Pack the kids: We're off to an E-Z Pass lane

June 20, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

IT'S SUMMER, the highways are clogged with vacationers and I've got my usual case of E-Z Pass Envy.

Oh, if you're a loser like me, maybe you know how this goes.

Let's say you're on I-95 or the Jersey Turnpike or the Pennsylvania Turnpike or any of the other hellish toll roads that make travel up and down the East Coast a nightmare.

Suddenly, traffic grinds to a halt as you approach a toll plaza.

Up ahead, ridiculously long lines of cars snake alongside each tollbooth as far as the eye can see.

It's boiling hot. Great clouds of exhaust fumes choke the air.

Grown men pound fat fists into steering wheels in frustration.

Women dab balled-up Kleenex on their steamy foreheads and mutter : "We should have left earlier."

Children cry. Babies wail.

Panting dogs keel over in the back seat.

It's chaos.

It's the barbarians at the gates of Rome.

It's the fall of Saigon, only without the choppers lifting off every five minutes.

Everywhere you look, there is only gloom and misery and despair.

Well, everywhere except ... one place.

Because if you glance all the way to the left of the toll plaza, you'll see a remarkable sight.

What you'll see is a wide expanse of cool, gleaming macadam that is not traffic-choked.

This, of course, is E-Z Pass Heaven.

Here, you can almost hear harps play and angels sing.

Here, across three or four or five lanes, traffic flows smoothly.

Here, cars barely slow as they approach the toll booths, their little electronic tags sending out a cheery invisible affirmation that the toll is paid, that nothing so crass as money being pressed into the sweaty palms of toll-takers will take place.

Here, drivers are calm, adult passengers are relaxed, children are happy.

God, I hate those people.

I hate their smug looks -- even their dogs look smug.

I hate their Zen-like assurance that nothing so mundane as a toll plaza backup will alter their ETAs, and that if their MapQuest directions say they should arrive at their destination in approximately 4 hours and 40 minutes, then by God, that's how long their trip will take.

I hate their ... OK, I take it all that back.

I don't really hate those people.

Hate is such an ugly word, isn't it?

But, boy, I envy them.

I envy them because the E-Z Pass lanes are just another sign of the widening caste system of travel in this country, and those of us on the bottom must always envy those on the top.

Me, I watch these E-Z Passers roar through toll plazas and feel all sorts of insecurities well up inside.

I feel like the guy in coach on a long flight, sipping a warm Diet Coke and gobbling a few peanuts while up in first class, they're sipping champagne and nibbling on shrimp the size of horseshoes.

I feel like the guy in the outfield seats at Camden Yards, gazing up at the swells bellying up to the buffet table and well-stocked bar in their luxury skyboxes while he munches on a $2 bag of pistachios brought in from the outside.

This is what E-Z Pass Envy can do to a person.

It can sap your spirit.

It can rot your soul.

Or something like that, anyway.

Oh, sure, sometimes I think about getting my own E-Z Pass.

Sometimes I think: Man, that could be you, hurtling past all the little people stuck in those long toll lines, fumbling with their grimy bills and their lint-flecked change as they breathe in the stinking fumes of a thousand exhaust pipes.

That could be you, disdainfully roaring past a thousand brake lights and nudging the person next to you and saying: "Look at those poor saps ... when will they learn?"

But then I think: No, that wouldn't be right.

No, those poor saps stuck in those long backups waiting to pay the toll -- those are my people.

I won't turn my back on them.

I won't abandon them just because there's this cutting-edge technology out there that could make my highway travel so much smoother and easier.

Unless ... I start to travel more and it makes sense to buy an E-Z Pass.

And they make the whole application form easier to fill out.

Then you little people in those cash lanes -- you're on your own.

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