Just a Leisurely Swim in the Shipping Lane

The drawbridge I work on is the University Bridge in Seattle, Washington. It’s located between Lake Union and Portage Bay. There are a lot of houseboats in the area, as well as people who live aboard their boats. It’s also a heavily trafficked waterway, used by sailboats, pleasure craft, research vessels, cruise ships, Coastguard cutters, and the daily transit of a 3000 gross ton gravel barge.

So imagine my shock when I looked out the window to see something I’ve never seen before in the 6 years I’ve worked here. There was a woman doing a leisurely backstroke in the shipping lane. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, where to begin.

I immediately jumped on the marine radio to warn a very large research vessel that was headed my way. He was grateful for the head’s up. But not all vessels monitor their radios, as stupid as that may sound.

As a matter of fact, a very inattentive motorboat was aimed straight at her, and she was too busy enjoying her swim to notice. I tried calling the boat. No response. I tried blowing my horn. No reaction. I tried shouting out the window. Nothing. They missed caving in her head by about 12 inches. She behaved as if this was business as usual.

I called 911, but by the time the Harbor Patrol arrived, she had already swum back to her boat. She did a few pull ups on her ladder for good measure, then calmly toweled off, and entered the cabin. I told the Harbor Patrol which vessel it was, and they approached it, but she either refused to come out or miraculously didn’t hear them.

I am stunned that there are so many people in this world who don’t think of the consequences of their actions. Get yourself killed through your own stupidity all you want, but don’t do it at the mental and emotional expense of the person who accidentally kills you or those of us who have to bear witness. That’s just not right.

If anyone knows the woman on the blue-hulled vessel called the Jenny II here in Seattle, please tell her, for me, that she’s a selfish fool who is very lucky to be alive.

Jenny II, the home of the errant bather.

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Why It’s Bad to Beat the Bridge

There’s a really fantastic fundraiser that has happened every spring for 37 years here in Seattle. It’s called Beat the Bridge to Beat Diabetes. It’s sponsored by Nordstrom to benefit JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It’s a run/walk/fun run that starts at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium and ends at University Bridge, the drawbridge I just happen to operate. This year it will be held tomorrow, May 19th.

I am thrilled that so many people get behind this very worthy cause. I’m also gratified when we can come together in a large group and be a force for good. What I’m not thrilled about, however, is the tradition of beating this bridge.

At the end of this race, at exactly 8:50, I will be raising the bridge. If you haven’t crossed it by then, you haven’t beaten it. But it’s actually fun not to beat it, because there’s a live band and entertainment while you wait.

Here’s the thing, though. I have operated 9 different bridges in 3 different states, and I’ve never, ever seen such a tradition of drawbridge risk taking as I’ve seen on the drawbridges that span the ship canal here in Seattle.

Every single day, I see pedestrians ignoring the warning bells and the flashing lights in order to cross my bridge as I’m preparing to open it for a vessel that can’t slam on its brakes and has no option for a detour. I’ve seen people standing center span, taking selfies, while a 2000 ton gravel barge is bearing down on them. I’ve even had people attempt to cross this bridge when it has already started to rise. I’ve had people climb under the gates and approach the million pounds of moving concrete and steel that could crush them like a bug with no concern at all for their life or limbs, simply because they’re impatient for it to close. Someone actually climbed up the fully opened Ballard Bridge, and the local paper, The Stranger, reported on it as if it were a big joke.

If you were to Google Death and Drawbridges, you’d quickly see that playing around on drawbridges is no laughing matter. People get killed on drawbridges every year, and it’s usually due to their own foolish behavior. Fortunately it hasn’t happened in Seattle yet, but I have no idea why, other than the extreme professionalism of the bridgetenders here. Still, I suspect that it’s only a matter of time.

I’m not trying to say that the Beat the Bridge fundraiser is solely responsible for the behavior of Seattleites, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. Additional factors are the use of ear buds and cell phones, which greatly reduce attentiveness; the fact that we have so many institutions of higher education in the area, full of young adults who think they’re immortal; and the cultural standard of this city that encourages people to break rules and live unique, sometimes reckless lives.

