Three Cheers for Stupidity?

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

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One of my coworkers taped a Go-Pro to the rising Fremont Bridge recently. As you can see, it’s a long way down, and the bridge is only halfway open.

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Hot Pavement and Dogs

At the time I wrote this it was 90 degrees in downtown Seattle. One of my tasks at work when it gets this hot is to measure the bridge gaps to make sure the metal hasn’t expanded so much in the heat that the bridge gets damaged by me trying to open it.

So, I’m standing at the crosswalk, waiting for the light, when this couple comes up, with their two chihuahuas. The dogs were prancing nervously. They were pulling on their leashes, clearly not wanting to be there.

I couldn’t stand it. So I said to the couple, “Can I show you something?”

I took out my heat measurement gun and pointed it at the pavement by their dog’s feet. “The pavement is 118 degrees.” (Frankly, I was surprised it was that cool. My temperature gun may need calibrating.)

“Oh, okay,” the man said, and they continued their walk, not picking their dogs up.

It took everything in me not to tackle them to the ground, grab those poor dogs, and run like hell. Because what they were doing was torture. I was witnessing torture.

When I mentioned this on Facebook, a friend said I should have stolen the man’s shoes. I wish I had thought of that. That would have cut their walk short, for sure.

I’m ashamed to admit that I learned about hot pavement the hard way. I was on a road trip with a dog many years ago, and I stopped at a rest area to give the dog a break. It was brutally hot. The pavement was black. But we were going to the grass. The dog hopped out of the car, and couldn’t have been on the pavement for more than 3 seconds. That night his feet blistered and peeled and we went to the emergency vet.

A good rule of thumb when walking your dog in the summer months is to put your hand on the pavement for 7 seconds. If you can’t stand it, then neither can your dog. Simple enough.

What I will never understand, what will always haunt me, is that when I showed these people that the pavement was 118 degrees, they didn’t immediately pick up those poor little dogs. Another friend said we seem to be entering a “people don’t care” period in society.

That’s not acceptable. Not when you have helpless dogs depending upon you for their health and safety. Not when you have power over the less fortunate or the subordinates of this world.

It’s called being responsible. It’s called being compassionate and empathetic. It’s about having at least one or two brain cells rattling around in that vacuous head of yours.

Hot

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Opening My Bridge for the Zodiac

Every once in a while, I have the distinct pleasure of opening my drawbridge for a true work of art. Such was the case the other day when the Schooner Zodiac passed through the Ship Canal here in Seattle.

According to her website, she is 127 feet tall, and 160 feet long. You can charter her, and believe me, I’d love to. This vessel can accommodate 49 people for day sails, and 26 people for overnight adventures. And there’s not a single square inch of her, not one, that isn’t absolutely gorgeous. Check out the website for breathtaking views of the interior, and for booking information.

This amazing vessel was built in 1924 as a private yacht for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. As I watched her pass through my bridge, I felt transported back in time. I’m proud to say that on that day, at least, I helped her ply these waters and bring her passengers safely home.

Safe journeys, Zodiac.

Schooner_Zodiac_03

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Drawbridge FAQs

So, there’s actually a person making the bridge open and close?

Yep. I get that a lot. Nice to meet you. While there are some automated drawbridges out there (mostly railroad bridges in remote locations with little or no pedestrian traffic), the vast majority of drawbridges have a human operator. Safety is our primary concern, and they have yet to invent a computer with an algorithm to adapt to the unpredictable behaviors of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and boaters. Every few years some fool decides to spend a taxpayer’s fortune to do a study about automating bridges, and it always turns out to be a really, really bad idea.

Don’t you get bored? What do you do between bridge openings? Don’t you go stir crazy? Do you sleep a lot?

I can’t speak for every bridgetender, but it’s a point of pride with me that I never sleep, and it frustrates me when people assume that I do. It’s insulting. I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more to the job than simply sitting there and waiting for a boat to come along. There’s more paperwork than you’d expect. Opening statistics. Accident reports. Long opening reports. Maintenance requests. Log books. Safety lock outs. Supply requests. Many of us are also required to do maintenance, such as the greasing and/or cleaning of various pieces of equipment, the constant battle with pigeon poop and rat abatement, general cleaning, and inspections.

