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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I Broke My Bridge

It was the day after Seattle got more snow in a 24 hour period than it usually gets in a year. There was 4 to 9 inches of the stuff covering most of the city. Most people had the good sense to stay put.

Not me. I’m a bridgetender. I have an obligation to be there. But driving 25 miles in that crap did not appeal to me, so my husband was kind enough to get up with me at 4 a.m. and drive me there in our truck. (He’s a keeper.)

The commute took 3 times longer than usual, but we made it on time, and I trudged up to the tower door of the University Bridge in calf-high snow, losing a glove in the process. If I had known how the day was going to go, I’d have stayed in bed.

For starters, I had to shovel the snow off the sidewalk and bike lanes, on both sides of the entire length of the movable span. I had been told there would be help coming, but none came. So I shoveled, and shoveled, and shoveled, for 2 solid hours, moving hundreds of pounds of snow, until I thought my heart would explode. And even after that, I had only cleared a partial trail from both sidewalks. Under that, it was so hard packed and icy that it would have taken a blow torch to remove the stuff.

Pedestrians kept stopping to thank me. One even gave me an almond croissant. They couldn’t believe I was trying to tackle this project on my own. “Doesn’t the city have a snow blower?” Yup. But we weren’t allowed to use it for some insane reason.

I never shoveled the bike lane. I called someone further up in my chain of command and told him I needed help. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. He told me to shovel no more, and that he’d send help. None arrived.

And then a sailboat asked me for an opening. What a sailboat was doing out in that weather I’ll never understand. But ours is not to question why. So I opened the bridge for him.

I gave the bridge a full opening, in hopes that some more of that snow would slide off. I even “bounced” the bridge a tiny bit in hopes of shaking the snow off. But no. It was like concrete.

The sailboat successfully transited, and I closed the bridge. Well, sort of. Once the bridge is properly seated, the next step is to drive a lock that’s kind of like a slide bolt underneath a bridge. This keeps the bridge leaves from bouncing up individually as cars cross. You don’t want that. The next car could have a nasty surprise.

The controls said the bridge was seated. I double checked as I always do. It looked seated. So I drove the locks.

It wasn’t seated.

Imagine trying to drive a slide bolt home when it isn’t properly aligned. Something is going to break. And something sure as heck did. The two shafts split like hot knives going through butter.

The mechanics said it was bound to happen sooner or later. The lock was fabricated in 1933. It’s been sliding home for millions of openings, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, every day since then. Metal fatigue, anyone? I just happened to draw the short straw, and be present for the opening that finally did it in.

Of course, nobody was sure that the lock was broken at first. Which meant I had to crawl down beneath the bridge, on an ice-coated, metal grate catwalk suspended 42 feet above the frigid canal, to try to manually crank the lock closed. Meanwhile traffic started to back up for miles.

When I reported back about my total lack of success, it was assumed that I didn’t know what I was doing. As with every male dominated workplace, it wasn’t until they arrived on the scene and couldn’t get the locks to budge either that they finally realized there was more to the problem.

The last time a lock was broken here in town, it was on the Ballard Bridge, and it cost the city about $50,000 to replace it. (It’s not like you can run down to the nearest Home Depot and pick up a replacement part.) But this time it was two shafts, not one, so I shudder to think how much this will cost.

The locks won’t be repaired until at least April. Meanwhile, we still have to open the bridge for vessels and then lock it to make it safe for traffic, so we have to employ pinsetters to run out to center span for every opening and shove a heavy metal pin in between both leaves and lock them together. This means the openings take a lot longer, and require much more team work. But you do what you have to do.

(Oh, and I tried to set the pins when the bridge first malfunctioned, so that the traffic could cross while we were trying to figure out what was wrong. The on call supervisor assumed that I didn’t do that right either. But you can’t set a pin on an improperly aligned bridge. So I climbed that ladder and lifted the 15 pound pin over my head, all while freezing to death, for absolutely nothing, not even appreciation for the effort.)

By the end of my shift, I was exhausted. My husband picked me up. I was so glad I wouldn’t have to drive home.

As I was getting into the truck, my ice-caked boots slipped off the running board and I fell face-first into a snow bank, wrenching my already aching back. I really earned my pay that day.

So imagine my shock when I returned to work a couple days later to hear that several of my coworkers accused me of not shoveling at all, and breaking the bridge due to my own negligence. Mind you, none of them had been there, and didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired.

No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.

 

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Getting Greasy

On the day I wrote this, I got grease all over the cuff of my favorite work jacket. And I’m not talking grease from an order of French fries, here. I’m talking industrial grade mechanical grease, nearly the consistency of peanut butter. (SWEPCO 113, for those of you who are curious.)

