Scary, Scary Bridge People

When I first became a bridgetender back in 2001, I assumed I wouldn’t be dealing with people very much. That was part of the appeal for me. It suits my introverted nature. I don’t really understand a lot of people, especially when they are acting unpredictably. And those are the very people I’m forced to interact with on my job.

Oh, goody.

So, in honor of Halloween, I thought I’d tell you about some of the people who have scared me over the years. Some of these are kind of funny in retrospect. Others, not so much.

  • The scariest person I’ve ever come across was the barking man. He thinks he’s a dog. But he’s no golden retriever. He thinks he’s a very large, aggressive, rabid dog. He was someone I dealt with regularly on one of my Florida bridges. He never touched me, but a couple of times he got close enough to where I felt his slobber on my face as he barked and growled. Bad dog. No treats for you.

  • Then there’s the serial rapist who got out of jail and spent his nights fishing at the end of my bridge. How do I know this? Because I used to have a side job transcribing the interviews of ex-prisoners for a study at the health department, and he mentioned my bridge by name. I heard this while sitting on that very bridge all alone, late at night, and it felt much worse because I had no idea what he looked like.

  • For some reason, people like to come by and pound on the tower door and run away. It has happened on all 9 bridges that I’ve worked on. This often makes me jump out of my skin. Especially on the graveyard shift. Fortunately, I have a strong heart.

  • But I nearly soiled myself the time that three young boys came by at three a.m. and rattled the doorknob for 15 minutes, saying, “Come on, lady, let us in!” Yes, I called the police. No, they did not show up while the scofflaws in question where still present. A few days later those same kids showed up and asked how to get a job as a bridgetender. I told them, for starters, not to act like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.

  • Young males, aged 13-25 can quite often be bad news. You never know what these guys are going to do. They climb things. They like to jump the gap of a partially opened bridge. They shout impatiently. They crawl under the gates. They do backflips into the water. They think they’re immortal, and they must be, because if anyone else behaved that stupidly, they’d probably be dead by now.

  • When people throw eggs or tomatoes or beer bottles or even, one time, a pumpkin, it sounds like a mortar shell has hit the building. This happened all the time when I worked in Florida. It has yet to happen here in Seattle, and it never happened in South Carolina, either. But I’ve never worked on a bridge that hasn’t had its window shot out at least once. (I hope I didn’t just give someone an idea.)

  • One gentleman used to like to dress up in a green satin, spaghetti strapped dress, and admire himself in the convex mirror right outside my door. For hours on end. That part didn’t bother me so much. Live and let live. What bothered me was when he’d stand in the road and start screaming incoherently. The police had to escort him off my bridge on more than one occasion, but he’d always make his way back eventually.

  • Just the other day a guy told me that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to do my job, and that he studied engineering at the University of Washington, and therefore was better at judging what was safe and unsafe, and when an opening should be started. He then proceeded to crawl under the gate and cross the bridge before I had even driven the locks to keep it from bouncing up.

  • One of my coworkers watched someone assemble an IKEA lamp at center span, and then walk away, leaving the lamp sitting there. He thinks of that guy whenever he turns the lamp on, as it goes perfectly with his living room décor.

  • Another guy was so upset that the pedestrian traffic gate was down and he couldn’t cross the bridge that he ripped it free, bolts and all, with his bare hands. Well, that’s one way of dealing with the situation, I suppose. Another way would be to wait your freakin’ turn.

  • People abandon rental bikes at center span all the time, too. In hopes that they’ll fall off the rising bridge and hurt someone? I have no idea. But the wheels won’t move unless you provide a credit card, and I’m here to tell you they are really heavy when I have to lift them up to carry them off the bridge. That, and the automated voice that’s telling me not to steal the bike is really annoying.

  • There’s a lady here that I call the suitcase lady because she has several of them. If you get too close, she curses like a sailor. I’m fairly certain she could beat me senseless if properly motivated, such is the level of her rage. I do my best to avoid her, but one day I happened to step out onto the sidewalk at the exact moment when she was passing by. I braced myself. She jumped toward me. But this time she shouted, “I got a new shirt!” I wasn’t expecting that, so I had no idea what to say. I have to admit, though, that it was a really nice shirt. Red is her color. Good for her.

  • There’s one guy who likes to cross the bridge while dribbling an imaginary basketball. He seems fairly harmless, but where is he in his mind? And what happens next?

  • By far, it’s the drug addicts that rattle me the most. I never know what their version of reality might be. What do they see when they look at me? A humble bridgetender, or the devil incarnate who must be disposed of?

People are scary, man. They don’t even need costumes.

Happy Halloween.