It would be wonderful to see Nordstrom partner up with Seattle Department of Transportation for future Beat the Bridge events, and allow them to have a table that promotes bridge safety. It could be manned by bridge operators that could answer questions about the bridges, because the public is naturally curious about them. The general message could be, “It’s okay to beat the bridge this morning, for this worthy cause. But please don’t beat it the rest of the year!” I think this is a public relations opportunity that SDOT should not ignore.

So yes, that will be me, tomorrow, raising the University Bridge promptly at 8:50 am, as hundreds of joggers run toward it. I’ll be doing it for a good cause. And while I’m not speaking for all of SDOT, please know that even as I do this, I’ll also be gritting my teeth.

Stay safe everybody. That’s what matters most.

Beat the Bridge

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I Broke My Bridge

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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“Wasteful!”

One of my duties here on the drawbridge is to keep the sidewalks and bike lanes clean. I used to do this with a hand broom. It would take several hours and I’d come away each time covered in sweat and with an angry set of blisters.

But it needs to be done, because you don’t want debris falling down into the machinery below, causing repairs at taxpayer expense. Also, garbage accumulates moisture, and has the potential to freeze, thus making the bridge dangerous for anyone crossing it. Safety first.

You’d be amazed at how much crap winds up on a drawbridge. Don’t even get me started about cigarette butts. I’ve ranted about them before. Why smokers think that throwing them on the ground makes them magically disappear is beyond me. Someone has to deal with them. And in this case, it’s me. It’s disgusting.

We also get a lot of leaves and sand, and I’ve found all sorts of garbage, car parts, and all manner of organic hazardous material which I won’t go into detail about for your sake. It’s not unusual to find the contents of stolen wallets, the occasional suspicious package, and various items of clothing. Bridges seem to be society’s dumping ground.

After about my 20th set of blisters, I suggested that the City of Seattle provide us with leaf blowers. That way we could at least blow all the stuff into a pile and then bag it. But I insisted it be the rechargeable battery type of blower, not the gas type. I do care about the environment. I was thrilled (and frankly shocked) when my request was granted. Now I can do a much better job on the bike lanes in about 30 minutes.

So, the other day I was out there with the leaf blower, taking pride in the quality of my work, and smiling to myself for getting the city’s cooperation against all odds, when a bicycle zoomed past. That’s not unusual, of course. But this rider gave me one of those disapproving head shakes that a tiny, yet extremely annoying minority of Seattleites seem to have honed to a razor-sharp edge. As he passed, he said, “Wasteful!” and then continued on, depriving me of the opportunity to discuss his pompous, baseless judgment with him.

But the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. The guy was riding a bike worth at least 500 dollars. How wasteful is that, in a city with a homeless crisis? His shoes were leather. Cows are one of the most environmentally destructive animals on the planet. He was carrying a Starbucks coffee. It takes 37 gallons of water to produce one cup of coffee. I’m quite sure his computer uses much more electricity than the occasional use of my leaf blower does. And what do you want to bet that his privileged butt replaces his iPhone every time a new model comes out, whether he needs to or not?

Gimme a break. Yes, a leaf blower is wasteful, but I weighed the alternatives, and I took the situation seriously. I’m trying. None of us is perfect. I’m doing the best I can.

You know what I’m not doing? Riding around on my $500 bike, passing judgment without having all the facts, or giving people the opportunity to provide them. Arrogant coward.

End of rant.

university bridge sidewalk level

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Uni the Crow

I have a healthy respect for crows, especially since I was once stalked by one. They are highly intelligent creatures. They’re survivors. They’re not afraid to speak up. I kind of admire the fact that they show absolutely no remorse when they’re in a foul (fowl?) mood.

This past year I’ve been enjoying observing one crow in particular. I’ve named him Uni, because he likes to hang out with me while I’m working on University Bridge here in Seattle. The first time I saw him, he was chewing on the electrical wires that are attached to our wind gauge. I’m surprised he survived that, but it probably explains quite a bit about his mental state.

