One of the things I love most about the City of Seattle is its ability to think outside the box. For example, two of our drawbridges, Fremont Bridge and University Bridge (the one I work on most frequently) occasionally host artists in residence for a three month stretch. (Check out a blog post I wrote about a previous artist in residence here.)
We are in the midst of an artist in residence cycle now. I love it when I see the artist E.T. Russian’s car in the parking space. It makes me realize that something creative and exciting is going on in the other tower. That makes me smile. Normally that tower is vacant. What a waste of a wonderful space with a gorgeous view!
I think if this idea was floated past the Florida Department of Transportation, to be implemented on one of the Florida Drawbridges I worked on, it would have been laughed down. What a pity. But it makes me even more certain that relocating to open-minded Seattle was the best possible fit for me.
This is exciting news! Fremont Bridge, here in Seattle Washington, will be hosting another artist in residence. I’m posting the original piece from Seattle.gov’s Art Beat Blog. I can’t take credit for writing this, but I just had to share, because we all need more art in our lives. I’m looking forward to seeing what Mr. Walsh comes up with!
Fremont Bridge will be a temporary studio for sound artist Paurl Walsh this summer
Beginning June 2018, the northwest tower of the Fremont Bridge will be a temporary studio for musician and composer Paurl Walsh. Walsh will be able to use the tower space as a source of inspiration to compose and create a sound-based piece in response to the summer residency. He will also engage in several community outreach events and a public performance will be presented at the close of the residency, in late summer or early fall 2018. The musician-in-residence will run June through August.
Walsh was selected by a panel, facilitated by the Office of Arts & Culture, that included musical artists and community members and advised by the Seattle Department of Transportation. His selection was based on his impressive career and his focus on collaboration with players throughout the region. His proposal included a desire to create a work that investigates the inherent collision between creative creativity and mental health, which resonated with the selection panel.
Paurl Walsh graduated from Cornish College with a degree in Classical Composition and Electro-acoustic music. He is an active composer of electronic music, modern classical chamber music, music for dance and theatre, and experimental rock. Writing and performing throughout the US, Canada, and Europe, he has been a core member of the experimental performance art/music groups Degenerate Art Ensemble, Implied Violence, and St Genet. He founded experimental hardcore band X-Ray Press, electronic pop group Rainbows, electroacoustic duo Medina/Walsh, and solo electronic act Trying. He has scored many stage works for choreographers and theater artists such as Kyle Loven, Ezra Dickinson, Peggy Piacenza, Paige Barnes, Paris Hurley, and PE|Mo. He also runs ExEx Audio, a creative recording studio centered around working collaboratively with artists to help them better express themselves through sound.
This residency project is funded by SDOT’s 1% for Art Funds and administered by the Office of Arts & Culture.
One of the things I love about Seattle is it has this amazing ability to think outside the box. As a matter of fact, at times it’s like there’s no box at all. That can be a little scary, but also a little exciting.
Every once in a while, the city will have an artist in residence occupy the tower of one of our drawbridges. We’ve had writers in residence, and lighting artists in residence, and now the time has come for a musician in residence.
It’s fairly good money for a really unique and fascinating gig. Free space in a tower with an incredible view! That should get your creative juices flowing! If you’re a musician who lives within 100 miles of Seattle, you may want to check out the application process here. But hurry! The deadline is March 20th, 2018.
I’ve been opening drawbridges since September of 2001, and I love it. I’ve opened 9 different bridges in three different states. I only know one other bridgetender with better statistics than that, so I’m kind of proud.
I’ve been going down memory lane quite a bit lately, so I decided to check out all my bridges on Google Maps. Ah, what memories.
My first bridge was Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s the only lift bridge I’ve operated to date, and it was kind of fun. It’s like being on the world’s biggest elevator. The tenderhouse was suspended about 25 feet above the roadway and it would rise with the bridge. It would also shake and sway when traffic was going over the bridge. I’ll never forget the sound of all our padlocks clanking on our lockers.
The down side to working on this bridge is that they required three bridgetenders per shift because the court ordered it after a drunken sailor drove his car into the drink when the bridge was open. So two bridgetenders spent a lot of time climbing up and down the ladder to act as flagmen at street level during openings. Quite the workout. This three person operation meant that you had to sit in a little room with two other people for 8 hours. That was fine when you got along, but when you didn’t, it was hell. Some of the drama and foolishness that happened up there could constitute a blog all its own.
