Now is NOT the Time to Panic, Seattle.

This is definitely not the month you want to be living in Seattle.

Because of our geography, pinned in between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with mountain ranges on either side of us for added complexity, we are already too many people in too small an area. We only have three major north/south traffic arteries, and one of them, the viaduct, is going to be closed for the rest of this month, until the tunnel that is replacing it opens up.

They’re calling it the Seattle Squeeze. Others are calling it Viadoom. Think about that for a second. 90,000 commuters use that viaduct every single day. Now they’re going to have to find other routes. And their options are going to be extremely limited.

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, and prepare for a cluster of epic proportions. It reminds me of that scene in Monsters Inc. in which the reporter says, “It is my professional opinion that now is the time to PANIC!!!!”

And as a Seattle Department of Transportation employee, I’ve seen a lot of panicking going on, indeed. I think if the general public really had any idea just how much the City is freaking out, they’d be a lot more hysterical themselves. You’d think the apocalypse was nigh.

Yeah, it’s going to suck. People will be late. Road rage will skyrocket. Everything is going to be a lot harder than usual.

But you know what? Breathe. We’ll survive. The world will keep right on spinning. February will come. We’ll all look back at this and laugh the laugh of survivors.

I really don’t think panic will do us any good. Yes, I’m glad people are doing their best to prepare for worst case scenarios. I’m thrilled that many companies are making an effort to adjust their schedules and will be allowing their employees to telecommute when possible.

I think we just all have to hunker down, gird our loins, and try not to lose our tempers. If you know anyone in the Seattle area, give them a virtual hug. Maybe send them some cookies. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come to visit until at least mid-February. We have enough problems at the moment. Please and thank you.

seattle map

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Gender-Specific Jobs? Pffft.

It happened again this morning. I was leaving the bridgetender house at the end of the shift, wearing my extremely unattractive uniform and safety vest, and someone drove by and looked at me in shock. Fashion police? I doubt it. For some reason some people don’t expect women to be bridgetenders, as if it takes a certain type of genitalia to open and close a drawbridge. (If so, I haven’t gotten the memo.)

This isn’t the first job in which I’ve found myself in the minority. I used to work for the Florida Department of Transportation. I was a Maintenance Management Systems Engineer, which means I spent a great deal of time in the field doing crew studies to make sure that work crews were properly accounting for their use of materials such as asphalt, for example, and were accurately recording their time and equipment use so that we could efficiently budget for similar jobs in the future. I was highly visible to the public, out there on these testosterone-infused work sites with my hardhat on, clipboard in hand. And at the time I had very long hair. More than once I saw people swerve their cars or tap their brakes.

For the most part these expressions of shock amused me, but they also made me kind of sad. Why is it so hard to believe a woman can do these types of jobs? I might understand it if I were required to lift 100 pounds up over my head 20 times a day, or wade into a crowd of fighting Hells Angels and start knocking heads together, but this was a job that required intelligence, organization, and standard physical ability, all of which I have.

The fact is, some people just can’t be convinced that women are capable of holding nontraditional positions, so there’s not much I can do to change their minds. What I can do is continue to put myself out there. The more I’m seen, the more people will get used to seeing me and other women like me.

Sometimes when I’m out there in my safety vest, I’ll see a little girl in the back seat of one of the cars that’s driving by. When that happens, I always smile and wave, and I think, “See me, girl, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”

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Nope. Not me. But it may as well be.

[Image credit: bangordailynews.com]

The Road Kill Crew

I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I worked for the Department of Transportation more than a decade ago, there was one crew in this very large metropolis of mine that dedicated the bulk of their time to riding around and scraping dead animals off the highways. We called them the Road Kill Crew. The vultures can’t do it all.

Whenever someone was added to this crew, you kind of shook your head, because sure enough, within a month or so something would seem not quite right about that person. Being on the Road Kill Crew inevitably changed you. People tended to avoid these guys. They had this funny look in their eyes, and they tended to get very, very quiet. I’ll admit it. This crew gave me the willies.

I think after a while these guys just stopped seeing things. They became kind of robotic. They became corpse scraping machines. They no longer thought about it, and I suppose that is a valid coping mechanism, but it’s no way to live.

I often wondered how their jobs impacted their personal lives. They must have come home every night smelling like rotting flesh. I just can’t imagine that after a long day of scooping up people’s missing pets that they were up for romantic dinners at the local steak house. But I guess I could be wrong.

Next time you drive past a dead skunk on the highway and the next day it’s gone, remember, that’s someone’s job. Kind of makes you less hesitant to pay taxes, doesn’t it?

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(Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy finding a picture for this entry that wasn’t unbelievably nauseating. But I do try to keep my readers in mind, visually, if not always verbally.)

Mother Nature Trumps the River Goddess Every Time

It can be a heady experience being a bridgetender. After all, you are operating a piece of equipment that can weigh several million pounds if you work on one of the larger bridges. You also control the flow of marine, vehicular and pedestrian traffic. You can make people very late for work. If a boater is rude to you, you can make him paddle in circles for a while before opening the bridge for him. (Not that I’d ever do this, of course, but one hears stories. Cough.) Because of this power, a friend of mine jokingly refers to me as the “River Goddess.”

Last year, the five drawbridges in Northeast Florida that are managed by the Florida Department of Transportation opened 18,000 times. That’s a lot of people depending upon us to get where they’re going. And despite the fact that a lot of people assume we do nothing but sleep on the job (which infuriates me, because while I cannot speak for others, I have honestly NEVER slept on the job myself), the vast majority of us take bridgetending very seriously. Someone’s life could be at stake if we didn’t. Just Google “Drawbridge Death” some time, and you’ll see what I mean.

