Environmental Pragmatism on Snowy Drawbridges

All drains lead to the ocean, regardless of the optics.

I am a bridgetender, and there are a variety of ways that I tend to my drawbridge. Not only do I open and close it for vessels upon request, but I also help to keep the machinery in working order. I want my bridge to be in tip top shape. I take pride in that. I love this job.

Having said that, I have to admit that on the rare occasion that it snows around here, I absolutely hate my job. You can’t safely open and close a bridge with the extra weight that several inches of snow provides. That means that the snow has got to go, and that isn’t easy.

We pretreat the bridge surfaces with environmentally correct brine so that the snow theoretically won’t stick. Lugging 25 gallons or so of the stuff up and down the stairs and then spreading it is no mean feat, either. And after all that sweat, coming away smelling like a pickle, with my shoes and clothes encrusted with brine, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in terms of snow abatement. We also spread salt pellets once the snow has fallen, but that has little effect, either.

On my bridge, I am expected to shovel the equivalent of 8 driveways plus a quarter mile of sidewalks, by hand, sometimes more than once per shift, depending on the snowfall. No human being can do that. It’s impossible. My heart would explode.

Yes, we have snowblowers, but only two for the entire city. And we personally are not allowed to operate them. A crew does its best to come out and help us out, but they are spread very thinly, and can only do so much. I’m always thrilled to see them, but when they promise to come back out again later in the shift, I take it with a grain of salt, because it has been my experience that they never do. So I do what I can, and am often berated because it never seems to be enough.

You would think that under those circumstances, our city would do its best to provide us with better equipment, but since these incidents are rare, I think they don’t want to spend the money. But if they got a plow shovel that could be fitted to the front of one of our little pickup trucks, that would get rid of a lot of the snow. I’d only have to focus on the sidewalks then. But no.

So every snowfall, I trudge out there and shovel for hours on end, even as the snow continues to fall. All the while, I know that I’ll be accused of having done nothing. That isn’t exactly a recipe for good morale.

And here’s where the situation gets more idiotic. We are told that we can’t shovel the snow into the waterway, because it would be bad for the environment. The public would complain.

I care about the environment very much. I am more than willing to bend over backwards for it. But there comes a time when people have to be more realistic. Yes, we spread the environmentally friendly salt products, but as I said, they barely work, and what the complaining public seems to overlook, regardless of our efforts, is that all drains lead to the ocean.

If the bridge weren’t there and the snow fell, it would fall into the canal. If the bridge were there and we did nothing about the snow on it, the snow would eventually melt and drain into the canal. If the snow lands on the parts of the bridge with metal grating, it falls into the canal. Water drains from the bridge all the time in the form of rain, and that, too, goes into the canal nearly every day.

It’s not as if we’re neatly stacking the snow on pallets at either end of the bridge, to be carted off to a hazardous waste facility. One way or another, it winds up in the canal. But we are not allowed to be SEEN putting it into the canal ourselves. It’s all about the optics. And that means it causes 10 times the backbreaking work.

For example, the snowblower can’t blow the snow into the canal. Heaven forbid. So as the picture shows below, it blows it back into the roadway of the bridge. This doesn’t immediately do anything to reduce the snow weight, but since it’s landing on the grate in the middle of the bridge, that snow eventually falls, you guessed it, into the canal.

And when I’m shoveling the sidewalks, I’m not allowed to easily push it over the sidewalk lip and into the canal. Oh no. I have to fill the shovel, lift it over the curb on the other side of the sidewalk, and deposit it onto the grate in the bike lane, where it will, yup, fall into the canal. And I repeat this process thousands of times, until my back and shoulders feel like they’re breaking.

Oh, and by the way, before you ask, yes, I’ve tried lifting the bridge so that the snow will fall off and land in more manageable piles on either end. I’ve lifted the bridge to full open, straight up and down, and I’ve even let it sit like that for several minutes. Not even one snowflake falls off that bridge. The snow is so wet it’s like cement. But I digress.