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The Heart of My Drawbridge

I have been opening drawbridges for a living for 18 ½ years. I’ve operated 9 different bridges in three states. I’ve operated bascule bridges, lift bridges, and swing bridges. I’m pretty proud of those statistics. I can only think of one bridgetender in this country who can (by just one bridge) beat that, and he’s now retired.

But here’s something I’ve never done until recently: I’ve never been down below, deep in the mechanical inner workings of a drawbridge, while a bridge opening was in progress. I knew what happened down there, because I have to help maintain the equipment, and I know what each moving part does. But I’ve never actually gotten to witness it in all these years, because it was always me operating the bridge during the opening. You can’t be two places at once.

Well, finally, a few weeks ago, I got to be down below while someone else was doing the driving. I was so excited! And of course I wanted to take videos to share with all of you.

My first concern had to be for my safety. There is about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel down there. Stand in the wrong place, and you can be partially or entirely crushed. That’s why we are always extremely cautious when there are workmen on the bridge, and will not do an opening unless we are assured that each one is in the clear.

So, after assuring my coworker that I was in a safe place, he commenced with the opening. I chose to be standing on a portion of the catwalk that is suspended above the pit where the counterweight sinks into the ground when the bridge goes up. This catwalk does not move, but the entire room basically spins around it.

Wow, what a rush. To see a drawbridge doing its well-choreographed dance everywhere you look is like nothing else on earth. I was suddenly proud that I’ve been part of this dance for all these years. It’s beautiful. I actually got tears in my eyes. Sniffle.

Anyway, I did manage to take these videos for your viewing pleasure. I wish I could adequately explain what’s going on. I know the lighting is poor, and I couldn’t get a good angle that would give you a better sense of where I was and what exactly is going on. I did the best that I could.

In the first one, you see the pinion (a large gear), rolling down the rack during the bridge closure. This is what allows the bridge to move. There’s another behind me, and a set on the north side of the bridge that is doing the same thing to operate the other bridge leaf. The counterweight (to the right) is lifting up, and the bridge leaf (out of sight to the left) is lowering down.

In the other video, I’m standing in basically the same place, but I’ve turned to look out towards the water. This one was taken as the bridge was opening for a boat. You’ll see the bridge leaf lift up, and a sailboat go through. You can also see the other leaf, on the other side of the water, lifting as well. In this one, the counterweight is dropping down behind me, and the pinions are also out of sight, but are rolling to the left and right of me. That’s when I started getting all sentimental. I just love my bridge.

I hope this makes at least a little sense, and that you enjoy seeing a drawbridge from a whole new point of view!

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Bridge Buffoonery

I get it. It’s hot out. And thanks to climate change, each summer is going to be worse than the last. But that’s no reason to check your brain at the door.

Check out this video of a kid doing a backflip off one of the drawbridges here in Seattle, Washington. Well executed. And I bet it felt great.

But this is how to give a bridgetender a heart attack.

  • He could have fallen backward off the railing and been badly hurt, or worse yet, fallen on to one of the millions of bicyclists or joggers that go past, their heads in clouds, and then both would have been hurt.

  • He could have hit his head on the railing while doing the back flip and broken his neck.

  • He could have landed on some unseen debris in the water and been impaled.

  • He could have taken his plunge just as one of the motor boats came speeding through the channel, which happens, oh, about every minute or so. (A diver in Jacksonville, Florida had his face ripped off by a motor boat that didn’t see his dive flag. Now add the person falling from the sky into the mix, no flag in sight, and you get the idea.)

And thank God I wasn’t working on that drawbridge at the time. Here’s the thought process:

  • “Oh sh**, that kid’s going to get himself killed!”

  • “I’m going to be blamed and lose my job.”

  • “Paperwork…”

  • “Now I get to hold up the stereotype of the bridge troll by running those kids off the bridge.”

  • “Never a cop when you need one.”

  • “What if I need to open the bridge and this fool is too busy playing around to move?”

It amazes me that any of us survive to adulthood. Stay safe, everyone.

Ah, the joys of summer.

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&%#$ Drawbridges!

I’ve been making people late to work for more than 18 years. I open drawbridges for a living. And I love my job. Getting cursed at is, unfortunately, part of that job.

Once, a supervisor gave me some sage advice. “If you’ve safely opened the bridge and then you hear someone shout, don’t look. Because you probably won’t like the gesture or projectile that follows.”

It’s true. I’ve been pelted with eggs, rotten vegetables, and once, a full glass beer bottle, which shattered and drenched my clothes. I’ve also been flipped off, threatened, and called any number of unsavory names. Par for the course.

Here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) Bridgetenders are not trying to ruin your day. Truly, we aren’t. There are simply certain rules and federal regulations we are required to follow. Specifically, Coastguard Federal Regulations 33 Part 117. These regulations dictate when a bridge must open, when it can be delayed, what signals we must use, what equipment we must have, how we operate in an emergency.

