Personal Stories of America at Work
What It’s Like to Work on the Top of the Golden Gate Bridge
Cuban immigrant Reynaldo Charles watches all walks of life while looking after a national icon
Seeing the whole spectrum of life
You can’t write a story of San Francisco without saying something about the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been a painter on the bridge for eight to nine years. I didn’t plan it—it was luck that I ended up there. Some people say they work on the bridge, but they work in the office or something. I really work on the bridge. When people find out where I work, they say, “You work on the bridge?! You climb way up there?” You can see the excitement on their faces.
When you’re going to work 700 feet in the air, you see everything. Sometimes you see people at their happiest moments—proposing marriage or in a wedding dress getting married and having pictures taken. (I was actually planning to propose to my wife on the top of the tower, but then she told me she didn’t like heights, so I realized that plan wasn’t going to work.) But twenty feet further down, you notice somebody else scattering ashes over the side. And further on, you catch sight of someone who wants to jump. You see all that—the whole spectrum of life on the Bridge.
I’ve seen a few jumpers, and I don’t ever want to look at that kind of scene again. The memory sticks with you the rest of your life. Every time I hear someone say there’s a jumper, I get the picture in my head of the last guy I saw. You don’t want to take that home with you. At first you’re curious, and you can’t help but look, but I don’t want to see that anymore. After you’ve been working on the bridge, you recognize people who are thinking about jumping—they keep looking over the side and looking around. If we see someone suspicious, we radio the sergeant, and he comes out to talk to the person.
I also see a lot of famous people because everyone who comes to San Francisco from all over the world wants to see the bridge. I’m like an ambassador. I take people’s pictures all the time. By now, I’ve become an expert photographer.
I remember when Woody Harrelson, the actor, climbed the bridge and put a banner up. I was a lane worker at the time. I’ve forgotten what the banner was about, but I do remember that it messed up traffic. One morning I came to work and a Volkswagen Bug was hanging from the bridge. Some engineering students had tied it up somehow and flipped it over. A month or two ago, there was a homeless man who went up on the main cable (I don’t know how he got up there because it’s barricaded). He walked up that main cable like nothing, with no harness and no shoes. That was amazing! I remember the first time I went up there how terrified I was! We were saying, “Someone should give that guy a job!”
My world was upside down
I’m originally from Cuba. I came to San Francisco when I was sixteen. My father had come earlier in the 1980 Cuban boatlift. He literally tied himself to the boat to make sure he wouldn’t fall off. Back in Cuba, he used to work as a fumigator on the big ships that brought goods to the island. Over here, my dad worked the graveyard shift in a warehouse, moving boxes and stuff. Four years later, he brought my mom, my brother, and me. It had been tough growing up in Cuba, so I thank my dad every day that he wanted something better for his family.
When I came, I felt like my world was upside down. I didn’t know a single word of English. It was tough coming in the middle of high school, but it forced me to learn the language quickly, and it was better than living in Cuba. When I graduated from school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My neighbor worked on cars all the time. I used to go over there to help out and started to think about being a mechanic. I went through a program at the local community college. After I graduated, I decided I really wanted to work on airplanes, so I enrolled in a four-year aviation mechanic program. I also worked as a clerk at night while I was going to aeronautics school. I was making $7.50 an hour and living at home. I worked from 4:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., or later. Then I went to school in the morning around 7:00 a.m. I was single, so the long hours were OK.
People stay until they retire
When I graduated, the airlines were having a hiring freeze. My friend heard that they were hiring lane workers at the Golden Gate Bridge—people who move the orange cones on the bridge to change the lanes of traffic. I applied, took a test, and came in second. The other guy was hired instead. Eventually they called me when they needed someone else. At that point, I was a little older and worried that I was going to be a bum pretty soon, so I was glad to be given a chance at the bridge.
I started in 1996 and was a lane changer for about a year. Someone once told me that if you have a job where people stay until they retire, you know it’s a good place to be. People stay working on the Golden Gate Bridge for a long time. It’s like a big family. So I stuck around. Management gave me a chance to move through the ranks, digging holes, laying pavement, and painting. I started a painter apprenticeship, learning how to blast, rig for safety, and how to paint from the painters. When I transferred from ground labor into paint labor, the first thing they did was take me up to the tower, rig me up, and make me walk down the cables. Some people just freeze up there—they’re scared and can’t perform. So they have to check to make sure you can actually do the job up there. I’m from Cuba—I’ve never been that high in my life! I looked down and the cars looked tiny. I’m not going to lie; at first I was really scared. Now I’m not scared, but I do respect the potential danger. You don’t want to lose that fear entirely because that fear keeps you alive.
A common misconception
A lot of people have the misconception that we start at one end of the bridge and paint the whole thing and then start over. But that’s not how it works. We don’t have the manpower to keep painting from one end to the other. The bridge is not run by the state; it’s run by a public agency that consists of the seven counties that originally paid to build the bridge. Every two years there is a structural inspection. Based on the results of the inspection, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District decides which areas on the bridge are the worst, and that’s what we target.
The bridge is over salt water, so we constantly race against time because the bridge is always rusting. We only have thirty-some painters who work five days a week from 7:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. We work with the ironworkers, sandblasting the rust and then applying a paint system with three to four layers to protect the bridge. We collect all the sand so that it doesn’t fall into the bay. We actually vacuum it up and recycle the sand. I’ve heard they use the sandblasted material in roadways.
The color of the bridge is International Orange. There are stories that when the bridge was being built, the U.S. Navy planned to paint the bridge black with yellow stripes. So painting orange every day isn’t that bad when you hear that!
Painting the bridge is not a really stressful job. Not compared to someone working in an office. I haven’t heard of anyone getting hurt maintaining the bridge. Eleven people died building it, but not working on it since then. The biggest challenge is worrying about our safety. After 9/11, bridge security changed a lot. Immediately afterwards, there were armed guards on the bridge and Humvees parked at the north end. I’d go to work and hear that the bridge was one of the possible terrorist targets. That can make you scared, but then again, what are you going to say—that you’re not going to work that day?
It’s the one and only
I like being one of the guys who paints the Golden Gate Bridge, and I think it’s cool that I’m part of it. I’ve never worked on the Bay Bridge, but a lot of my coworkers have. No matter what they do with the Bay Bridge though, it will never rival the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the one and only.
Mostly I love my job. It really is like working with my family. You’ve got to trust each other with your life. When you’re working together in the elements, it’s cold and windy. You’re going through the same thing together. You’re cold, and I’m cold, too—it makes us close. The job is not a big deal, but for some reason I just love it. I’m not a CEO or a chairman of a company, but coming all the way from where I started in Cuba, I could never have imagined all this.
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