From there I went to the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville. I loved that little bridge. It was a one person operation, but the tenderhouse was smaller than your average walk in closet, so a lot of people couldn’t take it. You had to step outside to change your mind. But it suited me just fine. I liked that I was sitting on sidewalk level, so I got to know a lot of the people in the area. You sort of felt as though you were part of a community. The downside was the bathroom was across the street, which was no fun in the pouring rain or the bitter cold. (Yes, it does happen sometimes in North Florida, believe it or not.)
Eventually, though, the horrible pay and the worse benefits started to get to me, so I decided to go back to school for a third degree. Part of that time I still worked at Ortega. Then for a brief period I moved to South Florida to be closer to school. But even then, bridgetending was in my blood. My employer asked me if I’d like to go spend the summer working the Ben Sawyer drawbridge just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
I jumped at the chance! I’d never been to Charleston, so when I wasn’t pulling a 12 hour shift on that bridge, I was exploring the city. What an amazing place! And what an amazing bridge! It’s the first time I operated a swing bridge, and the octagonal tenderhouse was right at the pivot, so when you did a bridge opening, it was such a smooth operation that it felt as if you were standing still, and the world was revolving around you. (Finally, some vindication in that belief!) I loved that bridge. I miss it. But it was only a temporary job, and alas, school was calling.
Once I got my third degree, it became painfully obvious that it was going to be as useless as the first two, so I came crawling back to Jacksonville with my tail between my legs and begged for my old job back. Fortunately I had left on good terms, and I was back working at Ortega River Bridge in no time. I also worked a few days a week at Sisters Creek Bridge.
This drawbridge no longer exists. It was replaced by a flyover, and that’s a shame because it was a nice quiet bridge. It spanned the Intracoastal Waterway way out in the middle of nowhere, north of Jacksonville, so mostly you opened for barges and the like. But I really got to focus on nature out there, and found a great deal of peace. The only negative thing about that bridge was the long commute.
The horrible pay was killing me, though, so when I heard of a job opening here in Seattle, Washington, for 3 times the pay and more benefits than I know what to do with, I jumped at the chance. Westward ho!
When you are a bridge operator for the City of Seattle, you get trained on all 5 of their bridges. So I was trained on the Fremont Bridge, which is the most stressful bridge I’ve ever worked on because pedestrians and bicyclists take scary risks, and it opens quite a bit.
And I also trained on Ballard Bridge. I love that bridge because you get to watch the locks, the commute is short for me, and the view is a delight, but walking to your car at night can be scary.
And I trained on Spokane Street Bridge as well. That’s a very unique swing bridge, and the tenderhouse (here they call it the tower) is so high up you practically get a nosebleed. It’s the only bridge I’ve ever been in that has an elevator. It’s a complicated bridge to operate. I haven’t been there in so long that I’m not sure I’d remember how to do it.
But now, the two bridges I work most often are South Park Bridge—which is state of the art, but a very long commute…
… and University Bridge, which I absolutely love. I love the neighborhood, the community, the view, the tower, and it’s busy enough to keep me interested, but not so busy that I get stressed out.
So the next time Google takes its satellite imagery, maybe I’ll pop my head out the window and wave. It’s pretty cool to look at all these places from the sky. I can imagine a little tiny me sitting inside, making the bridge safe for the traveling public. I have a lot of great memories.
Every once in a while it’s fun to shake things up. Sticking to a routine may feel quite comfortable, but it isn’t particularly exciting. So recently I volunteered to trade bridges with a coworker, just for a day. I got to work at Fremont Bridge here in Seattle.
It’s been well over a year since I set foot on this bridge. I actually had to stare at the operating console for a while and read the instructions to familiarize myself with the operation. No two drawbridges are quite the same. Each one has its quirks and blind spots and operating weaknesses, and the various nobs and switches and buttons are in different locations.
When I had my first opening of the day, I felt like a baby deer just learning to walk. But I did it! It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt such accomplishment just by doing my job.
It’s also given me a fresh perspective on this blog. As eclectic as it is, the overarching theme is that I get to examine the same view day after day, in minute detail. It allows me plenty of time to think about things and share those thoughts with you.
So all of a sudden, having a different view is a bit unsettling. Will I be able to write? Will I be too distracted? Too nervous?
It does sort of feel as if I’m using a whole new set of synapses. I feel both revitalized and a little befuddled. I didn’t realize how often I let myself go into “automatic pilot”. I can’t do that here. Nothing on this bridge is automatic for me. I miss my comfort zone, but at the same time this feels good for me. I think I’m going to have to make a mental note to do this every few months. Variety is, after all, the spice of life!
