drawbridge

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Environmental Pragmatism on Snowy Drawbridges

All drains lead to the ocean, regardless of the optics.

I am a bridgetender, and there are a variety of ways that I tend to my drawbridge. Not only do I open and close it for vessels upon request, but I also help to keep the machinery in working order. I want my bridge to be in tip top shape. I take pride in that. I love this job.

Having said that, I have to admit that on the rare occasion that it snows around here, I absolutely hate my job. You can’t safely open and close a bridge with the extra weight that several inches of snow provides. That means that the snow has got to go, and that isn’t easy.

We pretreat the bridge surfaces with environmentally correct brine so that the snow theoretically won’t stick. Lugging 25 gallons or so of the stuff up and down the stairs and then spreading it is no mean feat, either. And after all that sweat, coming away smelling like a pickle, with my shoes and clothes encrusted with brine, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in terms of snow abatement. We also spread salt pellets once the snow has fallen, but that has little effect, either.

On my bridge, I am expected to shovel the equivalent of 8 driveways plus a quarter mile of sidewalks, by hand, sometimes more than once per shift, depending on the snowfall. No human being can do that. It’s impossible. My heart would explode.

Yes, we have snowblowers, but only two for the entire city. And we personally are not allowed to operate them. A crew does its best to come out and help us out, but they are spread very thinly, and can only do so much. I’m always thrilled to see them, but when they promise to come back out again later in the shift, I take it with a grain of salt, because it has been my experience that they never do. So I do what I can, and am often berated because it never seems to be enough.

You would think that under those circumstances, our city would do its best to provide us with better equipment, but since these incidents are rare, I think they don’t want to spend the money. But if they got a plow shovel that could be fitted to the front of one of our little pickup trucks, that would get rid of a lot of the snow. I’d only have to focus on the sidewalks then. But no.

So every snowfall, I trudge out there and shovel for hours on end, even as the snow continues to fall. All the while, I know that I’ll be accused of having done nothing. That isn’t exactly a recipe for good morale.

And here’s where the situation gets more idiotic. We are told that we can’t shovel the snow into the waterway, because it would be bad for the environment. The public would complain.

I care about the environment very much. I am more than willing to bend over backwards for it. But there comes a time when people have to be more realistic. Yes, we spread the environmentally friendly salt products, but as I said, they barely work, and what the complaining public seems to overlook, regardless of our efforts, is that all drains lead to the ocean.

If the bridge weren’t there and the snow fell, it would fall into the canal. If the bridge were there and we did nothing about the snow on it, the snow would eventually melt and drain into the canal. If the snow lands on the parts of the bridge with metal grating, it falls into the canal. Water drains from the bridge all the time in the form of rain, and that, too, goes into the canal nearly every day.

It’s not as if we’re neatly stacking the snow on pallets at either end of the bridge, to be carted off to a hazardous waste facility. One way or another, it winds up in the canal. But we are not allowed to be SEEN putting it into the canal ourselves. It’s all about the optics. And that means it causes 10 times the backbreaking work.

For example, the snowblower can’t blow the snow into the canal. Heaven forbid. So as the picture shows below, it blows it back into the roadway of the bridge. This doesn’t immediately do anything to reduce the snow weight, but since it’s landing on the grate in the middle of the bridge, that snow eventually falls, you guessed it, into the canal.

And when I’m shoveling the sidewalks, I’m not allowed to easily push it over the sidewalk lip and into the canal. Oh no. I have to fill the shovel, lift it over the curb on the other side of the sidewalk, and deposit it onto the grate in the bike lane, where it will, yup, fall into the canal. And I repeat this process thousands of times, until my back and shoulders feel like they’re breaking.

Oh, and by the way, before you ask, yes, I’ve tried lifting the bridge so that the snow will fall off and land in more manageable piles on either end. I’ve lifted the bridge to full open, straight up and down, and I’ve even let it sit like that for several minutes. Not even one snowflake falls off that bridge. The snow is so wet it’s like cement. But I digress.