After that, he hopped up on the wind gauge itself and spun around and around and around. Eventually, he’d get dizzy, hop off for a bit until he got re-oriented, and then he’d do it again. A crow with a sense of fun. It made me smile.

Since then, I’ve noticed that he likes to ride the drawbridge up when I’m doing an opening. He’ll sit on one of the I-beams near the center of the span, and lean increasingly forward as the bridge rises. He seems rather proud of his sense of balance. He can’t quite make it for a full opening. Eventually he flies off, but I suspect he’ll figure it out one of these days.

Uni has also learned that when I blow the horn, an opening is about to commence. He squawks excitedly and gets into position for his ride. This is a crow that seems to really love life.

I enjoy his company quite a bit. You just never know when you’re going to make a friend. Sadly, I suspect I won’t be seeing as much of him in the next few months, as a pair of peregrine falcons is once again nesting beneath the bridge. Uni is smart enough to know it’s a good idea to keep a low profile for now.

Crow-head-from-Mangalore

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Dedicated Drawbridge Openings

As a bridgetender, I have the privilege of operating one of the world’s biggest pieces of heavy equipment every single day. It never gets old. A friend of mine likes to say that with my index finger, I move hundreds of thousands of pounds of concrete and steel. I try not to let this power go to my head.

When I do an opening, I often see people come to a dead stop and gaze in awe. I wonder how many photos I’ve been responsible for during the course of my 17-year career. Thousands, no doubt. Every bridge opening is an event for someone.

The fact that every opening is special gave me an idea. I could dedicate a bridge opening to you, dear reader! We’d both be on the honor system here, but all you have to do is donate US$20 to your favorite charity (or if funds are tight for you, volunteer, or donate a pint of blood or your hair for wigs or something like that) and then write in the comments section below (or on the View from a Drawbridge Facebook Page) who you donated to and who you’d like me to dedicate the bridge opening to. I will reply in the comments when I did the opening and give any unique details about it. DO NOT SEND ME ANY MONEY. That’s not what this is about.

Important note: I cannot just open the bridge willy-nilly. There actually has to be a boat that requires an opening. Otherwise traffic would back up for miles, and it would also break several Coast Guard regulations. I’d kind of like to keep my job, so I can’t promise an opening on a specific day or time. But I promise I will do it.

Here’s your chance to make a big move! So get out there and make your donation, and let me know. I look forward to hearing from you!

UniversityBridge

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My View

A reader recently pointed out to me that this blog is called The View from a Drawbridge, but I haven’t really described my actual view in quite some time. Good point. Excellent point.

And it is kind of interesting to contemplate how my perspective on this view has changed over time.

For example, I’ve become fascinated with the office building that sits just across the ship canal from me. They have painted the walls of each office outlandish colors. Dark purple. Vivid orange. Sprite bottle green. My first thought is always, “very bad feng shui.” I wonder how the people working in those offices feel. For that matter, I wonder what they do.

I’m also really interested in the houseboats that line the south bank. That strikes me as a really fun way to live your life. I’d feel like a voyeur, except for the fact that I almost never see anyone on or around these houseboats. It’s like a big floating ghost town. If I were lucky enough to live like that, I’d be out on the balcony every chance I got. Well… maybe not in the winter, but you get the idea.

Their peace will soon be disrupted, though, because someone bought the 15,000 square foot patch of land where the Red Robin fast food place used to sit. They paid 2.8 million for it, and plan to throw up a high rise with ground level shops. No wonder I’ll never be able to afford to buy a house in this town.

I love to watch crews from the rowing club get into their racing shells. How do so many people get on such a long narrow vessel without tipping the whole thing over? But I’ve never seen any of them go for a swim. That’s pretty impressive. They don’t seem to mind getting wet, though. They often practice in the rain.

It took me all this time to discover that when the Montlake Bridge is fully open, I can see bits of it above the tree line. Cool.

And of late I’ve been observing a crow atop the bridge tower adjacent to me, as he chews on the wiring of our weather station. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. I suspect if I try to shoo him away, it will simply make him more determined.

There are a couple of homeless people that used to walk across the bridge every day, cursing and gesticulating. I haven’t seen them in a while. I hope they made it through the worst of the winter.

