Misconceptions about California

In all my 56 years, I’ve spent a total of 15 days in California, so saying I’m no expert about that state is putting it mildly. But I didn’t realize just how many silly misconceptions I had about it until driving nearly its entire length this time around. And the only source of these ideas has come from TV and movies. I’m sure I replaced a lot of those old misconceptions about it with some brand new ones, but I hope they’re slightly less idiotic.

First of all, the entire state is NOT full of 10 lane highways with bumper to bumper traffic. There are actually stop signs and stop lights and everything. And there are vast swaths of rural areas. It’s not all urban sprawl. Imagine.

And here’s a big shocker: Not everyone is beautiful and thin and young. Not everyone surfs, and those that do wear wet suits, not bikinis or swim trunks. And I’ll hazard a guess that more than half the beaches are NOT wide and sandy and easy to access. And I didn’t knowingly see a single movie star. Not one.

And guess what? Californians are human like the rest of us. They require grocery stores and pharmacies and mechanics and hardware stores and gas stations. The California in my mind was devoid of all of these things. It makes me laugh to think of it now.

I thought that in San Francisco I’d see trolleys everywhere. I don’t know what it was like pre-pandemic, but they’re not running right now, so mine was a trolley-less experience. And I seemed to be wearing the only colorful face mask in that city, which made me despair, but in other places I saw some colorful ones, so I guess I didn’t have to fear the face mask police after all.

I will say that one belief I had about the area is painfully true. It’s freakin’ expensive. Gas is expensive, food is expensive, the sales tax will make you blink in astonishment, and we saw thousands of houses that were anywhere from a million to 9 million dollars, so I don’t know how anyone but the ultra-rich can afford to live there. We saw one hovel of a house that was only 800 square feet, in a rather scary neighborhood, going for 2 million dollars because it was in a beach town and only a few blocks from the water.

I did feel a tension between the rich and the poor that was more extreme than I’ve felt elsewhere. It’s got to be hard to be a poor person who has to scrub the toilet in a waterfront mansion. It must stink to have to mow the lawn for some rich jerk who should be xeriscaping due to the drought. There were a lot of tent cities in the more populated areas, just as we have around Seattle. At least those people aren’t having to cope with the rain, but it’s still tragic and heartbreaking and wrong.

The number of rich people flitting about is also wrong. While dining at restaurants, I heard several ultra-privileged conversations that would make the average person gasp. One was about how eating the types of healthy, organic, expensive foods (that most poor people can only dream of) is actually “a gift from your higher self.” Another was about having to fire someone because she couldn’t grasp the proper way to fold her son’s sportswear, and how that was “simply beyond the pale.” I wanted to barf in her endive.

Rich people, in general, seem pretty clueless, but it’s even harder to take when they are so dependent upon poor people who can barely survive in that economy. I kept thinking, “Let them eat cake.” Lest we forget, that perfect farm-to-table salad is the result of a lot of backbreaking toil in the hot sun for someone else.

The Los Angeles area stressed me out completely. There were a lot of amazing things to see, but traffic there was a total nightmare. I’m glad my husband did all the driving, but I still felt the need to sit in the car with my eyes closed on the freeways so as not to become a nervous wreck.

The area is so crowded that I felt this constant buzzing tension and a low-grade claustrophobia. It’s one of those places that I’m glad I visited, but would never want to live in. It’s also very dry and very brown. Northern California is a lot more lush and green.

But California flora is pretty amazing, I have to admit. Redwoods, of course. I’ll be writing a great deal more about them. And kelp in the ocean. And Pride of Madeira plants in the north, and Jacaranda trees and succulents the size of your head and Bougainvillias in the south. And everywhere, the California Poppies that I adore.

So, yeah, I’m guessing that most of us who haven’t been to California have a warped view of the place without even realizing it. Give it a visit. It might surprise you. It frequently shocked the hell out of me, but mostly in the best of ways.

The Jacaranda Tree. I sure wish they thrived in colder climates!