Bureaucracies are all about appearances. And our bureaucracy would much rather trash their employees’ bodies as well as their morale, to avoid any public outcry, which could easily be dealt with with a little bit of public relations and education, all from a comfy chair in a well-heated administrative office.

You may not see the snow going into the waterway, folks, but it’s going there, one way or another. That may not be ideal, but that’s where all water drainage goes for every street and bridge and skyscraper and sidewalk built by man. It sucks for the planet, but it’s unavoidable. Being forced to make that drainage happen the “good optics” way is at the expense of my aching back, but the result is the same, environmentally. Any municipality that tries to tell you otherwise is lying.

Think of that the next time you are enjoying a winter wonderland amongst things built by man.

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I Broke My Bridge

No good deed goes unpunished.

It was the day after Seattle got more snow in a 24 hour period than it usually gets in a year. There was 4 to 9 inches of the stuff covering most of the city. Most people had the good sense to stay put.

Not me. I’m a bridgetender. I have an obligation to be there. But driving 25 miles in that crap did not appeal to me, so my husband was kind enough to get up with me at 4 a.m. and drive me there in our truck. (He’s a keeper.)

The commute took 3 times longer than usual, but we made it on time, and I trudged up to the tower door of the University Bridge in calf-high snow, losing a glove in the process. If I had known how the day was going to go, I’d have stayed in bed.

For starters, I had to shovel the snow off the sidewalk and bike lanes, on both sides of the entire length of the movable span. I had been told there would be help coming, but none came. So I shoveled, and shoveled, and shoveled, for 2 solid hours, moving hundreds of pounds of snow, until I thought my heart would explode. And even after that, I had only cleared a partial trail from both sidewalks. Under that, it was so hard packed and icy that it would have taken a blow torch to remove the stuff.

Pedestrians kept stopping to thank me. One even gave me an almond croissant. They couldn’t believe I was trying to tackle this project on my own. “Doesn’t the city have a snow blower?” Yup. But we weren’t allowed to use it for some insane reason.

I never shoveled the bike lane. I called someone further up in my chain of command and told him I needed help. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. He told me to shovel no more, and that he’d send help. None arrived.

And then a sailboat asked me for an opening. What a sailboat was doing out in that weather I’ll never understand. But ours is not to question why. So I opened the bridge for him.

I gave the bridge a full opening, in hopes that some more of that snow would slide off. I even “bounced” the bridge a tiny bit in hopes of shaking the snow off. But no. It was like concrete.

The sailboat successfully transited, and I closed the bridge. Well, sort of. Once the bridge is properly seated, the next step is to drive a lock that’s kind of like a slide bolt underneath a bridge. This keeps the bridge leaves from bouncing up individually as cars cross. You don’t want that. The next car could have a nasty surprise.

The controls said the bridge was seated. I double checked as I always do. It looked seated. So I drove the locks.

It wasn’t seated.

Imagine trying to drive a slide bolt home when it isn’t properly aligned. Something is going to break. And something sure as heck did. The two shafts split like hot knives going through butter.

The mechanics said it was bound to happen sooner or later. The lock was fabricated in 1933. It’s been sliding home for millions of openings, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, every day since then. Metal fatigue, anyone? I just happened to draw the short straw, and be present for the opening that finally did it in.

Of course, nobody was sure that the lock was broken at first. Which meant I had to crawl down beneath the bridge, on an ice-coated, metal grate catwalk suspended 42 feet above the frigid canal, to try to manually crank the lock closed. Meanwhile traffic started to back up for miles.

When I reported back about my total lack of success, it was assumed that I didn’t know what I was doing. As with every male dominated workplace, it wasn’t until they arrived on the scene and couldn’t get the locks to budge either that they finally realized there was more to the problem.

The last time a lock was broken here in town, it was on the Ballard Bridge, and it cost the city about $50,000 to replace it. (It’s not like you can run down to the nearest Home Depot and pick up a replacement part.) But this time it was two shafts, not one, so I shudder to think how much this will cost.

