By Ron Hayes
If you think waiting for the drawbridge to go down takes patience, spare a moment to honor all those dedicated men and women who spend eight hours a day waiting to lower it.
And raise it again.
And lower it again.
And know whom to call when it sticks.
“A lot of people say, ‘I'd like to be a bridge tender,’ ” says Barry Meve, the county’s bridge superintendent, “but they get bored and can’t take it. You can’t leave. You have to bring your lunch.”
Twenty drawbridges span the waters of Palm Beach County, and more than a hundred men and women tend them.
The money’s not great, but the view can be.
Take the newly renovated tower on the Linton Boulevard Bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. Completed in April at a cost of $230,000, the bridge house rises 50 feet above the water and is now adorned with a Key West-style roof and hurricane-proof windows.
On a clear day, Nicholas Evans has the kind of view wealthy condo-dwellers pay millions for.
“People think you can come to work and relax, that it’s a cushy job,” says Evans, “but sleeping is not allowed.”
In addition to an elaborate control console for operating the bridge’s 130-foot span, Evans’ 15-by-15-foot office has air conditioning, a TV set, refrigerator, microwave oven, jug of spring water, desk and easy chair. And a restroom, one flight down.
The TV has a DVD player, but Evans doesn’t use it.
“I’m not into movies,” he says. “I like to read.”
A retired manager for employee health and safety at a New Jersey medical firm, he passes the quiet time between bridge openings reading the medical mysteries of Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen.
At Linton Boulevard, the bridge is opened on the hour and half-hour. Then Evans puts down his book and begins a strict routine, for which he has received 40 hours of training, plus individual preparation for each of the eight bridges he’s certified to operate.
He lowers the safety gates over the road, then the pedestrian gates. He raises the roadway barriers, then unlocks the span. Another knob engages the 75-horsepower motors that lift the north and south spans on a counterweight system similar to a seesaw. He notes the time and vessel on a clipboard.
The motor yacht Xanadu passes, and Evans repeats the process in reverse.
This may seem to take a half-hour when you’re waiting in a car, but Evans says the average operation lasts only about five minutes.
“My biggest fear,” he says, “is a sailboat coming through and you bring the span down too soon on the boat.”
Of the area’s 20 drawbridges, eight are operated by the county’s Engineering and Public Works Department, and 12 by a contractor working for the state Department of Transportation, depending on whether the bridge is on a state highway. County bridgetenders earn up to $15 an hour, with a lump-sum cost-of-living raise yearly. Tenders on state-run bridges make $9.50 an hour.
So how do you become a bridgetender?
Marty Weingel saw a sign in a window.
“I was having dinner with my son,” says Weingel, 80, of Boynton Beach. “We were walking back across the Atlantic Avenue Bridge and I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign in the bridge house window.”
For the past four years, Weingel has worked in that same Atlantic Avenue bridge house.
Unlike the Linton Boulevard tower, Weingel’s office is at sidewalk level, mere feet from the grated span on which thousands of cars rip by each day.
“I don’t even notice the sound anymore,” says Weingel. “I get the paper each morning and it takes me eight hours to read the whole thing and do all the puzzles.”
The bridgetender’s biggest worry, of course, is the sort of malfunction that prevents a bridge from opening or, even worse, closing.
“Then you have to wait for the electrician, who might be up in Lantana and says he won’t be here for an hour,” says Weingel. “But I’ve only had one malfunction so far, and I’ve never had a boat captain argue with me. Most just say, fine, let me know when you can open it.”
Like Evans and Weingel, most bridgetenders tend to be retirees supplementing their pensions and Social Security.
“You can only golf and fish so many times,” says Sam Clark, a former tool-and-dye engineer who tends the Ocean Avenue Bridge in Boynton Beach. But though bridgetending is sedentary and often predictable, Clark says, the job has its unexpected rewards.
From his bridge house overlooking the marina at Two George’s restaurant, he sees ospreys and manatees, exotic birds, friendly joggers who always wave, even the occasional Spring Break jumper taking a dare. Once, Clark says, he saw a seal.
“It was about five years ago,” he recalls. “Down at the Atlantic Avenue Bridge. I’m sure of it. I saw the face and the whiskers. I know what a seal looks like. I didn’t want to tell my boss because he’d think I was crazy, but then later I read in the paper that they’d spotted one up in West Palm. They get disoriented.”
And once a year, at any rate, a bridgetender’s job does explode with real fireworks.
“Oh, I’ve got a great view of the Fourth of July from up here,” Clark says. “I can see the Boynton Beach fireworks and the Delray Beach fireworks, all at the same time.”