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Dagen H

I’m always a little bit startled when I only just learn something that was a major deal for millions of people at the time. It makes me wonder what else I’ve been blissfully ignorant of. A lot, I’m sure. That’s unsettling.

And so it was that a friend told me that Sweden switched from left hand traffic to right hand traffic on September 3, 1967. It was called Högertrafikomläggningen, which translates as “the right-hand traffic diversion” and is fortunately referred to as Dagen H (Day H) for short.

The reason Swedish Parliament chose to make that change, despite the public not being too keen on it, is that all the neighboring countries were driving on the right, and oddly enough, the vast majority of Swedish cars had the steering wheel on the left already, so right hand driving would give them a great deal more visibility.

It cost a lot to make the change. 350,000 signs had to be faced in a different direction. Stop lights had to be moved. Intersections had to be changed, and road paint had to be altered. Even bus doors had to be put on the opposite side of those vehicles.

It took even more prep work than I’m describing, but ultimately they made the change in very orderly fashion. If yours was one of the few essential cars on the road at 4:50 am on Sunday, September 3, 1967, you had to come to a halt. You then moved your car from the left side of the road to the right, and you waited until 5:00 am, to give everybody time to do the same. And then off you went, driving on the right. Ta-da!

Discovering this made me wonder how many other countries have changed their driving sides. It seems that 165 countries drive on the right side, and 75 countries drive on the left. (I wasn’t expecting so many lefties, but there you have it. They account for about 1/6th of the land area, and 1/4th of the roads.)

But of all of those, most have stayed with the side they started with. Who can blame them. But there have been 52 countries which switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. On the other hand, there have been, believe it or not, five countries that have switched to driving on the left. The change seems to have been made either due to a change in their colonial status, or a desire to be able to buy cheaper cars from their left side driving neighboring countries. The five that made the switch, because I know you’re wondering, are East Timor, Namibia, Nauru, Samoa, and Suriname.

An interesting little tidbit that I came across is that here in the US there was no fixed rule until a keep-right law was passed in 1792, and then it only applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. New York didn’t hop on the bandwagon, so to speak, until 1804. New Jersey did it in 1813, and Massachusetts in 1821. And even though the US Virgin Islands are a US territory, they drive on the left. That’s unusual, because most colonial entities follow the way of their occupiers. Go figure.

I have never driven on the left, and would be afraid to try. My mild dyslexia confuses me enough without making that change. I’ve only visited a left hand driving country once, and that was to change planes in England. I had to take a shuttle to my next plane, and as I had just gotten off a transatlantic flight, I was pretty exhausted. So when I looked up to see another shuttle coming at us on the “wrong” side of the road (from my perspective), I nearly screamed.

I bet they get that a lot.

Sources for this post:

http://realscandinavia.com/this-day-in-history-swedish-traffic-switches-sides-september-3-1967/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagen_H

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-_and_right-hand_traffic

Dagen H.

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The Consequences of This Pandemic

I can’t shake the feeling that this pandemic is going to change the world in ways that we don’t even anticipate. What will life be like after the dust settles? What will we have learned?

I must admit that I’m loving the reduced traffic. I’m hoping that many companies will realize that yes, in fact, they can continue to do business with a lot of their employees telecommuting. And will this habit of consolidating all one’s errands into a single day rather than rushing out whenever the mood strikes have any staying power? Fingers crossed.

What will the psychological impact be? Are we raising a generation of agoraphobics? Will we ever get past the increase in depression? Will anyone ever feel that they had a chance to properly grieve those they’ve lost during this age of social distancing? Will there be a spike in divorces? A spike in unplanned pregnancies? Will we ever lose our quarantine weight?

As horrible as this is to say, I suspect that the tragic decrease in baby boomers due to this virus will reduce pressure on senior care facilities the world over. I suppose that can be interpreted as a good thing. At least from that perspective, if not from any other.

The economic impact is still hard to gauge. Will we bounce back quickly, or will the consequences be dire? Is the age of small business completely over? This pandemic seems to be killing small shops, while package stores are thriving. I know as a landlord I’m feeling the pressure, and I fail to see how my poor tenant will ever catch back up.

