That Moment When the Hair Stands up on the Back of Your Neck

So, I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a typical day on my drawbridge (if you can call any day on a drawbridge typical). I’d been there for several hours. I was thinking about lunch. That’s when I saw the half-eaten food in the recycle bin.

My first instinct was to be irritated. Not everyone takes recycling as seriously as I do. I sighed, and transferred the food into the regular trash can. But then I realized that the last employee who had been on the bridge was… me.

I had gotten off work at 11 pm the night before, and had returned to work at 7 am that morning. No one had been there in the intervening hours. Let me rephrase that. No one who was supposed to have been there had been there. And yet, there was that food.

I tested the window beside the desk. It was unlocked. We never leave it unlocked. I looked at the lock on the outside of the window. It had been tampered with. (See below.) Someone had been there.

This felt like a violation, as if someone had rifled through my underwear drawer. Granted, nothing of value was taken. Then I realized that some of my food items were missing from the fridge. And I had left the toilet seat up after cleaning the bathroom the night before. Now it was down.

Someone had broken in to get out of the wind and weather, and had made themselves at home, helped themselves to my food, and used the bathroom. Thank goodness they weren’t still there when I arrived in the morning. What would I have done? I wouldn’t have seen them until I reached the top of the stairs, which would have made it awfully hard for either one of us to beat a hasty retreat.

And then I realized that they could still be there.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Suddenly the closed closet door behind me felt like it was radiating heat. I turned slowly. I looked at that door. My heart was pounding.

But surely no one had been standing in there for 4 solid hours, amongst the mops and buckets, as I sat all alone not two feet away, without me hearing a sound. Surely not.

Still…

I slowly opened the drawer where the heavy industrial flashlight was housed. I gripped it tightly. I took a deep breath and opened the closet door.

Nobody. I felt sick with relief. I felt resentful that my safe place no longer felt safe.

And then there were the phone calls and the paperwork and the police report and the debate about best methods to amp up security. Those things kept me busy. Those things prevented me from digesting the experience.

That night, before security measures could be put into place, an employee was posted on the bridge overnight. And at 1 am, someone tried to break in again. My coworker scared them away, but couldn’t give a good description. Great.

Now, a few days out, what strikes me most is how abruptly the atmosphere in that room had changed for me. One minute, status quo. The next… Someone had been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been. In my sanctuary.

And it could happen again at any time.

Tranquility is such a tenuous thing.

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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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The Oldest Bridge in the World

It is very unusual for me to direct my readers to blog posts by other authors, but this one really spoke to me. It’s about the oldest known bridge in the world, located in Iraq. As a bridgetender, I have an obvious interest in bridges, but this story also appeals to me as a history lover and a feminist.

Archeologists are working to preserve this 4000 year old bridge in Tello, Iraq. Not only are they learning about the rich history of the area through the many artifacts that are being uncovered, but they are also training several female archeologists in a region that had all but been destroyed by ISIS until quite recently.

Once the preservation is complete, the plan is to create a visitor’s center to encourage tourism and education in the area. This bridge is also a symbol of pride for the Iraqi people, as further evidence of their rich architectural heritage. Even though the waterway that this bridge used to span is long gone, this structure is still bridging a gap, and I find that impressive.

I encourage you to check out this blog post, along with its attached video which was produced by the British Museum. It’s really quite fascinating, in a geeky, historical, bridge-loving kind of way.

oldest bridge

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Immortalizing a Fool

I fell in love with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer when I was introduced to it in high school. It’s a satire of 14th century England, and it lampoons a whole series of character types. The characters are fictional, but some people link them to actual people living at the time. Either way, it’s brilliant.

What I love about writing is it immortalizes the subject in question. No mater what that person does after that time, his or her behavior is trapped, like a fly in amber, forevermore on the page, all at the whim of the author. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Chaucer has shown us buffoons that, if living, would now be 700 years old. If you’re an idiot, beware, because a writer could be watching you, and you will be forever linked with your muddleheaded behavior. Take that.

Although I’m no Chaucer, in memory of him I’ll now immortalize a fool that I encountered once in my bridgetending career. I’ll call him the Hot Pink Glasses Guy. He shall wear those tacky glasses forever more within this blog, long after his taste in fashion has (hopefully) improved.

One day I was at work, and I began a bridge opening for a very large gravel barge that was making its way to a concrete processing plant. This barge passes back and forth on a daily basis. I’ve probably opened the bridge for him a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep if I didn’t care so much about minor things like not getting people killed.

It was a beautiful day, so I had the windows open. Because of that, I could hear someone shouting as he walked down the sidewalk. “Too soon! Too soon!” he screamed.

Oh, great.

I had the bridge completely open by then and the barge was slowly passing through, so I looked out the window at the shouter. It was a skinny white guy, in his early 20’s, jumping up and down in extreme agitation, causing his hot pink glasses to fairly dance on his tense little face. “Too soon!”

Then he crawled under the gate and approached the bridge, which at this point is about 1 million pounds of lurching, swaying concrete and steel.

“Uh, sir, you need to get back behind the gate for your safety.”

“Safety? What do you know about safety? You’re an idiot! You don’t know how to do your job! You opened the bridge way too soon! I studied engineering at the University of Washington. I know what’s safe and what’s not! How is this not safe?”

I could have talked about the fact that the barge weighs more than 3000 gross tons, and can’t exactly slam on his brakes or do a u-turn in the narrow channel, and therefore needs a lot of lead time for safe passage. I could have listed all the people who have died on drawbridges while doing stupid things. I could have talked about my 18 years of experience. But what would be the point? Sigh.