Also, one of the many men who walked his dog across my bridge each day now walks alone. He looks sad. I fear the worst.

I’m sick of the grey clouds. I’m looking forward to spring. Meanwhile, the hum of the traffic lulls me, provided I don’t dwell on the fact that it’s traffic. So that’s a little snapshot of my view.

University Lighting
Photo courtesy of SDOT Artist in Residence RSVR Visual Research.

University Lighting2
Photo courtesy of SDOT Artist in Residence RSVR Visual Research.

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Two Ships Passing

About two years ago, I was getting out of my car and heading to work when this guy walked past and remarked that I have the coolest job on earth. And I do. Bridgetending is unique and fun and (usually) stress-free. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But, work, schmerk. This guy was good looking, age appropriate, and interested in me! I thought about him the rest of the day. I figured we’d cross paths again, and if we did, I’d come up with a way to give him my number. So I started looking for him.

I looked for him for months to no avail. I was kicking myself for not giving him contact info at that first encounter. I’m just not that quick on the uptake. Things have to percolate. You know?

Fast forward to the present. I’m getting out of my car again, and there he is. He said it was really good to see me again and that he’d seen me through the window a lot. Neither one of us had a pen, and my name isn’t easy to remember, and my boss was shouting out the window to me, so time was rather short. So I told him about my daily blog, saying I’d love his feedback on it. I repeated “The View from a Drawbridge” to him several times, and sent out a silent prayer that he won’t forget and will follow through.

Who knows. Maybe he’s reading this right now. If so, for the love of GOD, use my contact form on my blog’s front page to say hello!!!

Barring that, I’m thinking of making a sign with my blog’s name and putting it on the side of my car. What do you think, guys? Too stalker-ish? Too desperate?

ships-pass

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Yours Truly: A Patron of the Arts

Many months ago I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk just below my drawbridge tower. She was staring up at it and taking notes. I thought it was kind of strange, but it is a free country, after all. (At least, as of this writing.)

But then she showed up again the next day and curiosity got the better of me. So I opened the tower window and said hello to her. It turned out she was making a sketch in advance of doing a painting of my tower. This got me excited, because I do take pride in my drawbridge. I told her I’d love to see the painting when it was done.

Several months passed and I didn’t see her again. I figured she’d forgotten about me. I was kicking myself for not getting her contact information.

Then a funny thing happened. I went to a storytelling party at a friend’s house and she was there. We didn’t recognize each other until I mentioned my bridge and she mentioned someone calling to her out the window while she was sketching, and I told her that was me. This is a big city, but it’s still a small world.

After that, she e-mailed me photos of the painting as it progressed. And just recently I purchased the finished version. (I paid for it, in part, by giving her a copy of my book.) So, without further ado, here’s the painting of University Bridge here in Seattle, by Arvia Morris.

img_2175

I love this painting. It has a great deal of personal meaning for me, of course. It’s also the first painting I’ve ever purchased. If I get a chance to publish an anthology of my drawbridge stories, I plan to use this painting on the book cover.

Arvia also did a larger, very gorgeous painting of the entire span of the University Bridge as seen from the water. I’d dearly love to have it, but I can’t afford it. I hope it finds a good home with someone who truly appreciates it.

I’ve always wanted to take painting lessons, but it’s a very expensive skill to acquire. Maybe some day. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be a patron of the arts!

_____________________________

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My Career from Above

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.

Mainstreet from the sky
Main Street Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

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.

Ortega from the sky
Ortega River Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

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.

Ben Sawyer from the Sky
Ben Sawyer Bridge, Mount Pleasant, 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.

SistersCreek from the Sky
Sisters Creek Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

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!

Fremont from the Sky
Fremont Bridge, Seattle, Washington

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.

Ballard from the sky
Ballard Bridge, Seattle, Washington

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.

spokaneStfromthesky
Spokane Street Bridge, Seattle, Washington

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…

SouthParkfrom the sky
South Park Bridge, Seattle, Washington

… 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.

UNI From the Sky
University Bridge, Seattle, Washington

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.