But yes, there’s plenty of down time, too. If you are the type to go stir crazy, you won’t last long on this particular career path. Everyone has their own way of keeping entertained, and every bridge has different policies as to what’s allowed. Some provide TVs and DVDs and/or allow you to bring your laptop to work. Some bridgetenders read books or newspapers or do crossword puzzles. Some of us are writers. I once knew someone who knitted a king sized blanket while listening to the radio. I sometimes sit here and pay my bills.

I also used to know of a bridge that didn’t allow its employees to do anything at all. That, to me, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and those bridge operators slept all the time. I think it’s much better to keep busy and alert, and continually scan the waterway for approaching vessels.

How do you know when someone needs an opening?

Generally they will call us on the marine radio or give us a horn signal. Others will just come up to the bridge and sit there, but since we’re not mind readers, they will most likely sit there for quite some time. If you have a boat, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the Coastguard Federal Regulations, particularly as they pertain to communicating with drawbridges.

Is the bridge manned 24 hours a day? How many hours a day do you work?

That varies from bridge to bridge. The Coastguard regulates when each bridge is not required to open for vessels. Some bridges do not have a graveyard shift. Some bridges share one employee who drives from bridge to bridge to do openings as each vessel transits the waterway. Some bridges over water that ices up are only opened seasonally, or by appointment only. Most of us work 8 hour shifts, but I do know of a few who work 12 hour shifts. Some bridges only allow part time employees to avoid providing benefits.

How much money do you make?

It’s unbelievable how much variation there is from region to region. Some bridgetenders only make minimum wage and get no benefits whatsoever. I’ve known some railroad bridge operators who make 45 dollars an hour and have retirement and every benefit under the sun. The primary difference seems to be whether you have a union or not. I strongly urge unionization to every bridgetender. Power to the people!

How do you get a job as a bridgetender? Do you need special training?

Let’s face it. This isn’t rocket science. If you can read and write, and have functional arms and legs, and good hearing and eyesight, you can be trained on the job. Some important skills to emphasize in an interview are taking safety seriously, customer service, and reliability. Since some bridges are operated by states, some by counties, others by cities, and still others by subcontractors or railroads, it’s best to just approach a bridgetender on the job and ask them who to contact. (Just don’t sneak up on us. We hate that.)

How often do you open the bridge?

That varies greatly from bridge to bridge, and from season to season. Some bridges only open a few times a year. Here in Seattle, I can go several days without an opening in the dead of winter, and then get 15 openings in a shift on a summer holiday weekend. My alltime record was opening for 225 vessels in an 8 hour shift in Florida. Granted, I let several boats through each time, but still, I didn’t get to eat lunch, and  had to get kind of rude just to take a bathroom break.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Witnessing suicide attempts. And it happens more often than you might think.

Why is there such a long delay between the time the bridge closes and the time the traffic gates go up to let cars through again?

Patience, grasshopper. Once the bridge is seated, a lock has to be driven along the underside of the structure so that the bridge doesn’t bounce open while you drive over it. From the point of view of a car, it may seem like nothing is happening at that time, but we cannot raise the gates to let you through until those locks are driven.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!

drawbridge

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Bad Bridge! Bad!

I’d say that working on a drawbridge is a very zen-like experience 95% of the time. Unfortunately, you never know when that 5% of pure chaos is going to rear up and bite you on the patootie. I had one of those days recently.

I went to bed at 3am. No, I’m not a party animal. It’s just that I didn’t have to be to work until 3pm on this particular day, so I tend to sleep in. Way, way in. It’s one of the few joys of being single, and I take full advantage of it.

So imagine my confusion when the phone rang at 7am, right in the middle of a REM cycle. My dream popped like a bubble. I hate when that happens. For a minute I have no idea where I am, or even who I am. It’s like my brain has to reboot.

I was being called to come in to work early. How early? 11am. They needed me to work a 12 hour shift. Okay. Crap. I set my alarm for 9:30 and went back to sleep. At least I’d be getting 4 hours of double overtime. (Thanks, union!)

So in to work I went, to find that I had company for the first 4 hours. A Trainee. Actually, I like training people. It’s kind of fun. And this was a pleasant person to talk to, whom I could see would work out nicely. As I’ve written before, I can pretty much tell if someone is fit for this job within the first 5 minutes.