The locks won’t be repaired until at least April. Meanwhile, we still have to open the bridge for vessels and then lock it to make it safe for traffic, so we have to employ pinsetters to run out to center span for every opening and shove a heavy metal pin in between both leaves and lock them together. This means the openings take a lot longer, and require much more team work. But you do what you have to do.

(Oh, and I tried to set the pins when the bridge first malfunctioned, so that the traffic could cross while we were trying to figure out what was wrong. The on call supervisor assumed that I didn’t do that right either. But you can’t set a pin on an improperly aligned bridge. So I climbed that ladder and lifted the 15 pound pin over my head, all while freezing to death, for absolutely nothing, not even appreciation for the effort.)

By the end of my shift, I was exhausted. My husband picked me up. I was so glad I wouldn’t have to drive home.

As I was getting into the truck, my ice-caked boots slipped off the running board and I fell face-first into a snow bank, wrenching my already aching back. I really earned my pay that day.

So imagine my shock when I returned to work a couple days later to hear that several of my coworkers accused me of not shoveling at all, and breaking the bridge due to my own negligence. Mind you, none of them had been there, and didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired.

No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.

 

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A Floridian Gets Snowed Upon

I woke up the other day to discover that the world was covered in a white powdery substance that I hadn’t seen in 30 years. It instantly transported me back to my childhood in Connecticut. I wanted to turn on the radio to see if my school was having a snow day.

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We moved to Florida when I was 10 years old, so all my memories of snow are delightful ones. I played in it. I didn’t have to shovel it or drive in it or worry about the heating bill or frozen pipes. My mother would spend 20 minutes bundling me into my snow suit so I’d look like the Michelin Tire Man, and I’d go play for 15 minutes and then want to come back inside, and I’d expect a hot drink to be waiting for me. I’m amazed I survived to adulthood. And in college in North Carolina we’d steal trays from the cafeteria and go sledding, and have epic snowball fights.

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So here I was, all grown up and looking at this transmuted snowy landscape and I immediately got excited. I took pictures. I let my dogs out. They’d never seen snow in their lives. Devo took it in stride. Blue, on the other hand, is a bit high maintenance. He doesn’t like to get his feet wet. So he stood on the back stoop and barked at it indignantly, then came inside and pooped on the living room carpet.

After cleaning up after my dumb dog, it suddenly occurred to me that I was going to have to drive in this stuff. I still had to go to work. And I’ve never driven in snow in my life. I got lucky, though. Most of it had already melted off the pavement. Still, I took it extremely slowly. I managed to make it to work without killing myself or anybody else, but it was a miracle because my defroster doesn’t work and there was ice on the inside of my windshield. And when I left work to come home, my door lock was frozen and I had to climb in from the passenger side.

It wasn’t pretty, but I got the job done. It’s all part of adjusting to my new life. I kind of like the idea that every once in a while I will look out the window and what I will see will be transformed. What a concept.

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Shovel Friends

My mother used to say that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your friends. And among your many friends, there are always a few who stand head and shoulders above the rest. I call these “shovel friends” because they are the kind you can call up at three in the morning and say, “Meet me in Central Park, and bring a shovel,” and they’d be there, because they’re that loyal, and they know you so well that they’d be confident that you aren’t involved in something that will send them to the state penitentiary. I can’t take credit for originating this concept. I think I heard it on some reality show. But, hey, it resonates with me, and I’m not above stealing a really good idea.

I’m actually lucky enough to have several shovel friends, and they’re worth their weight in gold. They have been there for me through my highs and lows, and I have no doubt that they will be there for all my future emotional topography. But make no mistake: shovel friends aren’t, and shouldn’t be, blindly loyal. In fact, a true friend is one who will call you on your stuff. He or she won’t let you get away with silliness or stupidity, and will expect mutual respect. These friends can always be counted upon to give you the reality check that you so desperately need. The best friends are the ones who question you and challenge you.

So take a moment to tell your shovel friends how much they mean to you, because they will most likely be the most valuable relationships you’ll ever have.

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(Image credit: my.opera.com