But just when you start to get a massive ego, the universe has a way of putting you in your place. For example, check out these photos that a coworker of mine took while on the job on June 26th, 2009.

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He was minding his own business when he saw this huge water spout going up the St. Johns River. There are actually several really good Youtube videos of this same water spout here, here, and here. This was a very bad day to be a bridgetender.

Fortunately this water spout, when it did hit land and turn into a tornado, somehow missed all the bridges and actually caused no injuries or fatalities to anyone in Jacksonville. But it really goes to show that Mother Nature can very easily slap you down if she wants to. If this River Goddess had been on duty that day and that water spout had decided to hang a sharp left, she would have been one very unfortunate statistic indeed.

Why I Fail to Thrive in a Bureaucracy

I have never been one to suffer fools gladly. I suppose that actually sums it up. I could stop this blog entry right here. And it’s not the first time I’ve addressed this subject. See also my entry entitled How to Give HORRIBLE Customer Service. So I don’t suppose I really need to go there again. And yet, here I am. It’s only fair, though, because there are days when you just can’t avoid bureaucracies no matter how desperately you try.

Like the time I was applying for college and they asked me to provide my transcripts from Surrey Community College. I called them and said I never went to Surrey Community College. In fact, I’d never even HEARD of Surrey Community College. And they then told me that I would have to get a letter from them proving that I’d never been there. Thank heavens they cooperated, because they could have very easily laughed at me. So somewhere in some folder at Indian River State College is a letter that says that I, in fact, have never attended Surrey. It made me want to transfer to Surrey, frankly. Stupidity like that makes me want to tear my hair (or someone else’s) out by the roots.

Believe it or not, I once was a bureaucrat. I was an eligibility specialist for the State of Florida’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Over the years I saw, time and time again, someone come up with a form to make our lives easier, and in no time it would turn into a MANDATORY form that made our lives much, much harder. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had to say, “I know it’s stupid that you have to have this form filled out before you can get benefits. I know this form has absolutely nothing to do with your situation. But you have to have this form filled out before you can get benefits.” The inmates truly run the asylums. I only lasted 4 years in that job, and it nearly sucked the life out of me. The best thing I’ve ever done was quit.

When you do not allow your employees to exercise any form of independent judgment or common sense, you create the world’s most illogical monster. Anyone who deals with AT&T or the federal government knows this. And the people who are willing to stand up and point out that policies are idiotic, or, essentially, that the emperor wears no clothes, are the very people who are labeled as troublemakers and are generally hounded out of the organization. It’s a shame, because those are clearly the very employees who care, and therefore the ones that are most needed.

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(photocredit: positivesharing.com)

I guess I’m ranting because today I had to get up 4 hours early to drive 15 miles across town and take an annual test to prove that I am a competent bridgetender. Never mind the fact that I’ve been on the job for 12 years, and if I didn’t know what I was doing by now, there would be a lot of boat wreckage at the bottom of the river. Never mind the fact that a lot of the questions on the test had nothing to do with my ability to competently perform my duties, and yet if I get less than 90 percent right, I could lose my job. Never mind the fact that this is the only district in the entire state of Florida that requires that bridgetenders take such a test. So why am I having to take this test? Two reasons. Because it’s mentioned vaguely in our contract, and because the Florida Department of Transportation Drawbridge Supervisor guy has “Give bridgetenders a test every year in February” on his evaluation form, and if he doesn’t meet all the criteria on his evaluation, he loses his chance of getting a raise. (And yet we only get raises once every 6 years, of less than 10 percent.) So that’s why I woke up 4 hours early today.

I’m trying not to scream.

Bridge Goes Boom

One of my coworkers reminded me of an incident that occurred a few years ago on our drawbridge. I can’t believe I had forgotten about it. It was very bizarre. Makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten. Hmmm…

Anyway, two workmen from the Department of Transportation were leaving the bridge after doing some repairs when they came upon a barnacle-encrusted hand grenade on the sidewalk. Yes, I really said hand grenade.

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In their infinite wisdom they decided to pick it up and carry it to the park at the foot of the bridge. Getting smarter by the minute, they then tried to detonate it themselves. I’m sure the future branches of their family tree will be quite grateful to know that they were unsuccessful in their efforts. Finally they decided to notify the police.

The police had the good sense to take this situation a trifle more seriously, and they sent out the bomb squad, who determined that this was a Viet Nam era device. They managed to detonate it without harming anyone or anything, unless you count the significant crater that it produced in the park.

Based on the evidence, here’s what everyone assumes happened: Someone came home from the Viet Nam War with a souvenir. They probably put it in their garage or attic where it was forgotten about for decades. Then it was rediscovered when the owner was more mature and he realized that, hey, it might not be the best idea to have a live grenade in the house. But how do you get rid of a thing like that? He brought it to the bridge and threw it in the river, where it sat for another few years gathering barnacles. Then one day someone was fishing off the bridge and brought something unexpected up in his cast net. Realizing what it was, he took off, leaving it on the sidewalk like the responsible citizen that he is. Luckily a jogger or a dog walker or neighborhood kid didn’t come across it before the DOT guys did. That bridge gets a lot of foot traffic.

Just to be on the safe side, the city had divers explore the river in that area the very next day. It wouldn’t do to have a live ordinance dump rusting away under the drawbridge. Fortunately nothing further was found.

You wake up every morning assuming that your day is going to follow a certain routine. You just never know, do you? Sheesh.