And what of travel? Will we ever be able to comfortably travel overseas again? And have we lost our taste for large concerts and sporting events? I know I’ll never feel quite as comfortable sitting cheek by jowl with total strangers again.

Now that we’ve seen nature bounce back ever so slightly due to our inactivity, will we appreciate it more? Will we care for the environment as we should have all along? Having realized what a cesspool we’ve made of the planet, will we make more of an effort to clean it up?

These things are but the tip of an enormous COVID-19 iceberg. But just as with the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, a hundred years from now people will have all but forgotten what we have gone through and how things were before this pandemic washed over us like the invisible tsunami from hell.

Out of curiosity, I decided to read the Wikipedia page about the consequences of the black death. Other than the few minutes it took for our teachers to instruct us of its existence back when we were in school, most people don’t really think of the black death, and yet it changed the world permanently in many profound ways.

Here are some of the scariest and/or more fascinating bits of this Wikipedia article:

  • Historians estimate that it reduced the total world population from 475 million to between 350 and 375 million. In most parts of Europe, it took nearly 80 years for population sizes to recover, and in some areas more than 150 years.

  • The massive reduction of the workforce meant that labor was suddenly in higher demand. For many Europeans, the 15th century was a golden age of prosperity and new opportunities. The land was plentiful, wages high, and serfdom had all but disappeared.

  • Christians accused Jews of poisoning public water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. The spreading of this rumor led to complete destruction of entire Jewish towns, and was simply caused by suspicion on part of the Christians, who noticed that the Jews had lost fewer lives to the plague due to their hygienic practices.

  • Renewed religious fervor and fanaticism came in the wake of the Black Death. Some Europeans targeted groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers and Romani, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis.

  • Much of the primeval vegetation returned, and abandoned fields and pastures were reforested.

  • The Black Death encouraged innovation of labor-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity. There was a shift from grain farming to animal husbandry. Grain farming was very labor-intensive, but animal husbandry needed only a shepherd and a few dogs and pastureland.

  • In England, more than 1300 villages were deserted between 1350 and 1500.

  • After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. The widespread image of the “dance of death” showed death (a skeleton) choosing victims at random.

  • The plague was present somewhere in Europe in every year between 1346 and 1671.

What can we learn from the aftermath of the black death?

  • Clearly, our knowledge of medicine and viral transmission has greatly increased, and our ability to communicate is much better, so COVID-19 will not take as many lives as the black death did. That’s a huge relief. But perhaps these numbers should be used to remind us of the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and the use of masks.

  • It would be wonderful if this catastrophe brings about a narrowing of the income gap between the rich and the poor. We definitely need that to have a healthy society.

  • I fear the scapegoating and violence that is already happening. This time it’s focused on Asians and immigrants, and it’s absolutely insane. As if anyone is responsible for the existence of a virus.

  • I hope we see major environmental impacts, in a positive way, and that we don’t all revert to our previous bad habits.

  • I am seeing evidence of all kinds of innovation, and I find that encouraging. I hope we keep that up.

  • There is a very good chance that COVID-19 will return year after year after year, just as the black death did. I hope we come up with a vaccine soon, but I suspect that when we do, we’ll be getting COVID shots every year, right along with our flu shots. This is not a virus that will simply disappear after a few months.

Welcome to the new reality. May we all survive and be made all the better for it. Anything less will be an absolute horror.

dance-of-death

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Traffic Lights. Who Knew?

Fun fact: The first three-colored traffic lights were installed in 1920. No one seems to have written down the exact day that these ubiquitous devices arrived on the scene, but it was sometime before October, at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenues in Detroit. Happy 100th birthday sometime before October, traffic light! You’ve been annoying commuters ever since!

Actually, according to Wikipedia,

“The world’s first traffic light was a manually operated gas-lit signal installed in London in December 1868. It exploded less than a month after it was implemented, injuring its policeman operator. Earnest Sirrine from Chicago patented the first automated traffic control system in 1910. It used the words “STOP” and “PROCEED”, although neither word was illuminated.”

