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.
Given the number of people who have expressed shock that there’s “actually someone up there operating the drawbridge” when I tell them I’m a bridgetender, it doesn’t surprise me that there isn’t lots of drawbridge memorabilia floating around. I mean, why memorialize something that you don’t think about?
Well, unless you mean London Bridge. It seems to be the rock star of drawbridges. Tourists adore that bridge. It even has its own song. I hope the bridges I work on aren’t too jealous.
But I have managed to accumulate a little bit of drawbridge memorabilia over the almost 20 years of my career. What follows are pictures of my collection, in no particular order, and some descriptions thereof. Hope you like them!
Given the number of people who are foolish enough to crawl under the traffic gates when I’m opening my drawbridge, I suggested that we make a safety brochure with a keepsake drawbridge picture, and leave them outside the tower doors. I was asked to write the content, and so I did. They chopped 75 percent of my suggestions out, and then came up with this brochure, and printed about a thousand copies. Then someone decided that it was too controversial for some bizarre reason, so they are gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Aren’t bureaucracies the best?
Is that everything? I feel like I’m forgetting something. (Sorry if it was something you gave me.)
Also, somewhere amongst all of my clutter I have various chunks of various bridges that I’ve come across over time, but I couldn’t find any of them for this post.
There you have it. Some people collect baseball cards or antique bottles. I collect drawbridge stuff. That works out well, because due to its scarcity it doesn’t take too much space.
On an undisclosed drawbridge in an undisclosed city at an undisclosed time (for privacy’s sake), the phone rang. It was the harbor patrol, asking me if I would be on the look out for any jumpers on the railing. They were en route to see for themselves. But no one was in sight at that time. The person in question was described as a teenage boy.
I saw the harbor patrol speeding toward my bridge, and wondered what the whole story was. Usually there was only this type of rush if the actual jumper was in sight (which happens more frequently than the general public knows), and in that case, it’s the bridgetender who calls the police, not the other way around.
I waited and worried and continually scanned the sidewalks, as the patrol boat searched the bay in a grid pattern and a half dozen police cars crossed the bridge. They gathered at the south end.
I could think of nothing else, and an hour later, an officer knocked on my door. I let him in, knowing he wanted to look at the camera footage before it disappeared. And that’s when more of the story came out.
The young man had left the house the night before, and a family member went looking for him. He was not answering his phone. That family member came upon his car. It was abandoned just south of the bridge.
But the worst part is that a 50 pound weight was missing from the house, and it was not in the car. When I heard that, my heart sank.
The officer and I scanned the camera footage from the time the young man left his house to the time the car was found, but they saw nothing. After the officer left, I thought, “You know, a jumper with a 50 pound weight would make one helluva splash.”
It was a horrible thought to have, but I wanted to help. I proceeded to scan the cameras that are directed toward the channel that flows under the bridge. I sat there, all alone in the tower, staring at the light playing on the dark water, praying that I would not see anything. That was a very long few hours, in which I was afraid to even blink for fear of missing something. Again, I saw nothing. I knew I’d probably never hear how that story ended.
For the rest of the shift, I could not get out of my mind the horrific idea that that young man was possibly very near me, but just out of reach, while people worried about him. Worst case scenario, he was beyond worry, but his family was distraught, I was heartbroken, and dozens of police officers were frantically trying to find him so they could bring him home.
Then I received an e-mail from a friend of the family, asking me to check my camera footage. Since I write this blog, I’m pretty easy to find. I cried a little as I told her I had already done so, and that I was so very sorry this was happening, and that I was keeping watch on the waterway, and that I hoped he’d be found safe and sound. I also requested that she let me know.
Days later, I saw divers in the channel. That’s never good. And then, one evening while cuddling with my husband in front of the television, I received an e-mail from the boy’s mother. She said his body was found beneath my bridge. She thanked me for keeping him safe. I burst into tears.
I wish I had kept him safe. I wish I could have done something, anything, to prevent this from happening. All I did was sit helpless in my tower, suspecting that my worst fears had been realized, and indeed they were. This young man will be forever in my memory.
Whenever I work the swing shift, I blow the horn at 8pm for the frontline workers who are having to deal with this pandemic. Now I will also be blowing it for this young man and others like him who are struggling to see their value in this precious world of ours. What a horrific loss.
I just wanted to say to anyone who may be reading this who is in despair, that people really do care. You’d be surprised at how many people care. First responders take the jobs that they’ve taken because they care. Total strangers like me who are drawn into the situation care. Family cares.