But while he was here, the sidewalk camera shorted out. That’s a problem because it means we can’t see all the pedestrians before we open the bridge, and Seattle pedestrians are horrifyingly non-compliant about staying off of moving bridges, despite flashing lights, loud gongs, and us desperately screaming at them. It’s a wonder no one has been killed. So fixing this camera is a top priority. Which means the electricians had to come out. Now we had 4 people crammed into a tiny little room, and that can be a bit emotionally draining. But they fixed the camera and were gone within an hour.

And then it was time for the trainee to leave. Finally, my usual routine. Peace. Quiet. My own domain.

Then the storm hit. Rain was coming down in sheets. And the next thing I knew, BOOM! Lightning struck just south of the bridge. Now, when I was a bridgetender in Florida, I was used to this. It was a rare day when lightning didn’t strike somewhere in my vicinity. But here in Seattle, I’ve only seen lightning three times in the nearly three years I’ve been here, so I nearly jumped out of my skin this time.

And then alarms started going off. Oh, shit. That’s never good. It turns out that 3 of the 4 drives that operate bridge had shorted out. It was after hours, so I called the supervisor of the electricians, and he told me to walk down to both ends of the bridge and push a specific button to reset the drives. All well and good, but the storm was still raging. I had to walk down with lightning crashing all around me. That was fun.

Then I walked back up to the tower, only to discover that one of the drives had reset, but the other two had not. I made a call again, and was told, again, to go down and push the button. Naturally, the two drives in question were on the far side of the bridge, which meant yet another long walk through the electrified tempest.

I came back to the tower. The two drives were still malfunctioning. Phone call number three. This time he said he’d be right out. So I sat there in the tower, drenched in sweat, waiting, as sailboats stacked up like cordwood on the canal, and I was contacted every five minutes by various boaters and had to explain why I wasn’t opening the drawbridge for them.

Could things possibly get worse? Of course! A traffic accident south of bridge backed up traffic for miles, delaying the arrival of the electrician.

And then the phone went dead. I’m getting calls on the marine radio from a variety of employees, asking if I’m sure that the phone is properly hung up. Do I look like an idiot? Of course the phone is properly hung up. Then the phone fixes itself with no intervention on my part, so of course everyone thinks the phone was not properly hung up. Sigh.

Oh, and the sidewalk camera went out again. Fortunately, it, too, fixed itself. Go figure.

The electrician finally makes it through the traffic snarl, and is able to fix things within 45 minutes, bless him. By now I’m so exhausted from the adrenaline rush that I’m nauseous and practically delirious. I have never been so happy to see 11pm in my life. The next challenge is driving home without falling asleep at the wheel.

When I finally get home, my dog is extremely happy to see me. (I just love dogs, don’t you?) So I feed him, take a shower to get all the sweat off, and dive into bed. I suspect I’ll be asleep within 5 minutes, which is a good thing, because I have to be back to work at 7am the next morning. I’ll be lucky to cram 5 hours of sleep in.

Except, did I mention that my dog is extremely happy to see me? I may be ready for bed, but he is not. He wants to play! He wants to tell me about his day. He wants to know where the hell I’ve been for 12 hours. He wants to warn me about the lightning monsters that come from the sky.

I hug him. I give him kisses. I tell him he’s a good dog. I beg him, I plead with him, to settle down. Finally, he curls up by my hip and…the next thing I know, the alarm goes off, and it’s time to do it all over again.

If I were a cartoon character, I’d have one of those squiggly lines above my head right now. I need a hug.

Facepalm

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“Just” 4 Minutes

I see it happen every day. I open my drawbridge for a vessel, and at least one car does a u-turn and reroutes itself rather than waiting. This always astounds me. The average bridge opening here in Seattle is only 4 ½ minutes. But the time you take your detour, the bridge would have closed again and you could have gone on your merry way. We as a society are too impatient. We want instant gratification.

I especially don’t understand this as each driver surely knows that he or she is crossing a drawbridge, and there’s a potential for delay. It can’t come as a surprise. Why not make the most of it? I admire those drivers who get out of their cars and take in the view. Take a moment to turn off your engines and just be.