But the one the majority of us see today (and every other day of our lives, like it or not) is 100 years old. Before traffic lights, humans were placed at intersections to direct traffic. What could possibly go wrong? I can’t imagine a more tedious or more irritating job on earth, and this is coming from someone who opens drawbridges for a living.

Between the exploding gas light and our current tried and true one, several designs were tried out throughout the world, some with semaphore flags, which weren’t particularly effective at night. No two were alike, it seems, and that must have caused no end of confusion. I’m impressed that society survived.

The idea to control multiple intersections at once, and do so automatically, didn’t come about until March, 1922, in Houston, Texas. Traffic lights were not introduced to South India until 1953, and it seems they’ve been ignored ever since.

I also happen to know from personal experience working with the Department of Transportation that while most lights used to be encircled in black tubes to reduce glare and increase visibility, most locations have gotten away from that because birds would use them as nesting sites and block the light. Now if anything, most lights have a shade cover across the top for glare reduction and to reduce water intrusion.

While doing research for this post, I came across this article that discusses why the colors red, green and yellow were chosen for traffic lights. Basically, red is the color with the longest wavelength, so it can be seen from a greater distance than other colors. It was used to indicate danger long before traffic signals became a thing.

There’s no indication as to why green has been used for Go. Blue is on the opposite side of the color wheel from Red, and that’s the color Japan used for many years, but the rest of the world hopped on the Green bandwagon. Yellow was chosen because it has a shorter wavelength than red, but not as short as green.

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about traffic lights but were afraid to ask. You’re welcome.

Traffic lights

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On Being Good at Your Job When No One Is Watching

In order to be a bridgetender, you have to be able to function well with little or no supervision. You have to be the type of person who takes a job seriously, believes in maintaining standards, and is very self-motivated. I am that person. And I happen to consider being left alone to be its own reward.

The downside is that praise is very thin on the ground. If you thrive on attaboys and kudos, this is not the job for you. Taking pride in having done the job well has to be enough.

The other day, I had five different vessels headed toward my bridge from both directions, and at different rates of speed. I also had vehicle traffic backed up for miles, and dozens of pedestrians and cyclists in a wide array of moods. Some were being cooperative, and some were not.

On days like that, opening the bridge is like being the conductor of a very unruly orchestra. There are a variety of moving parts to consider. When do you start your opening so as to back up the minimum amount of traffic? How do you keep all of the traveling public safe? How do you time it so all the vessels get through at once without crashing into each other or damaging the bridge?

Communication is key. You need to make sure all the vessels know what the plan is. Sometimes you have to be firm and tell a captain that he’ll have to wait for the next opening. (We try to keep our openings less than 10 minutes long to avoid traffic delays.)

That particular opening went off without a hitch. Everyone was appreciative and all went well. At the end of it, I did a little dance and thought, “DAMN, I’m good!!!”

I was feeling proud and all in the zone, and mighty pleased with myself. I was thinking that it was a shame that no supervisors were around to see the pure artistry that was that opening. I felt great.

And then the phone rang.

It was my supervisor, saying someone just called and complained because I had made him wait because I was trying to avoid a long opening that would back up traffic for miles.

Sigh. And just like that, my head shrank back down to normal size.

But it was good while it lasted.

proudcupcake

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Because Why?

So, the other day, some idiot left a rental bike on the movable part of one of our drawbridges here in Seattle. It’s not the first time someone has gotten that bright idea, and it probably won’t be the last. But this one was destructive and expensive. I’m glad I wasn’t on duty.

Unfortunately, the bike was parked in such a way that the bridgetender couldn’t see it prior to opening the bridge for a boat. The movement caused the bike to be caught in the span, and when the operator attempted to close the bridge, he couldn’t. He had to raise the bridge up a bit, and with the help of a pedestrian, he was then able to pull the bike out.

bike

But then when he tried to close the bridge again, the bridge wasn’t in the mood to cooperate. Mechanics had to be called. The bridge couldn’t be opened for traffic or for vessels for 1 hour and 45 minutes.