It had been a quiet morning on the drawbridge. A pleasant, sunny day, and yet no sailboats were out on the water. (I’ve given up trying to predict which days will be busy and which will not.)
I was taking advantage of the peace and quiet. I was blogging away. Yes, I kept a regular watch of the waterway, and I was also monitoring the marine radio for opening requests. That has become second nature to me. But it never occurred to me to look up at the sidewalk camera, because I usually only do that when I’m about to have a bridge opening. Safety first, after all.
The next thing I knew, about a dozen emergency vehicles came roaring onto the bridge and came to a stop on the center of the span. And that’s when I saw him. A man, collapsed on the bike lane. That’ll make you knock over your coffee cup.
I went down to street level to find out what was going on for my reports, and to render drawbridge assistance if needed. Based on the extensive blood trail, it seems that this guy got stabbed just south of the bridge. At 9am on a sunny day. (What’s the world coming to?)
They believed he would live, but there was so much blood on the bridge that the fire department had to hose it down with some sort of cleaning solution. The police asked to see our camera footage, and when I rewound it, I was horrified by what I saw. Unfortunately, you couldn’t see the actual stabbing. That was too far away. But what you did see was bad enough.
The man, already bleeding profusely, weaves up and down the bike lane for 15 minutes, discarding various pieces of clothing. And people walk past him, jog past him, and bike past him, and nobody, nobody offers to help. You could tell they knew something was wrong. And there was so much blood that it would have been difficult to overlook. But nobody did anything.
That is, until he collapsed. Then a jogger called 911. Finally. But he didn’t stay with the guy after the call.
And here I was, in the tower, just blogging away, oblivious to the drama unfolding across the street and 70 yards away from me, if that. That part of the bridge is out of my line of sight, and my main focus is the waterway, but if I had looked up at the camera monitor, I’d have seen him.
But I didn’t. That will always bother me. I look at that camera a lot more often now.
The guy was not cooperating with the police, so the working theory was that it was a drug deal gone wrong. I don’t suppose I’ll ever hear how the story played out. But apparently he survived. Thank goodness for that.
I’ll never forget the number of people who passed this man by as he bled all over the bridge. It makes me lose even more faith in humanity, if that’s even possible after this year. People suck.
Too many of us say, “Let someone else deal with it.” “That’s not my problem.” “I can’t be bothered.”
I started this blog on December 1, 2012. I figured it would be a nice experiment, and a way to improve my writing, but I was sure I’d run out of things to say after about six months. Little did I know how quickly our world (and this blogger) would change and grow during all this time. I have yet to run out of things to talk about. In fact, I have even published an anthology of some of my posts which you can check out here. I should have done several more by now, but I seem to lack the follow through. Fingers crossed that I can get back to work with a little help from my very patient friends. It’s been on the top of my to-do list for years. I honestly don’t know what is holding me back.
I was trying to remember the person who sat down at that keyboard, with its several missing keys, eight years ago, and to be perfectly honest, I can’t. I even went back to my first blog post, entitled, “Nature is what’s happening while you’re not looking”, and that really only gives me a glimpse of her. All I know is that I’m a completely different person now.
That new blogger’s whole life revolved around her identity as a bridgetender. It was the one thing she could cling to. The rest of her life was a total shambles. She was very unhappy and felt as if there was no hope. I tried not to show that in this blog, but sometimes it would leak through.
I’m still proud of my job, and I enjoy it, but it’s not the only thing I’ve got anymore. In fact, I look at it more and more as the thing that enables me to live my life and also write this blog. And I’m extremely grateful that bridgetending happens to be something I enjoy doing. I know so many people who really hate their jobs, and given that a lot of their waking hours are spent doing those jobs, to hate them seems like a tragedy to me. I hope I never forget how lucky I am.
Now, I am a wife and a writer and a little free library curator and an exerciser and a traveler. I am a person who has hope and plans for the future. I have moved to the other side of the country to a place that fits me much more politically, albeit much less socially.
This past eight years has really taught me who my friends really are. It makes me realize that quality is so much more important than quantity. And something unexpected happened along the way: I made several additional friends because of this blog. What a gift.
It also occurs to me that I used to say “what a gift” a lot more often in my blog. I really need to start doing that again, because if there’s nothing else that this pandemic has taught me, it’s that so much about our lives and connections to others are precious.
