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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Every time I think I’ve seen it all as a bridgetender, something new and surprising happens. The other day, a boat passed under my bridge, and on the bow there was a woman in a hot pink, shiny catsuit, wearing a powder blue motorcycle helmet, complete with visor. I wish I had had time to whip out my camera, but I was too busy standing there, slack-jawed.
I’ve also seen my fair share of nudity and inappropriate acts, and believe me, most of them I wish I could wash out of my brain with bleach. It seems as though the level of one’s exhibitionism is directly proportionate to one’s lack of classic beauty. I would really rather not see your thick carpet of back hair, ma’am, thankyouverymuch.
And then there are the strange things that have floated by my tower: Houses. Lengths of bridge. Airplanes. Submarine periscopes. UFOs (unidentified floating objects). I once opened for a yacht being used by Sir Paul McCartney when he did the halftime show at the super bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. (I didn’t catch a glimpse of him, though.)
Pedestrians can be quite entertaining, too. They often like to sing. And while they tackle it with enthusiasm, as a general rule they shouldn’t try out for American Idol.
Or they dance. We get a lot of dancers. One guy walked down the sidewalk dribbling an imaginary basketball. Another preached a full sermon to the geese on the canal.
People have gotten into fist fights while crossing my bridge. I’ve seen more than one marriage proposal. A sad number walk across, shouting and gesticulating when no one else is there.
I’ve also seen eagles and falcons and ospreys and alligators and nutria and harbor seals and dolphins, to name but a few of the fascinating creatures who share the planet with us. I’ve also seen more lightning strikes and rainbows and sunrises and sunsets than I can count.
I’ve seen enough bizarre traffic accidents to make me wonder if anyone puts any thought into vehicular safety anymore. I’ve also heard every obscenity known to man, and have had a wide variety of objects thrown at me. I’ve also had government snipers on my bridge when presidential nominees were making speeches nearby.
I really do have the most interesting job in the world. I’d like to say I’ve seen it all, but somehow I suspect that I haven’t. So watch this space!
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A friend of mine recently did a Google search of Women and Drawbridges, and what came up was disheartening. Not one word about the many amazing female bridge operators out there. Sadly, nothing about this blog, either.
No. It was all about the stupid things women have done on bridges. Especially this woman, who famously got stuck on an automated bridge as it was rising.
She has become the poster child for all the foolish pedestrians who ignore warnings when a bridge is opening. (And did she have to be wearing that tacky shirt while doing so? Jeez.) I see them every day. (She also happens to be the perfect argument for why drawbridges should never be automated.)
Another thing that pops up is the woman who died after falling from an opening bridge. (Please take those gongs seriously, folks. Getting to your destination on time is rarely worth your life!)
And then there’s this insane and obviously faked video of a woman jumping across an opening bridge. “Do not attempt”, it says. Uh, yeah. That’s putting it mildly.
For what it’s worth, after years of observation, I can say with a certain amount of authority that stupidity on drawbridges knows no gender.
The reason I find these search results so frustrating is that I’ve been a bridgetender for 17 years. I’ve worked with dozens of other female operators, and we are every bit as capable as our male counterparts. And yet inevitably I’ve encountered people in positions of influence who openly state that they don’t think women should be bridgetenders.
What is this, 1950?
Yes, it’s a male-dominated profession. I have no idea why. It’s something that I’ve had to adjust to throughout my career. There’s a constant push back from certain sources. It can be exhausting.
One male coworker refers to a female coworker of mine as “the little blonde,” which completely discounts her intelligence and capabilities, and reduces her to her physical attributes. It makes me want to scream. Another coworker referred to an assault incident between two women as a “cat fight.”
For God’s sake. What an ignorant world we live in. I’d clutch my pearls if I weren’t so busy cleaning the motor oil out from under my fingernails.
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I have a healthy respect for crows, especially since I was once stalked by one. They are highly intelligent creatures. They’re survivors. They’re not afraid to speak up. I kind of admire the fact that they show absolutely no remorse when they’re in a foul (fowl?) mood.
This past year I’ve been enjoying observing one crow in particular. I’ve named him Uni, because he likes to hang out with me while I’m working on University Bridge here in Seattle. The first time I saw him, he was chewing on the electrical wires that are attached to our wind gauge. I’m surprised he survived that, but it probably explains quite a bit about his mental state.
After that, he hopped up on the wind gauge itself and spun around and around and around. Eventually, he’d get dizzy, hop off for a bit until he got re-oriented, and then he’d do it again. A crow with a sense of fun. It made me smile.
Since then, I’ve noticed that he likes to ride the drawbridge up when I’m doing an opening. He’ll sit on one of the I-beams near the center of the span, and lean increasingly forward as the bridge rises. He seems rather proud of his sense of balance. He can’t quite make it for a full opening. Eventually he flies off, but I suspect he’ll figure it out one of these days.
Uni has also learned that when I blow the horn, an opening is about to commence. He squawks excitedly and gets into position for his ride. This is a crow that seems to really love life.
I enjoy his company quite a bit. You just never know when you’re going to make a friend. Sadly, I suspect I won’t be seeing as much of him in the next few months, as a pair of peregrine falcons is once again nesting beneath the bridge. Uni is smart enough to know it’s a good idea to keep a low profile for now.
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It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”
And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.
Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”
Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.
Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.
“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.
I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.
How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.
I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.
The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.
The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.
I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.
At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.
When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.
When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.
Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.
I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.
In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.
Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.
And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.
I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.
Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.
Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.
Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.
That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.
Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.
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We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.
What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.
Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:
Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.
I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.
Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.
During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.
When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.
In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.
When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.
The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”
I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.
I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.
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Once, I was crossing a very long bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. Actually, I should say that I was trying to cross it. Traffic was backed up for miles. Ah well. At least I had a wonderful view.
And then I heard the sirens. An ambulance was attempting to get by. My heart went into my throat. I didn’t think this would end well for its occupant.
But an amazing thing happened. Every single car, and there were hundreds, all pulled over to both sides of the road as if they were acting as one. You would have sworn we had been working with a choreographer for months. It looked like the parting of the Red Sea or something. It was beautiful.
The ambulance blasted past on the center line without even having to hit the brakes. I was kind of proud of all of us that day. It’s probably why the memory has stayed with me.
In a society that is more and more polarized, it’s a rare thing when everyone comes together and cooperates without hesitation. We can’t even seem to agree on what constitutes a crisis these days. (In case you hadn’t noticed, global warming is an actual thing.)
It is interesting, though, to see how we come together in cases of emergency. Even neighbors who don’t particularly like each other will be there when the flood waters start to rise or the wind starts to blow. An earthquake is a great equalizer, destroying mansions and shanties alike. And during candlelight vigils we are united in our grief.
We need to figure out a way to show this same spirit of cooperation during times of feast as well as famine. Actually, we need to find a way to do it even during moments of routine. We don’t always have to agree, and I’m sure we never will, but when all is said and done, we’re all in this together.
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I’ve been opening drawbridges since 2001. When I moved to the Seattle area three years ago, my official title became “Bridge Operator”. You will never hear me call myself that. I’m a bridgetender. Pure and simple.
I have no idea how you’ve managed to overlook this controversy (Shame on you! Shame!), but this whole bridgetender vs. bridge operator thingie is very emotionally fraught for some people. Civil war could break out any minute. A lot of people are offended if you call them bridgetenders. Personally, I think it’s all stuff and nonsense.
Calling a bridgetender a bridge operator is like calling a garbage collector a sanitation engineer. Does anyone give those employees more respect with that elevated title? Believe me, no one on earth thinks you have an engineering degree when you are coping with rot and maggots all day long.
I think the title change came about because people meant well. They wanted us to be taken seriously. They wanted us not to be dismissed as unskilled laborers. They wanted us to “sound like” we “deserve” our pay. I appreciate that sentiment. People’s lives are in our hands every day.
But I think this kind of backfires. What’s wrong with the old title? Weren’t we good enough? Didn’t our work have value all along? The job is the same. Here’s a thought: just treat us with respect.
When a coworker calls him or herself a bridge operator, I long to ask that person who he or she is when not operating the bridge. Most of us might actually do openings about 20 minutes for every 8 hour shift.
I like tending to my bridge. I operate it, yes, but I also take care of it. I do maintenance. I make sure it’s running properly. I nag people for repairs. I keep it clean. I run off graffiti artists and thrill seekers. I know its every bolt and groan. I love my bridge. Tender-ly.
I get called many things during the course of a day. Most of those things are shouted by irate commuters, and won’t be repeated here. More times than I care to admit, boaters who talk to me on the radio will call me sir. That kind of hurts my feelings. A couple friends call me the river goddess, which makes me smile.
Occasionally, someone will call me a bridge master. Now that… I could get used to that…
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Recently Katie Herzog, a writer for The Stranger, a favorite publication of mine, posted a photograph of a man climbing the wide open Ballard Drawbridge here in Seattle. Fortunately this is not something that happens every day, so yes, I agree it was noteworthy. But here’s where Ms. Herzog and I part company. She said, “Kudos mystery climber! Way to make the morning commute a little more fun.”
I’ve been opening drawbridges for almost 16 years. That photograph made me sick to my stomach. Someone tried this with me once, but I realized it rather quickly and aborted the opening, which caused a 2000 ton gravel barge quite a bit of panic, but prevented injury and potentially loss of life. My adrenaline pumped for several hours after that, and I literally went home and vomited.
I suggest that anyone who thinks that this little jaunt was “fun” should Google “Drawbridge” and “Death” some time. People have died on drawbridges. They are millions of pounds of lurching, shuddering concrete and steel that seem to bring out the worst in thrill-seekers. Not a day goes by when at least one fool climbs under the gates when I’m just about to open the span.
If “mystery climber” had fallen, he would have splattered all over the pavement. We’d be scraping him off the sidewalk with a shovel. Would that have made your commute more fun?
People wonder why the bridgetender didn’t see this guy. He was on the opposite side of the span from the operating tower. We do have cameras, but they can only see so much. The bridgetender would never have continued the opening if he had been aware this was happening. Not in a million years. Safety is our number one concern. Killing someone is not something that would be easy to live with. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever recover from that. And despite the fact that it was this climber’s choice to be a total idiot, if it happened on my watch I’d probably lose my job, and therefore my house and my car and… on and on.
As writers, we have a certain amount of influence, and therefore a great deal of responsibility to the public. Encouraging life threatening (and job threatening) behavior is a breach of that trust. I hope the Stranger’s post won’t entice anyone else to copy the mystery climber, or we might see a senseless tragedy.
Stay safe, people. Be smart.
Update: Whoa. Was wondering why my blog was getting so many visits. The Stranger responded to my tirade! Unfortunely, they still aren’t taking it seriously, and they didn’t even have the courtesy of contacting me before quoting me. http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/08/23/25370933/drawbridge-operator-takes-issue-with-the-strangers-coverage-of-a-drawbridge-incident