The things pranksters don’t ever seem to take into account are consequences.

  • If that bike had fallen during the opening, it could have severely hurt, or possibly even killed, a pedestrian.

  • If it had fallen into the canal, it could have struck someone in a vessel crossing under the bridge.

  • The bike was ruined, and those things aren’t cheap.

  • The bridge was damaged, causing the taxpayers of Seattle a great deal of expense.

  • Traffic was backed up for miles. People may have lost jobs because they arrived late to work. Sick people might not have gotten to the doctor. Kids may have missed school, thus increasing the potential that they, too, will be stupid enough to pull a trick like this someday.

  • Idling cars caused pollution.

  • Road rage spiked.

  • Commercial vessels were not able to transit the canal, and were therefore unable to deliver their payloads on schedule, which caused independent truckers at the docks to lose time and money.

I hope you got a good laugh, genius. Oh, and by the way, if you were the last person to rent that bike before dumping it on the drawbridge (which is highly likely, since the back wheel won’t roll without credit card authorization), I hope they’re tracking you down via your card even as we speak. If so, the joke is going to be on you.

_____________________________________________________

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What Price Patriotism?

As I write this, the Blue Angels are roaring past my bridge, making the windows rattle. I must admit that it’s a spectacular show. If you haven’t seen these Navy fighter jets perform, you may as well. You are paying for them. We all are, in one way or another.

According to this article, these jets cost US taxpayers 35,577,000 dollars a year. That’s quite a bit of cash just to promote the US Navy and make us all feel proud to be Americans. Imagine what an impact that would have on the homelessness or hunger or public education crises in this country.

And let’s not overlook the other, less visible impacts. The approximately 8000 gallons of jet fuel burned during a typical Blue Angels show is creating quite the carbon footprint. And there’s no easy way to calculate how much extra fuel each car in the area has to burn because it has to detour or idle due to traffic snarls caused by these shows. And then there’s the increase in boat traffic as vessels compete for the best view. The noise pollution alone is off the charts, and don’t forget the garbage produced by the crowds. And then there are the terrified pets, and the anxiety suffered by people with PTSD.

I’m not saying that Americans need to live lives of extreme austerity. I just happen to think there are other ways we could celebrate that don’t come with such a high price tag.

http _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_8_81_Blue_Angels_on_Delta_Formation

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Weird Drawbridge Stuff

Every time I think I’ve seen it all as a bridgetender, something new and surprising happens. The other day, a boat passed under my bridge, and on the bow there was a woman in a hot pink, shiny catsuit, wearing a powder blue motorcycle helmet, complete with visor. I wish I had had time to whip out my camera, but I was too busy standing there, slack-jawed.

I’ve also seen my fair share of nudity and inappropriate acts, and believe me, most of them I wish I could wash out of my brain with bleach. It seems as though the level of one’s exhibitionism is directly proportionate to one’s lack of classic beauty. I would really rather not see your thick carpet of back hair, ma’am, thankyouverymuch.

And then there are the strange things that have floated by my tower: Houses. Lengths of bridge. Airplanes. Submarine periscopes. UFOs (unidentified floating objects). I once opened for a yacht being used by Sir Paul McCartney when he did the halftime show at the super bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. (I didn’t catch a glimpse of him, though.)

Pedestrians can be quite entertaining, too. They often like to sing. And while they tackle it with enthusiasm, as a general rule they shouldn’t try out for American Idol.

Or they dance. We get a lot of dancers. One guy walked down the sidewalk dribbling an imaginary basketball. Another preached a full sermon to the geese on the canal.

People have gotten into fist fights while crossing my bridge. I’ve seen more than one marriage proposal. A sad number walk across, shouting and gesticulating when no one else is there.

I’ve also seen eagles and falcons and ospreys and alligators and nutria and harbor seals and dolphins, to name but a few of the fascinating creatures who share the planet with us. I’ve also seen more lightning strikes and rainbows and sunrises and sunsets than I can count.