That’s easy for me to say, I suppose. During that 4 ½ minutes, I’m rather busy, trying to insure the safety of the traveling public, and doing my best not to break one of the City of Seattle’s largest pieces of equipment. For me, the time flies.

A friend of mine recently conducted an experiment with me. She set her phone alarm for 4 minutes, and we were to sit in silence. Utter silence, for that entire time.

It was an eternity. Now I get it. Granted, if I were in a car, I’d probably be listening to NPR, so I’d barely notice. But if you’re walking, or riding a bike, or sitting alone in your car in silence, then 4 minutes can be torture.

Sorry. :/

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Traffic backs up as I open my drawbridge. I try not to let this power go to my head.

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More Time Added to my 15 Minutes of Fame!

Suddenly my blog viewer stats were spiking. What drew people here this time? I was stumped. And then I saw the e-mail from Dave Isay of StoryCorps. Their anthology, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work is now out in paperback form!

This is exciting because one of the interviews in this book is mine, from 2009. I spoke at a StoryCorps booth in Jacksonville, Florida about how much I love being a bridgetender, and they felt that it was worthy of inclusion in this anthology! I was really honored.

All the publicity, in O-magazine, NPR, Parade, Forbes, Time… all featuring me… this gave me a great deal of confidence. And it sent me down the path of publishing a book of my very own. A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude is available on Amazon.com. And because I appreciated StoryCorps’ vote of confidence so much, I am donating a dollar from every book sale to them. My book is available in deluxe color edition and on Kindle as well!

So to say that I highly recommend Dave Isay’s book, in paperback or hard cover, is putting it mildly! And as he mentioned in his e-mail, it’s a great gift for young people who are just setting out on their career paths. The book is full of inspiring interviews with everyday people who managed to find their callings. Check it out!

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My View

A reader recently pointed out to me that this blog is called The View from a Drawbridge, but I haven’t really described my actual view in quite some time. Good point. Excellent point.

And it is kind of interesting to contemplate how my perspective on this view has changed over time.

For example, I’ve become fascinated with the office building that sits just across the ship canal from me. They have painted the walls of each office outlandish colors. Dark purple. Vivid orange. Sprite bottle green. My first thought is always, “very bad feng shui.” I wonder how the people working in those offices feel. For that matter, I wonder what they do.

I’m also really interested in the houseboats that line the south bank. That strikes me as a really fun way to live your life. I’d feel like a voyeur, except for the fact that I almost never see anyone on or around these houseboats. It’s like a big floating ghost town. If I were lucky enough to live like that, I’d be out on the balcony every chance I got. Well… maybe not in the winter, but you get the idea.

Their peace will soon be disrupted, though, because someone bought the 15,000 square foot patch of land where the Red Robin fast food place used to sit. They paid 2.8 million for it, and plan to throw up a high rise with ground level shops. No wonder I’ll never be able to afford to buy a house in this town.

I love to watch crews from the rowing club get into their racing shells. How do so many people get on such a long narrow vessel without tipping the whole thing over? But I’ve never seen any of them go for a swim. That’s pretty impressive. They don’t seem to mind getting wet, though. They often practice in the rain.

It took me all this time to discover that when the Montlake Bridge is fully open, I can see bits of it above the tree line. Cool.

And of late I’ve been observing a crow atop the bridge tower adjacent to me, as he chews on the wiring of our weather station. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. I suspect if I try to shoo him away, it will simply make him more determined.

There are a couple of homeless people that used to walk across the bridge every day, cursing and gesticulating. I haven’t seen them in a while. I hope they made it through the worst of the winter.

Also, one of the many men who walked his dog across my bridge each day now walks alone. He looks sad. I fear the worst.

I’m sick of the grey clouds. I’m looking forward to spring. Meanwhile, the hum of the traffic lulls me, provided I don’t dwell on the fact that it’s traffic. So that’s a little snapshot of my view.

University Lighting
Photo courtesy of SDOT Artist in Residence RSVR Visual Research.
University Lighting2
Photo courtesy of SDOT Artist in Residence RSVR Visual Research.

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Could You be a Bridgetender?

Within 5 minutes of meeting a new bridgetender, I can tell if he or she is going to last. And I’m never wrong. Opening drawbridges isn’t for everyone.