It made me smile.

Don’t get me wrong. I tried to avoid it. It’s a royal pain in the butt to get out. I’m soaking the sleeve in simple green even as we speak, and will probably do so for about 24 hours before washing. But as a bridgetender, I have to do my part to keep my drawbridge operating smoothly, so greasy I’m bound to get every now and then.

What made me smile is that if you were profiling me, you wouldn’t expect that I was the sort of woman who even comes in contact with grease, let alone gets it all over her clothes. If I were on What’s My Line, you’d never guess correctly.

And yet, here I am. Pushing the boundaries. Breaking the stereotypes.

I was tempted to smear some of that grease on my cheekbones while I was at it. A badge of honor. A shot across the frontal lobe of your pigeon-holing mind.

Every time I surprise someone by walking down the street in my hardhat, or by adding insulation to the subfloor of my house, or even by offering someone the use of my jumper cables, I’m broadening their worldview just a tiny bit. And I like that.

Because every time I take a tiny chip out of your typecast, it makes it all the more easy for the women who come behind me to be themselves. It may not be much, but if we all keep chip, chip, chipping away, ignorance and hate will lose, and those of us who don’t mind getting greasy will find it more possible to do so.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go dig the crud out from under my short, raggedy nails.

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Another Disappearing Drawbridge

As a bridgetender, I tend to take it personally when a drawbridge disappears. And it happens all too often. Lower drawbridges get replaced by much taller, fixed spans. People lose their livelihood. And the neighborhood loses a great deal of its character. Folks blast on past without even slowing down anymore. They don’t take in the view. It’s tragic.

So when I saw this article entitled How drawbridge is drowning, I had that first, visceral reaction. Oh no. Not another one. Then I discovered that this story isn’t about a drawbridge. (Well, actually, it is, and it isn’t. You’ll see.)

Drawbridge, California started off with a population of one. George Mundersheitz’s cabin was built there in 1876, so that he could operate the two railroad swing bridges in the area. They were about a half mile apart, and George would walk to each one and hand crank them as needed to let vessels through. That must have been a real pain in inclement weather. And it must have been a very lonely existence.

But it seems that George was an enterprising man, because by 1880, that part of San Francisco Bay had become a duck hunting mecca of sorts, now that there was railroad access, and George started charging people 50 cents a night to stay in his cabin.

Eventually the unincorporated town was named by the railroad, as was often the case, and this place became known as Drawbridge. At its height in 1928, it had 90 cabins and 2 hotels, and hundreds of ducks were shot in the area every single day.

The town never had a city council or a school or law enforcement of any kind. And even with that small population, there were divisions. On the south side of town, people were Catholic. The Protestants dominated the north side. The two groups rarely mixed.

Unfortunately, Drawbridge was not sustainable. The duck population predictably declined, and the marshland began to sink as area metropolises undermined the watershed. The navigable waters began to silt up, and there was no longer a need for a drawbridge. The tides did not clear away the sewage like they used to, and the place began to stink. Needless to say, swimming and fishing drastically declined. And people got tired of having to raise their cabins as their foundations sank with the marsh. Trains no longer stopped in Drawbridge by 1955.

As residency declined, looters came in with annoying frequency. The last resident, Charles Luce, became known for driving people away with a shotgun. He left in 1979 when he was bought out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Now no one goes to Drawbridge. It’s surrounded by salt lakes, and most of the buildings have been burned by looters or have rotted into the ground. As the waters rise due to climate change, the island itself will disappear entirely, and only those of us who are fascinated by history will even know that there was once a thriving community in this unforgiving place.

Rest in peace, Drawbridge. Rest in peace.

The ghost town of Drawbridge
Drawbridge, California’s first building: The bridgetender’s cabin.

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Don’t You Have Jobs?

I ask that question quite a bit. As a bridgetender I get to look down upon the leisure class, literally and figuratively. Up in my tower, watching the yachts and the sailboats floating past, often with relatively young people on them, at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, for example, it’s hard not to be envious. How does one pull that off? I guess I never got the memo.

I also am shocked at how much traffic whooshes down the interstate at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning. Isn’t it a school night? Don’t you have to be at work in, like, 4 hours? Come on, people.

Yes, I get it. Some people have even stranger work hours than I do. Others actually have managed to retire, although I can’t imagine how in this economy. Others are on vacation, although they can’t possibly all be, all the freakin’ time, can they? And then there are the unemployed, and the disabled, and those who actually work from their cars.

Even so, I’m constantly astounded by all the to-ing and fro-ing that goes on in this country. But when all is said and done, the fact that this is the first question I ask probably says a lot more about me than it does about the world and how it functions.

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Well, *I* was working, at least.

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