Bureaucracies are all about appearances. And our bureaucracy would much rather trash their employees’ bodies as well as their morale, to avoid any public outcry, which could easily be dealt with with a little bit of public relations and education, all from a comfy chair in a well-heated administrative office.

You may not see the snow going into the waterway, folks, but it’s going there, one way or another. That may not be ideal, but that’s where all water drainage goes for every street and bridge and skyscraper and sidewalk built by man. It sucks for the planet, but it’s unavoidable. Being forced to make that drainage happen the “good optics” way is at the expense of my aching back, but the result is the same, environmentally. Any municipality that tries to tell you otherwise is lying.

Think of that the next time you are enjoying a winter wonderland amongst things built by man.

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My Seaplane Adventure

What a wonderful way to celebrate having moved here!

I often see seaplanes floating beneath my drawbridge or flying over it. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to ride in one myself. But Dear Husband decided to treat me to a scenic view of Seattle recently, because it was my 7 year anniversary of moving out here from Florida. What a blast.

Kenmore Air (which I had always stupidly assumed was an air conditioning company) has several seaplane packages. I highly recommend you check them out if you live in the area. Their planes take off from the northern tip of Lake Washington. From there, our excursion took us south to Seattle, and then we flew along the ship canal through the city, where I got to check out all the drawbridges in that area from high above. From there it took us out into Puget Sound, and then back the way we had come.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, with hardly any wind, so most of the time it didn’t even feel like we were up in the air. The take off was just as smooth as the landing, which really surprised me. I thought that on the landing we’d hit the water and lurch forward, but no. It was more like gliding over the surface, then skimming on it, and then plop, you’re all done except for taxiing to the dock.

This trip reinforced for me how beautiful Seattle is. And how rich it is, in general. So many million dollar waterfront homes. It must be a nightmare to be poor in this town. There is no real balance. It’s all on the extreme ends.

But man, what a wonderful way to celebrate having moved here! It is the best decision I ever made, and has allowed so many positives to enter my life, including DH. I will be forever grateful to the 2014 me for taking that leap of faith.

Here’s some pictures we took of the ship canal drawbridges, fixed bridges, and locks, as well as the seaplane itself. Enjoy!

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This Isn’t Goodbye

Am I ending this blog?

So, dear readers, I’ve been overwhelmed lately. I have an ever-increasing list of things that I need to do, and I just keep carrying it over from one weekend to the next, and by the time the weekend rolls around, I’m so exhausted that tackling the list is too daunting.

Bridgetending is the best job in the world in that you get a lot of down time, and you can use that down time to do other things, such as paying bills or cleaning out the digital photos on your computer or scheduling appointments or planning vacations. But I don’t do those things because I spend at least half my shift writing this daily blog.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore this blog. It has improved my writing, it has garnered me a lot of friends, it has given me the opportunity to express feelings and share experiences and explore the world. It’s a huge part of my life.

But it’s also the thing I hide behind so as not to become bored with my job. In that way it has become a security blanket. As I enter my cronehood (using the positive definition of that word, “A woman who is venerated for experience, judgment and wisdom), I am beginning to realize that I’m a lot more multi-faceted and nuanced than I once was, and can therefore stave off boredom in a variety of ways.

And on days when I have writers block, or when there’s a situation at work that actually requires that I do something, this blog has been a huge stressor in my life. I’ve lost sleep over this blog. Sometimes it takes me over rather than being something that I’m in charge of and freely choose to produce.

I have been on this treadmill every day since December 1, 2012. And I’m not sure when it was that I lost all agency. It kind of snuck up on me.

And then the other day I was in the shower, thinking about a conversation I had had that day with a friend in which she was describing how she had lost her sense of smell so gradually that she didn’t notice it was happening until it was completely gone. While washing my hair I thought about that gradual shift, and suddenly realized that was happening to me, too, in blog form. This blog has taken on a life of its own, and it rules me and it’s stressful. When did I lose all control?

Am I ending this blog? No! I can’t quit you guys. And I do love to write. But I’m going to take some pressure off myself. Rather than grinding out content every single day, I plan to only write a post for the even numbered days. (See what I did there? Seven months of the year I’ll get two days off in a row! Woo hoo!)