“Well, sir, for starters, you’re behaving irrationally and I don’t know what you’re going to do next. I can’t close this bridge until you get back behind the gate.”

He sat down on the concrete, looking smug. So I added, “Sir, do you see all these other people? You’re holding them up. I could call 911 and wait for them to arrive, but you’re going to have a very angry crowd to deal with until then.”

And sure enough, people started shouting at him. (There’s nothing like public humiliation to get a bridgetender’s desired results.) He slinked back under the gate, but not before one more petulant retort. “Idiot,” he grumbled.

I closed the bridge, but before it was completely seated, this genius walked across the street, crawled under that gate, and crossed the still-closing bridge. Because that’s safe. Because he’s an engineer. He can do anything.

Hot Pink Glasses

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On Being Good at Your Job When No One Is Watching

In order to be a bridgetender, you have to be able to function well with little or no supervision. You have to be the type of person who takes a job seriously, believes in maintaining standards, and is very self-motivated. I am that person. And I happen to consider being left alone to be its own reward.

The downside is that praise is very thin on the ground. If you thrive on attaboys and kudos, this is not the job for you. Taking pride in having done the job well has to be enough.

The other day, I had five different vessels headed toward my bridge from both directions, and at different rates of speed. I also had vehicle traffic backed up for miles, and dozens of pedestrians and cyclists in a wide array of moods. Some were being cooperative, and some were not.

On days like that, opening the bridge is like being the conductor of a very unruly orchestra. There are a variety of moving parts to consider. When do you start your opening so as to back up the minimum amount of traffic? How do you keep all of the traveling public safe? How do you time it so all the vessels get through at once without crashing into each other or damaging the bridge?

Communication is key. You need to make sure all the vessels know what the plan is. Sometimes you have to be firm and tell a captain that he’ll have to wait for the next opening. (We try to keep our openings less than 10 minutes long to avoid traffic delays.)

That particular opening went off without a hitch. Everyone was appreciative and all went well. At the end of it, I did a little dance and thought, “DAMN, I’m good!!!”

I was feeling proud and all in the zone, and mighty pleased with myself. I was thinking that it was a shame that no supervisors were around to see the pure artistry that was that opening. I felt great.

And then the phone rang.

It was my supervisor, saying someone just called and complained because I had made him wait because I was trying to avoid a long opening that would back up traffic for miles.

Sigh. And just like that, my head shrank back down to normal size.

But it was good while it lasted.

proudcupcake

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Bridge Break In

So, I came to work the other day to a sheet of plywood covering one of our windows. It seems that some drug addict scaled the bridge to the upper floor and tried to bash the window in with a 2×4. I don’t know what they were hoping to get. There’s nothing much worth stealing in here, especially if you then have to carry it back down to ground level. But ours is not to reason why.

The thing is, the fool tried to do this right at the beginning of the shift, so a coworker caught him in the act and called 911. He bolted, but by some miracle the police caught him right down the street. My coworker identified him, for what it’s worth, but I’m betting he’s walking free again even as I write this.

It’s amazing how much an evil outside force can alter your worldview. I used to feel safe here. Now I keep seeing movement outside the window out of the corner of my eye. And I also wonder what would have happened if the idiot had gained entry, and whoever came to work didn’t notice the broken window, unlocked the sidewalk door, came up the stairs, and was face to face with a drug addict wielding a block of wood. What would have come next?

A friend pointed out that there’s no point in playing the “what if” game. You can’t live your life in constant fear. At least, you shouldn’t do so. And to a certain extent I agree. But it never hurts to have a contingency plan.

From now on, I plan to drive by and take a look at that window before parking. When I unlock the door, I’m going to pause to see if I hear anything, such as the kind of noises one would only hear from an open window. (Or some disembodied voice saying “Redrum,” or something.) I bet the guy didn’t smell very good, either, and I have the nose of a dog. So there’s that.

What I resent most, though, is that my sense of security has been shattered. Take all the stuff you want, but leave my comfort zone alone.

I’m sure I’ll relax again eventually, but until then, I wouldn’t advise you to sneak up on me. You could be in for a nasty surprise.

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I’m, Like, All Official, and Stuff

The other day I was walking across my drawbridge to do some sweaty, greasy routine maintenance on the south end. I was in my sweaty, greasy safety vest and my hard hat. (Incidentally, why do I have to wear a hard hat on an open sidewalk? What am I protecting myself from? Meteor showers? Low flying planes? Beats me. I just do what I’m told.)

As I walked, I was lost in thought. Gazing at the sunset, humming a little tune, I suspect that I wouldn’t have noticed if Peter Dinklage had walked past me in full Game of Thrones finery. Thusly, I found myself in the midst of a film crew without even realizing what I had walked into. I have no idea what they were filming, but there were about 8 of them out there. I picked up my pace, hoping I hadn’t interrupted anything critically important.

As I left the “set”, I heard one woman whisper, “She looks so official in her green shirt.”

First of all, huh? I was literally wearing a green t-shirt that I had picked up at the Goodwill ages ago. What’s so official about not wanting to get grease on any prized garments?

I couldn’t work up the energy to turn around and ask what she meant by that. It didn’t seem hostile. I don’t think she was making fun of me. She sounded sincere. But what on earth?

Mulling it over later, I realized that no one would have said that about a man. Men don’t look official in their green shirts. It’s just assumed that they’re official, full stop. It wouldn’t occur to most people to even remark about them.

So now I’m a bit irritated. But I wasn’t put on this earth to teach every random stranger that I encounter about gender equity. I’m just workin’, here.

HardHatYellow02

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