Not only are we required to follow these federal regulations, but according to 33 U.S. Code 499, if we don’t, we can be fined up to $2000 and/or be thrown in jail for a year. Nothing personal, but I’d much rather make you late to work.

In less legal terms, consider this: Maritime law was around hundreds of years before cars existed. And heavy vessels can’t exactly slam on the brakes or take a side street if some bridgetender doesn’t want to hurt a motorist’s feelings.

So, yeah, from street level it may seem really annoying when one slow moving boat is backing up traffic for a mile. Even worse, the bridge may require an opening for maintenance purposes when there are no boats in sight. It may make you want to curse and throw things. But, you know, you should have thought of that before you chose this particular route. (Harsh, but true.)

So next time you’re waiting impatiently for a drawbridge to close, please remember that the bridgetender’s one and only goal is to maintain the safety of the traveling public. All of them, including you. And that may mean you have to wait your turn. At least try to enjoy the spectacular view while doing so.

For a really interesting podcast on this same subject, check out KUOW’s SoundQs “Um, why does that boat get priority over Seattle drivers?”

St Lucie River Drawbridge

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Positively Inspiring

There is a reason I haven’t given up all hope for the future. It’s that I keep coming across so many amazing young people who identify a problem and then come up with brilliant ideas to try to solve it. One such person is Paige Hunter, of Sunderland, England.

Paige has gone through some hard times herself, so she started to think about those people in despair who choose to jump off bridges. As a bridgetender, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about them, too. But Paige turned her concerns into positive action.

Some of the messages she attached to the Wearmouth Bridge, along with the phone number to a support hotline for people in emotional distress, include:

  • If you end it now, you will be so deeply missed.
  • Even though things are difficult, your life matters. You’re a shining light in a dark world. Just hold on.
  • When things go wrong, don’t go with them.
  • You matter, you are loved, and people would be worse off if you died.
  • Fight with all you have. Tomorrow is always a better day.
  • Hope is enough (even if hope is all you have.)
  • If you’re reading this, I want to tell you how amazing you are.
  • You have the power to say, “This is not how my story will end.”
  • Look how far you have come… and then keep going.
  • Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever.
  • Step back. You’re worth it.
  • Pause. Stop. Breathe. There are better options, and so many people love you.
  • This isn’t how it ENDS.
  • Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.
  • It will be better. Please hold on.
  • It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you DO NOT STOP

What an amazing young lady. Due to her efforts, she got a commendation from the Northumbria Police Department. And this has created a great deal of media attention.

Due to that attention, she decided to do yet another positive thing, and raise funds for mental health. I’ll say it again: what an amazing young lady! Won’t you join me in contributing to her GoFundMe campaign? It’s in British Pounds, but your credit card will figure it out. Lets keep this positivity going!

Paige Hunter, I predict great things from you! Thank you!

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Anticipatory Stress

The 4th of July is the worst day to be an American bridgetender. Drunken boaters and pedestrians are out in force. There’s plenty of stress and aggravation, and a lot of people to avoid injuring due to their own foolishness. While you are out enjoying your fireworks, we bridgetenders are trying to avoid nervous breakdowns.

And yes, I got to work the 4th of July this year. Lucky me. I spent a lot of time politely bellowing at people through the bullhorn. It may not sound like it, but I do it because I care. I’d really rather not kill anyone if I can avoid it.

At a certain point, I realized that a great deal of my tension was purely anticipatory. I knew the night was going to suck. And sure enough, it did. But stressing out over things that have yet to happen is counterproductive at best. Fight or flight should be reserved for the moment when you spot the mountain lion, not for when you’ve heard that there might be one within a 10 mile radius. Caution is great, but becoming adrenalized before the fact does nothing but make you feel exhausted and sick to your stomach.

So I spent a great deal of the night checking in with myself. What is happening now? What are my rational concerns at this moment in time? Breathe…

This takes practice. I never really thought about how much time I waste anticipating disaster. All the more reason to try to stay centered in time.

Hope you had a better 4th than I did!

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What’s the Actual View?

It occurs to me that despite this blog’s name, I haven’t shown you the actual view from one of my drawbridges in quite some time. This view is what inspires my writing, and this job is what gives me the time to write, so I’m very grateful for both.

What follows are some pictures I took on the official opening day of boating season on the Ship Canal here in Seattle this year. As you can see, the fireboat got in on the fun as well.

During boat-related festivals, if a drawbridge is involved, it’s fairly safe to say that there is a bridgetender under an enormous amount of stress while you’re having your good time. Boaters should never mix boating with alcohol, but they often do, and that makes them operate their vessels erratically. And of course these festivals also bring out their fair share of pedestrians, who seem to think that warning signals on drawbridges do not apply to them, or that they’re immortal.

Have fun, but stay safe, everyone.

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