I am also learning, slowly, that it’s important to establish firm boundaries with people. I am a lot less love-starved these days, and therefore I am not willing to tolerate cruel treatment that I would have once overlooked. I no longer have the energy for it, and I also know I deserve better. Some people are best seen in your rear view mirror. Onward!
Now I look forward to many more years of blogging. But there are no guarantees in life. Perhaps the person I will be eight years from now will not be a blogger. And that’s okay, too. But meanwhile, watch this space, dear reader, and thanks to all of you who have stuck with me over the years.
Thank goodness it had been a slow night on the drawbridge. Very few vessels had come up to ask for a bridge opening. My coworker was sitting alone in the tower with the lights out to maintain his night vision. He was enjoying the peace and quiet and a nice cup of tea.
He happened to look up and noticed a man carrying a package. He thought nothing of it. The sidewalk is public property after all.
But then the man stopped at the center of the span. Still on the sidewalk, he put his package down right on the crack that rises and widens when a bridge opening is in progress. As there were no tall vessels on the horizon, again, my coworker didn’t make too much of it. But he did get curious, and continued to watch.
The man dropped to his knees and began carefully opening the package. My coworker recognized the IKEA label on the box. Fascinating.
As with all things IKEA, some assembly was required. The man began reading instructions, and identifying various pieces and parts. He then set about putting together his project.
The man was taking this all very seriously. Clearly he wanted the item to be just right. When he was done, what stood before him was a tall and, according to my coworker, quite nice floor lamp.
The man centered the lamp on the sidewalk, gathered up all the packaging, and walked away. He never gave the abandoned lamp a backward glance. Apparently he had accomplished his mission.
My coworker was both bemused and confused. He sat alone and looked out the window at the lamp for a while. But he couldn’t just leave it there. It was in a precarious place if a sailboat were to approach. During the next lift, the lamp would either fall on the boat as it crossed under, or it would fall down the increasingly sloping sidewalk, possibly hitting a pedestrian. So he went down and carried the lamp off the moveable part of the span.
He left it in a visible place, hoping the man would come back and retrieve it. But it sat there for hours, alone and neglected. And it really was a nice lamp.
So, late that night, at the end of his shift, my coworker took the lamp home. It still sits in his living room to this day. Sometimes, as he sits beside it, he’ll take a break from his reading to think about the man whom he never formally met. He remembers how he was entertained by him for a time on a quiet, lonely night on the bridge and how, because of that, they will always be connected.
It had been a long shift on the drawbridge. Some days seem like Stupid Pedestrian Day, and I never get the memo soon enough to call in sick. People had been risking their lives all day, completely ignoring warning gongs and flashing lights. Many were willfully going under gates just as I was about to raise the bridge.
That’s not funny. That’s a good way to die. And it’s definitely a great way to put a bridgetender in a foul mood. I don’t care how much of a hurry you’re in, it’s not worth your very existence, and it certainly isn’t worth my job.
The shift was nearing its end, and I was anxious to go home and take a bath. This, of course, meant that all the sailboats were hiding around the corner and wanting an opening one by one, 5 minutes apart. Grrrr.
On the last opening of the shift, I looked up to see a guy weaving back and forth down the sidewalk. Clearly he was drunk, and taking his sweet time. It’s a good thing I work alone. I let off a series of invectives that would have singed off your eyelashes.
I mean, COME ON!!!! What’s the FREAKING hold up? *&%^%$$@!@
Finally, finally, this stupid idiot made it across the bridge, and I was able to complete my bridge opening. Sheesh. Some people are just soooo inconsiderate!
After the boat went through and I completed the opening, I looked up to see the guy hadn’t made it very far past the bridge. Dude. Go home and sleep it off. Have some self respect.
That’s also when I saw that he had two artificial legs.
I have never felt so horribly intolerant in my entire life. I’m so glad no one could hear me jump to my negative and hostile conclusions a few minutes previously. I was ashamed of myself. I still am, just thinking about it. It’s really uncomfortable, putting this ugly side of me out there for your scrutiny. But this is an important lesson.
What if some of these “stupid pedestrians” aren’t as stupid as I think? What if some of them are deaf, or blind, or unable to walk quickly? What if they’re going as fast as they can?
Clearly this was a lesson that was, for me, long overdue. I truly believe that lessons pop up exactly when they are needed. I’m going to try really hard to be more patient with people. I doubt I’ll always succeed. But I’ll try.
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.
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.
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.