Now Hiring: Low Pay, Terrible Benefits And An Unmatched View On Life

Apr 15, 2016
Originally published on April 15, 2016 3:32 pm

At first glance, a posting for the job of bridgetender might not be the most attractive you've ever seen. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the person at the controls of the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville, Fla., must sit in a tiny booth, opening and closing the bridge so boats can pass.

Sounds like an awful job, right?

"The pay's horrible, the benefits are worse," admits Barb Abelhauser, 51, a former bridgetender there, "but I have the most gorgeous view in the entire city. I mean, executives who make hundreds of thousands of dollars do not have my view. And I'm getting paid to stop and look."

Before she left the job for another bridgetending position in Seattle, Abelhauser spoke with her friend John Maycumber about a job she loved, and which she'd only expected to work for a year. She ended up staying eight.

"I've been sitting in the same exact spot for all these years, and I see the passage of the seasons," she told Maycumber on a visit with StoryCorps. "I see the alligator that hangs out below my window, and when she lays her eggs I hear baby gators barking."

That's not to say it's only nature on which she gets an unusual perspective. Every day, thousands of people cross the drawbridge, which has been open since 1927. Most of the time, she says, those people passing by don't even realize she's there — which can lead to some interesting situations.

"They'll walk past us and say the most intimate, private things and we hear them. People go on dates on these bridges and they propose. So you get this little tiny snapshot of people's personal lives that they don't even realize that they're giving you."

Every morning, a certain fisherman would come through the bridge "like clockwork," she says. She never knew his name, never knew who he was, really. But one day, she decided to wave to him.

"And I found out in the news that maybe 10 minutes later, while he was on his boat heading out to fish, he had a heart attack and passed away. His boat washed up on the shore of the river. He was on the boat alone, and so I was the last person that saw him alive," she recalls. "It makes you think. It makes you appreciate."

And, of course, it gives you ample time for reflection.

"I'll be out there at 3 o'clock in the morning. There's no traffic, it's quiet. And I'll look up and there's the moon, and I try to thank the universe once a night for this opportunity. And I think of the fact that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. And if that happens, I want to have woken up that day and not thought, 'I don't want to go to work.' " she says, laughing.

"You know? Most people don't have that. I love it."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That music means it's Friday, and it's time for StoryCorps, sharing stories of people's lives. And today, a story from Jacksonville, Fla., and the Ortega River Bridge. This is a drawbridge that opened back in 1927. Thousands of people cross it every day, but not many of them notice the bridgetender. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, someone sits inside this tiny booth opening and closing the bridge so boats can pass through. Barb Abelhauser became a bridgetender after leaving an office job that she hated. At StoryCorps, she told her friend John Maycumber that she thought she'd only work on that bridge for a year or so. But she wound up staying for eight.

BARB ABELHAUSER: The pay's horrible. The benefits are worse, but I have the most gorgeous view in the entire city. I mean, executives who make hundreds of thousands of dollars do not have my view. And I'm getting paid to stop and look. That's the thing I think I love the most about this.

JOHN MAYCUMBER: You must see a lot of things that the rest of us miss.

ABELHAUSER: You know, I think about that a lot because I've been sitting in the same exact spot for all these years. And I see the passage of the seasons, I see the alligator that hangs out below my window. And when she lays her eggs, I hear baby gators barking.

And people don't even realize we're there. They'll walk past us and say the most intimate private things, and we hear them. People go on dates on these bridges, and they propose. So you get this little tiny snapshot of peoples' personal lives that they don't even realize that they're giving you.

There was a fisherman that used to come through the bridge every morning like clockwork. I never knew his name. You know, we had a connection, but we don't really know who each other is. And one day, he came through, I waved. And I found out in the news that maybe 10 minutes later while he was on his boat heading out to fish, he had a heart attack and passed away. His boat washed up on the shore of the river. He was on the boat alone, so I was the last person that saw him alive.

It makes you think. It makes you appreciate. You know, I'll be out there at 3 in the morning. There's no traffic. It's quiet. And I'll look up and there's the moon. And I try to thank the universe at least once a night for this opportunity, you know? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. And if that happens, I want to have woken up that day and not thought I don't want to go to work, you know? (Laughter) Most people don't have that. I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: She makes that view sound beautiful, doesn't she? That's bridgetender Barb Abelhauser with John Maycumber at StoryCorps in Jacksonville, Fla. Barb now lives in Seattle, where she found another job, yes, tending bridges.

This interview will be archived at the Library of Congress. And it's featured in the latest StoryCorps book "Callings: The Purpose And Passion Of Work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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