I’ve seen enough bizarre traffic accidents to make me wonder if anyone puts any thought into vehicular safety anymore. I’ve also heard every obscenity known to man, and have had a wide variety of objects thrown at me. I’ve also had government snipers on my bridge when presidential nominees were making speeches nearby.

I really do have the most interesting job in the world. I’d like to say I’ve seen it all, but somehow I suspect that I haven’t. So watch this space!

100_0190
A coworker to a picture of this waterspout as it passed by the bridge. Glad I wasn’t on duty!

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Bike-Share Stupidity

It happened again the other day. Some fool left a bike-share bike on the movable portion of my drawbridge. Fortunately, I’m used to looking out for this, because if I were to open the bridge with a bike on it, it could fall down and take out a pedestrian, or even worse, my parked car. (Just kidding that the car damage would be worse. I’d never forgive myself if someone got hurt on my watch.)

I’ve also seen these rental bikes abandoned as far south as Renton, even though they’re not supposed to leave the city of Seattle. It usually takes several days for the company to find and retrieve them. That means they’re not available for another user during that period.

Even worse, I recently read a Seattle Times article about a bike-share bike being left on a ferry. The Coast Guard had to treat it as a potential man overboard. This unnecessary rescue operation cost the taxpayers $17,000, and this is not the first time it has happened.

Another Seattle Times article warns that some bikes have been found with the brake lines cut. That’s not funny. Unless you’re into being a murderer without even witnessing the crime, I suppose. What kind of a sick, twisted human being does that? Check these bikes thoroughly before you use them, folks.

I love that there are several bike rental companies in Seattle. Anything that cuts down the traffic congestion gets my vote. And we all benefit if commuting is more green and affordable. But we also have to behave responsibly so that this privilege isn’t taken away. These companies are not charities. Too many expenses cutting into their profit margin and they’ll soon decide it’s not worth it. Then we all lose.

bike share

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For All the Unsung Bridgetenders

For the first time in many, many years, I will not be ringing in the new year all alone at work. This is not because after 16 years as a bridgetender I’ve earned a certain level of seniority. No. It’s simply because this time around, the holiday just happened to fall on my regular day off.

I’m reminded of that postal motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Yeah. Except they get holidays off. Bridgetender’s don’t. And they are some of the most truly dedicated people in the world. Despite that, most of you don’t even realize we exist.

So today I want to wish the bridgetenders of the world a Happy New Year. For those who endure poorly heated and/or air conditioned rooms, Happy New Year. For those who shovel and de-ice sidewalks, Happy New Year. For those who get covered in grease and motor oil, hose down pigeon poop and shovel pigeon corpses, Happy New Year. For those who have to stay late when their relief doesn’t show up, for those who have prevented suicides, for those who have pulled people out of wrecked or burning cars, for those who call 911, and for those whose own cars get vandalized, Happy New Year.

For those who keep you safe, even when you don’t realize you are in danger, Happy New Year. For those who have to think on their feet and sometimes get in trouble for it, Happy New Year. For those who are outrageously underpaid and mistreated by their employers (I’m thinking of Florida, in particular, here), Happy New Year. For those who keep the city’s traffic, in all its many forms, flowing efficiently, Happy New Year.

For those who stand in plain sight and yet seem to be invisible (and still keep the intimate conversations they overhear to themselves), Happy New Year. For those who occasionally find the loneliness hard to take, Happy New Year. For every bridgetender who sits in a tower looking at a bullet hole in the window (which is most of us), and wonders when it will happen again, Happy New Year. For those of us who have been pelted with eggs and tomatoes and pumpkins and beer bottles, Happy New Year. For those who have nightmares about some of the horrible things we’ve seen, Happy New Year.

But I especially want to thank those who show up day in and day out, and take pride in their jobs, often without acknowledgement. To me, you all are heroes. Please know that someone really does see you.

Somewhere, there really ought to be a monument.

Here’s the most amazing thing about being a bridgetender: In spite of all of the above, many of us truly love our jobs. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is who I am.

Happy New Year to all of the forgotten ones out there. And many, many more.

drawbridge

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