So: you’re driving up to the sky and to your right or left is the sky,which begins just below your window. It needs its grade and the 90-degree angle to rise high enough to create clearance for an empty aircraft carrier to pass underneath it — about 200 feet. It takes ten years to paint the bridge. It’s not painted from one end to another. It’s painted where it most needs painting, when it needs painting. Over 50 people — men and women — work every day to maintain it and take its tolls. The bridge is always there. Always open, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
I think the first thing Michael Martin, the bridge’s toll captain, said to me was “So do I.” I had just said to him, “I think the bridge is beautiful.” Captain Martin, and his second in command, Lieutenant Patricia Young, have the rank of captain and lieutenant (there are also sergeants) because at one time all highway and toll-bridge workers were peace officers and carried sidearms. They no longer do but have kept the ranking system. I heard one story, probably apocryphal, as to why they are no longer armed: A drunk sheriff or policeman stops at the tollbooth one night and refuses to pay. After some argument the toll-taker pulls his gun. So does the sheriff. Standoff. No shots fired. No one seems to know who backed down. Did the sheriff hand over his buck? Did the toll-taker wave him through with the barrel of his pistol? Captain Martin, a trim man in his late 40s, looking both a little preppy and a little military at the same time, has a splendid view of the bridge from his corner office at the Glorietta Toll Plaza: over the tops of some trees the great blue stream of it rushes toward San Diego as if shot off the tight curve into a straightaway home. He told me his predecessor, knowing he was dying, asked him to hold a memorial service in Tidelands Park, just across from the toll plaza and with a perfect view of the bridge. He did.
Captain Martin arranged for me to meet, the next day, Robert Morbeu, the bridge’s maintenance supervisor. Bob’s been with Caltrans for nearly 30 years, the past decade on the bridge. His crew’s headquarters is located directly below Pier 36 on the San Diego side of the bridge. The massive columns rise up from the parking lot. You can get an idea of how immense they are when you stand next to one. It makes you feel smaller than those men standing in front of the giant redwoods. Parked in the yard was a Caltrans truck with a 6´x6´ orange box attached to its rear end. It’s called an attenuator and it’s a crash absorber — getting rear-ended is always a danger for a vehicle stopped on the bridge.
Some months ago Bob and his crew heard a thud on the roof of the shop. It was a dog that either jumped in panic after wandering onto the bridge or was tossed out of a car over the railing. Depending on how you feel about the potential cruelty of humans, you can choose to believe the former or the latter. The dog was pretty smashed up but didn’t die.
Bob’s 5´8˝ or 5´9˝, sandy-haired, and has about him an easygoing air and a sense of calm control that one sees in men who are utterly competent in their work. You never mistake this calm for a lack of alertness or indifference. It is men and women like him without whom a good portion of America — particularly its infrastructure — would simply crumble. He knew every bolt on the bridge and exactly what to do to keep each one in the best condition, coordinating a crew of 11 men and women to do so every day. I learned later that he was a pretty serious tournament poker player. No surprise. Bob set me up to ride on the barrier transfer machine (colloquially known as the Zipper or even the Zamboni), to ride with one of the bridge’s tow-truck drivers, and to walk the two-mile maintenance catwalk that runs below the bridge’s surface.
A tunnel inside of a bridge: that’s how I thought of the catwalk when I first heard about it. At one time it was proposed an enclosed 16-foot tube for bicyclists and pedestrians be built onto the bridge. That plan didn’t fly. Now the bridge is open to pedestrians a few times a year for walks or runs. The catwalk is never open to the public. You enter it about a quarter of a mile onto the bridge from the San Diego side — a set of stairs lead down to a door — looking like the entrance to a basement apartment. Through another locked door, down a ladder, and you’re on it. (Note to nincompoops: these are serious doors, serious locks, and monitored 24 hours a day.) The catwalk is open-meshed steel, with handrails about bottom-rib high. Other than some crossing beams: air and distance to the ground and then more air and more distance to the water.
Don Elms, one of the crew, who loved it up here, took me. For some reason I walked ahead of him. Maybe I didn’t want to seem spooked. Maybe I just wanted to get across as fast as I could. Don handed me a hardhat and I soon found out why: bong! my head hit a pipe. I was glad it had some practical use — I knew (like a seatbelt in a plane crash) that it sure as hell wouldn’t help me if I fell. In fact, I was having a mild case of acrophobia. I gripped the handrail hard for the first hundred yards or so. Later, I heard a joke about a certain bridgeworker “who does a good job keeping the handrail clean” — meaning he doesn’t like to let go of it on the catwalk.