For a while it’s earth below, then docks, then the water. It’s a different feeling over water, scarier to me, and a few of the crew said it was for them too. You’d think just the opposite. It’s windy up here. Sometimes very windy. If it’s too windy — a call made by Bob Morbeu — nobody works up here. The bridge is built to give a little in the wind. I asked Don if he’d ever been up there when he could feel it move. “Many times,” he said. I asked him if it was likely the wind would pick up enough to move it today. He said he didn’t know.
Here and there’s a porthole with blue sky in it or the white of a cloud. A ladder was lashed with rope to the railing of the catwalk. Everything up here — every tool, bucket, etc. — has to be tied down when not in use. I spotted someone walking toward us. I asked Don if we’d have to fight with big sticks as in Robin Hood to see who would get to pass first. Actually, there’s enough room, just, for two-way traffic. All was airy, water and wind, until we hit the box, which you enter through what looks like a bulkhead door on a ship. It’s dark in the box — there’s a string of lights along the catwalk and a porthole here and there, but it’s so large — like being in a huge empty boxcar in a land of giants. The light was so dim that before my eyes adjusted I thought a bank of electrical panels was a locker room for the men who work up here.
Don led the way now, and he said there was one particular place he wanted me to see: a large porthole, reached by a ladder, outside of which was a small balcony. Don climbed the ladder and went out onto the balcony eagerly. Another ladder led down to the top of one of the pier caps. I was hoping he wouldn’t suggest that we descend that one. He didn’t. He leaned back with his arms draped over the balcony’s railing, smiling like the Lord Admiral of the Ocean Seas at the helm of his flagship making record time around the Horn: he loved this spot, one of the best views in San Diego (it looks south toward the Strand, Imperial Beach, and Mexico), and it belongs to practically no one else but him. He invited me onto the platform, but I settled for standing on the ladder and leaning out. I don’t think Don was ready to leave, but we did, continuing our trek.
After the box, the descent and the turn begin, although neither, particularly the turn, seemed very noticeable to me. Back out over the open water again, perhaps I welcomed the downslope because it quickened my journey. The catwalk ends at Pier 2, and you descend a series of stairs and ladders to the ground just feet from where the bay’s water laps the Coronado shore.
We saw some painters working when we were on the catwalk. They were so swathed in protective gear that I didn’t recognize them back at the shop. Their names were Bob and Julian, and they were partners — painters work in crews of at least two so they can watch each others’ backs, check each other’s safety equipment. Bob’s shoes were blue. Julian’s thumbs were blue. Julian was voluble, Bob knew how to get his words in edgewise. Painters are tested regularly for drug or alcohol abuse. Their blood is checked yearly for lead and their lungs are monitored — a lot of times they’re painting tucked up underneath in a corner of the bridge. When they work on the outsides of the bridge, they stand on scaffolding that moves on a rail alongside it. Even though it’s more dangerous, they prefer it outside. I asked Don if he ever had a fear of heights. He said no, but now he has a great respect for heights. Everything gets four coats: red primer, pink, light blue, and dark blue finish. Their thumbs and their shoes, therefore, wear different colors sometimes. They take regular training-and-development courses — in rigging, safety issues, etc. — even though they’re veteran painters.
The Zipper is not exactly a Disneyland ride, probably because the Zipper (the barrier transfer machine, or BTM) only goes five miles per hour, is essentially on a rail, and makes a deafening noise while at the same time creating a vibration that made my whole body feel like a struck funnybone. The Zipper’s been on the bridge since 1993. It moves the concrete barriers to create an extra lane coming or going — in the morning rush hour, three lanes leaving San Diego; in the evening rush hour, three lanes back to San Diego. Before the Zipper, the job was done by hand in an operation the crew called “pull ’em and plug ’em.” The barriers were orange-rubber stanchions that were pulled or plugged by a worker on the back of a moving vehicle. There were hundreds of these stanchions. It was a matter of pride, when plugging, to not miss any holes. Not easy. No one ever plugged a perfect game: no misses. The closest I heard anyone ever came was two or three missed “plug ’ems.”
The best part about my ride on the Zipper was Jerry Browning, one of its regular drivers. Jerry’s another happy man on what felt like a crew of unusual harmony. When I noticed that Beverly Sanders, a crew leader and one of the two women working on bridge maintenance (the other is Laura, a paint-crew leadworker), was limping around in a walking cast, I said to her, “They made you come to work today?” She said, “They let me come to work today.” Beverly has long brown hair, almost to her waist. In her ID picture pinned to her shirt she wears it in pigtails.