I’m hoping this will bring multiple gifts to my world. It will allow me to get things done that I’ve been putting off for aeons. It will improve my writing even more in that it will bring joy back into it, and I’ll be able to dedicate more time to each topic if the spirit moves me. It will allow me, once again, to read. I love to read. I rarely have the time. And my eyesight is not getting better from one day to the next, so I should enjoy reading while I can.

And nothing is cast in stone. If I feel the need to speak out about something that’s time sensitive, I can always post it on an odd numbered day. And occasionally I get so inspired that I write and write and write. If I hit one of those periods of abundance, I might go back to daily posts for a time. We’ll see.

The point is, I can be flexible. I am the decider. And realizing that has already taken a lot of pressure off me. I feel liberated.

And who knows? Maybe it will give me the time to finally publish book two. If so, You’ll be the first to know.

So, this isn’t goodbye. This is just me saying hello every other day.

Namaste, dear readers.

Not really! Don’t worry!

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A Disconcerting Challenge to My Assumptions

I opened my bridge for a cephalopod.

So, for those who don’t know, I’m a bridgetender in Seattle. In September, I will have been operating drawbridges for 20 years. It’s a dream job. Mostly very calm and normal, and about 5 percent white knuckle panic.

You get into a routine. Each bridge has its own rhythm. It would be easy to get complacent. I make an effort not to, though. Safety first.

But some assumptions you have without even realizing you have them. When something happens to mess with those assumptions, it can be very confusing. For example, you have a habit of recognizing John Smith because he’s always at the front desk of your office building. Run into him dressed in casual clothes at the farmer’s market on a Saturday, and you may have a hard time placing him.

Something similar happened to me the other day at the bridge. I heard a horn signal that meant a boat was asking me to open the bridge. I looked out the window to spot the boat, and all I saw was a motor vessel who could easily fit under the bridge, so surely it couldn’t be him. I looked around some more. Was there a sailboat in one of my blind spots or something? I stuck my head out the window. The coast, as they say, was clear.

How strange. I looked and looked. No sailboat.

Then I glanced at the motor vessel again, and realized that it had a giant inflatable octopus (supposedly a Seattle Kraken, for our new hockey team) on top of it. This made the vessel twice as tall. Of course he’d need a bridge opening. Of course.

As I opened the bridge for my very first cephalopod, I had to laugh at my hidden assumptions. Motor vessels of that type never need an opening. Horn signals are always sailboats. And you’re never going to see a boat-sized octopus, so if you do see one, your brain can pretend it isn’t there. For a minute, at least.

Thank goodness I had the presence of mind to snap this picture. Who would believe this story without a picture? I mean, come on…

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Hip Hop on the Drawbridge!

A pure joy to experience.

You see a lot of strange things when you gaze out of a drawbridge tower’s window. Especially late at night. There is no end to late night drawbridge shenanigans.

Some things, like suicides or assaults, are so horrible that you wish you could un-see them. Other things are delightful, such as marriage proposals. But what I saw the other night was unprecedented, and it was a pure joy to experience.

The reason I even bothered to look up is that I heard a shout. It didn’t sound like a shout of anger. It was more like a happy shout. Still, it got my attention.

And right there, in the glow of a street lamp, and (unfortunately) right in the middle of the bike lane, were two young men. And they were dancing.

You could tell that these two were close friends. There was a give and take going on that you only experience with people whom you trust. They were showing each other moves. They were teaching, and learning. They were having fun.

I didn’t have any boats on the horizon, so I doubted I would have to open the drawbridge anytime soon. I let them do their thing. They were out there for about two hours. I have no idea whether they were good or bad. Nor did I care. It was an entertaining way to pass part of my shift.

It did my heart good to see two people being able to let loose and have fun again. It was nice to see that kind of connection. It reminded me that people still need one another, and can do beautiful things, if given the chance. I wish I had had the opportunity to thank them for that gift, but by the end of my shift, they had already left.

I’ll leave you with a few videos of them. I didn’t want to intrude too much, so I kept them short. I wish I could have heard the music, but they were too far away.

Keep dancing, guys.

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