Some people don’t even last for that 5 minutes. They take one look at the catwalks and stairways, suspended precariously high above the water, and they quit right on the spot. And some tenderhouses are considerably shabbier than others (when they’re gross, they’re very, very gross), and that can turn people off as well.

Others quit after a few days. They can’t take the isolation and/or the boredom. Very few people are accustomed to no human interaction whatsoever for 8 hours at a stretch. That amount of introspection can be very uncomfortable if it’s not your thing. Solitary confinement is considered to be a form of torture, after all.

If you are used to spending your holidays at home with family, this is definitely not the job for you. And if you’re the type of person who likes to show up late, the coworker you are relieving will kill you sooner rather than later. If you have only a passing relationship with the concept of ensuring the safety of the traveling public, then we’d all rather that you go away.

If you are inflexible, you won’t thrive when working on a bridge. Yes, for the most part this is a sedentary job, but that’s punctuated with times of great activity. Doing maintenance. Responding to emergencies. Opening the bridge (well, duh). If you come to resent those parts of the job, or think the world owes you a living for doing absolutely nothing, ever, then you will not be happy here.

Sadly, there’s no uniformity of benefits or pay scale for this job. In some parts of the country the compensation is absolutely abysmal. (I can’t stress this enough: UNION.)

I’ve also run into short timers who were hesitant to talk on the marine radio, or couldn’t read or write well (there’s a lot more paperwork than you’d suspect), or were afraid to step outside alone at night or in inclement weather when things needed doing. These are always red flags.

Rereading this, I realize that I make it sound as if this is the worst job in the world. On the contrary. I’ve written about my love for this job in this blog on numerous occasions. But as with any other profession, you have to be suited to it. You have to have a certain je ne sais quoi. I may not be able to describe it to you, but I can spot a bridgetender with staying power at 50 paces.

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Fear of Heights

If you are afraid of heights, the last thing you should do is become a bridgetender. Many people are afraid to even walk or drive across bridges, let alone work on them. I see it every day. Others are fine until they feel the bridge shaking and swaying. But trust me, the last thing you want is a rigid bridge. Those are the ones that buckle and break.

Bridgetenders often find themselves climbing rickety stairs way above the water. They cross open-grated catwalks every day. And when you are standing on a bridge’s street-level grating, it feels like it’s a long way down.

Here’s my dirty little secret. (Promise not to tell.) I’m afraid of heights. I think anyone with a healthy sense of self-preservation ought to be.

The first bridge I worked on, the tenderhouse was suspended 25 feet above the road, and 35 feet above the river. To get to it, you had to climb a set of open-grated stairs from sidewalk level, right on the water’s edge, and then take another flight that extended above the traffic. And that bridge swayed more than any other I’ve been on.

I used to have to fight panic attacks every single time I came to work. And I couldn’t reveal that to any of my coworkers, because I’d have lost their respect. Some people would get hired, walk up the bridge, take one look at the stairs, and quit right on the spot.

I have gotten used to things to a certain extent, but I still feel a spike of anxiety on catwalks. And when I’m on the bridge grating, I just remind myself, over and over again, that if it can support the weight of a truck, it can support me. And I don’t look down.

So why do I do it? I love so many things about this job that those little stress bubbles seem worth it to me. In addition, I’ve given it a lot of thought. I’m not one of those unfortunate people who are afraid of heights even inside a multi-story building.

No. I’ve examined my fear closely, and it only seems to come about when I could possibly die due to my own clumsiness. If there are stairs for me to fall down, or railings low enough for me to plunge over to my death, then I’m scared. But if I’m harnessed in, or there’s a chest-high railing or something of that nature that would prevent my own klutziness, or if I’m taking in the view from inside a nice solid building, I’m fine.

It’s always been a bad habit of mine to have more faith in others, and even in inanimate objects, than I do in myself. Because of this, I think I could go zip lining. Jumping out of an airplane might pose a greater challenge. I might even be able to do that, if harnessed in tandem with a professional. But don’t ask me to shimmy along a narrow ledge. I want to live.

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I took this picture of my coworkers, who were standing on sidewalk level. I was only halfway up to the tenderhouse.

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