Toll and trouble on the highway

March 29, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd

On a recent car trip through five eastern states, it occurred to me that highway toll collectors have the most pressure-free occupation in the whole world.

Basically, the job description reads something like this:

1) Stick hand out booth.

2) Take money.

3) Repeat.

As far as minimal stress in the work environment is concerned, I don't see how you can beat that.

And let's face it, unless you're working the rush hour, chances are you have some time on your hands, which you can spend reading or watching your little 12-inch TV or fiddling with the space heater.

The only time you'd feel stress is maybe if you drop a roll of quarters on your toe, or if the wind shifts and you have to play with the TV antenna so as not to lose the reception for "Viper."

My guess is that when you're a toll collector, you don't bring the job home with you, either.

I can't imagine an off-duty toll collector knocking back two Advils the minute he walks in the door, then banging a fist on the kitchen counter and thinking: "That Ford Taurus with the Connecticut plates . . . I was really fumbling with the change."

Being a toll collector probably makes dinner table conversation easier, too.

Let's say someone in your family asks how your day went.

"Oh, fine, fine," is all you have to say. Because knowing what you do for a living, your family would have the good sense not to press for any additional details.

If anyone does ask you to elaborate -- and God knows why they would -- I guess you could tell them about that incident that occurred at mid-morning, how you dropped a roll of dimes and had to get off your stool to look for it, only it had rolled behind the space heater, so you had to unplug the space heater and then slide your thermos to the left so that you could reach the . . .

Well. By this point in the story, of course, everyone's eyes will have glazed over.

If you have small children, one may actually be dozing face down in the mashed potatoes.

Then when you finally finish your story and hit them with that zinger about how the roll of dimes had fallen behind a crumpled Doublemint wrapper, an awkward silence will descend around the table until at last your spouse clears his or her throat and says: "Montel Williams had an interesting show today . . ."

One possible down side to being a toll collector is that motorists are constantly asking you for directions.

They don't much care how busy you are, either.

You could be trying to make a dent in that Michael Crichton

novel when, sure enough, some goof in a Toyota 4x4 pulls up, flashes a dopey grin and says: "Hey, partner, how do I get to Big Dave's Dude Ranch?"

Now you have to quickly stab a finger at the page so you don't lose your place in the book. Then you sigh deeply and, in that standard-issue bored toll collector's voice, say: "Ten miles up, exit 13A, follow the signs."

Here again, though, the pressure is basically off.

Because even if you make a mistake -- let's say Big Dave's Dude Ranch is only eight miles up or it's really off Exit 13B -- who cares?

It's not like you'll ever see this guy again. It's not like he's going to be so steamed that he doubles back and pays the toll again, just so he can lunge at you with a tire iron.

Even if he was psycho enough to come back, you'd see him in plenty of time to hit the "This Lane Closed!" light and drop to the floor of the tollbooth.

No, about the only serious drawback to the job that I can see is that toll collectors are increasingly being targeted for robberies.

Maybe that explains why the surliest toll takers we encountered on our trip were at New York's Triborough Bridge, the dreary, rusting span that traverses the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.

As your car approaches the grimy toll booths there, the collectors eye you warily, waiting for the inevitable sawed-off shotgun to appear and a muffled command to hand over the money drawer.

But once they determine that you're not out to rob and kill them, it's safe for them to be nasty again and say things like: "Hey, take your time, pal. I got nothing better to do than watch you fish money out of your pocket."

I don't know what it is, whether everybody's space heater kicks out at the same time or the TV reception is bad or what.

But those people are always in a foul mood.

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