Reaching out takes its toll

May 03, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd

If you ever thought of writing something about highway toll collectors, such as a satirical piece that pokes gentle fun at the job, let me give you a piece of advice: Don't do it.

Take it from me: These people are very, very sensitive.

Oh, they might not look sensitive, sitting in their little toll booths, confidently taking your money or briskly cracking open a fresh roll of dimes or giving no-nonsense directions to someplace such as Walt's World of Reptiles ("Exit 29A, buddy, just follow the signs").

But they're very touchy, as I found out after writing a column about them last month.

Regular readers may recall that I said toll collectors must have the most pressure-free occupation in the world, since the job description basically reads:

1) Stick hand out booth.

2) Take money.

3) Repeat.

Therefore, I said, if you were a toll collector, about the only job stress you'd experience is if you dropped a roll of quarters on your toe, or if a gust of wind blew through the booth and hit the antenna on your little black-and-white TV and you couldn't watch "Viper" anymore.

Anyway, as with everything else that runs in this space, I thought it was an absolutely brilliant piece and one that, under the right circumstances -- say, after three or four cocktails -- could be considered a hoot.

Sure, there were a few flaws in the research.

For instance, I hadn't actually talked to any toll collectors, as none happened to be in the immediate vicinity of my desk when I wrote the piece.

But this was, I felt, a minor point, and one that certainly didn't detract from the muscular prose and biting wit.

Unfortunately, many toll collectors did not share the same lofty opinion of the column.

In fact, by my calculations, the number of toll collectors who agreed with me was . . . let's see, 32 times zero . . . zero.

Instead, I was quickly flooded with angry phone calls and letters from these people, with the gist of their remarks being: "This is a damn hard job, Mister, much harder than it looks. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair."

Then they proceeded to tell me stories that actually did curl my hair, stories about motorists who threw change at them, who cursed them, who tried to grab their watch, who even flung dirty diapers (can you imagine?!) at them.

I also heard about how hard the toll collectors themselves work and all their myriad responsibilities, such as keeping track of money, tickets, tokens, etc., all while taking money from motorists and giving change.

I even heard from a toll collector at New York's Triborough Bridge, one of the toll collectors I had branded the surliest in that earlier column.

This was an "Officer Andrews," which is not his real name. He turned out to be a pretty nice guy, although he scared me half to death, because his first words were: "I don't know whether you know it, but the toll collectors on the Triborough Bridge are police officers."

So I said: "Uh, no, I didn't know that."

So he said: "Well, they are."

At this point, there was a long pause in the conversation as I tried not to black out. Plus I was trying to recall what the criminal extradition laws were vis-a-vis Maryland and New York.

Finally I said (my voice was kind of squeaky at this point, way up high in the Alvin and the Chipmunks range): "So, um, you people carry guns, do you?"

No, I didn't really say that. As I said, Officer Andrews seemed like an OK guy and he indicated that, aside from the parts of the column he didn't like, which encompassed about 98 percent of the text, there were a couple of funny lines he did like.

He did not say which ones, and I didn't ask, preferring to hang up quickly before his mood changed and he had a warrant issued for my arrest.

Anyway, to all the angry toll collectors who called and wrote, let me say this: I had no idea, OK?

But that's not good enough for you people, is it?

Therefore, I plan to visit every single toll facility in the country and personally apologize to every man and woman I might have offended.

As you can imagine, this will take quite some time -- years and years, in fact.

Which means I will be out of the office during that period, which means you may as well stop with the nasty letters and phone calls, OK?

Just think how good it'll feel when some greasy-looking reporter shuffles up to you and sticks out his grimy hand and says: "Hey, I'm sorry."

I won't even grab your watch, either.

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