The other day I witnessed something awful. I was working on the Fremont Bridge here in Seattle. It’s 30 feet off the water. Right next to it is the Aurora Bridge, which is 170 feet off the water. Before they put up the higher railing on the Aurora Bridge, the only bridge in the world more known for suicides was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fortunately the higher railing has reduced our statistics dramatically, but some people are extremely determined.
It had been a really good day at work. The end of my shift was fast approaching and I was looking forward to going home. Then I heard the sirens. I looked up, and there, standing on the thin, fragile railing, 170 feet above the canal, was a teenaged boy. He stood there, motionless, as the fire engines and police cars gathered around him. They didn’t get too close. Several officers were trying to talk to him, but he wasn’t acknowledging anyone, as far as I could tell. He just stood there, on the brink of death, gazing off to the horizon.
And I felt like a bug pinned to a display board. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. All I could do is quietly say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, oh God, please don’t do it.” My heart was pounding. I felt sick. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.
I’ve been a bridgetender since 2001. This isn’t my first rodeo. But in the past I’ve only experienced the aftermath. I’ve either heard them hit (which is a sound you’ll never forget), or I’ve heard the fire engine race up and them coax the guy down. This time I had a front row seat for the most pivotal moment in someone’s life, and I couldn’t do anything to help.
Then a woman came running up the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. An officer stopped her just short of the boy. He still didn’t move. He stood there for 30 minutes. It felt like an eternity.
Then, thankfully, he decided to climb down. But to do this he had to make a 180 degree turn on that railing and squat down. That was the scariest part for me. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it suck if he changed his mind and now he accidentally fell?”
Eventually he got down and they were able to get him in the ambulance. They drove away and reopened the bridge to traffic and everything went back to normal. Sort of. But meanwhile I was nauseous from the adrenaline dump. I went home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about it. Oddly I was ravenously hungry, but was so sick I couldn’t eat until the next day, after having had several nightmares.
Post Traumatic Stress. That’s a problem. Because it won’t be the last jumper I witness when I work on this bridge. All my coworkers have seen several. And they say it’s worse when they actually jump, especially when they hit the ground or a building instead of the water. Clearly, I’m going to need some coping skills if I’m going to deal with this on a regular basis.
So I decided to take advantage of my Employee Assistance Program and see a counselor. I had my first appointment yesterday. We talked about suicide and what it means to me personally and what it means in general, and she gave me several things to think about.
She said that some people are in so much emotional pain and feel so out of control that they take the control of the one thing that everyone can potentially control—their death. It’s an awful choice to make, but some people may think it’s the only one they have. Others are under the influence of drugs and are making irrational choices in general and this is just another one of those irrational choices. She also said it was normal for me to feel sympathy for this person’s pain and confusion. That’s a very human reaction.
Then we discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, because that’s what I clearly have to work on. Here are the definitions:
The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a fairly empathetic individual. I can put myself into other people’s emotional shoes and act toward them accordingly. This is a skill that not everyone possesses. I get frustrated by insensitive, oblivious people. But it never occurred to me that sometimes empathy is not the best thing to have.
Because, you see, I took that young man’s emotional pain into my body. I mean, I really felt it. And because of that I had to deal with it in the aftermath, kind of like having to expel poison. Not good.
So my homework, probably for the rest of my life, is to learn to not take people’s pain on board. It’s okay to feel sympathy, pity, sadness for that person and what they are going through, but I really need to not take it into my soul. It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t have to take ownership of it. What a concept.
Wish me luck.
Sunrise, a boat race, and my view of the Aurora Bridge from work.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I love Google Doodles. They show that Google has a sense of humor and the confidence to mess with their own logo without thinking the world will come to an end. That almost makes me feel that corporations are human beings after all, as the Supreme Court ruled. Almost.
Other large entities would do well to take note of this. I’ve noticed that this type of bureaucratic humor is common here in Seattle. That “we’re all in this together” mentality makes me feel very warm toward this community.
Take, for example, the Seattle Department of Transportation. Yes, they’re my boss, but even if they weren’t, I’d be impressed by them. We are currently in the midst of a year-long painting project of the Fremont Bridge. This is causing obstructions and inconvenience for the residents of this neighborhood, but it has to be done. Now, they could have been rigid and humorless about the situation, and created an us vs. them mindset in the public, but instead they have posted these signs:
This really makes me feel good about being a part of this organization.
Maybe if AT&T and the US Post Office and the IRS adopted a sense of humor and humanity they wouldn’t be so universally disliked. But it takes courage. To do it, you have to take a step away from your safe, conservative little hidey-hole and take a risk. You have to be creative. We can’t have that, now, can we?