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July 30, 2007

"Summers In The Toll Booth"

One of my earliest exposures to transportation was a summer job in the industry. For three of my college years I spent my summers working as a toll collector for the NY State Thruway, both on the Tappan Zee Bridge and at the New Rochelle toll barrier. It wasn’t the sexiest of gigs, but the pay was good and I sure learned a lot about people on the road.

Like the elderly couple who came to my booth in Tarrytown asking “which exit is Niagara Falls?” Consulting my official NY Thruway Map (remember those?) I said, “That’s exit 50, sir.” Reassured they were heading in the right direction they then asked “Is that exit on the right or left?” I responded, “Bear right for 389 miles. You can’t miss it”

I had my share of celebrities while working at the Tappan Zee. One day an old jalopy pulled up and I immediately recognized the driver. “You’re Derwood Kirby!,” I said, recognizing the co-star from the old Gary Moore show. “Right,” he replied. But before I could ask for an autograph he asked, “Which exit for Nyack?” Gobsmacked by my brush with stardom I stuttered, “Exit 10”, and sent him on his way.

The Woodstock festival happened one of my summers in the booth. Of course, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up for the upstate event, especially the folks at the Thruway. But after the rock fest was well underway, the Thruway brass realized the mobs would eventually be heading home, clogging the bridge. Because the music was expected to end late on Sunday, many of us temp-collectors worked overtime into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Of course, the music didn’t end until Monday, meaning that the usual morning rush hour carried as many burned-out hippies as it did business commuters. I remember one station-wagon that pulled in to my lane, caked in mud up to the windows and stuffed with a dozen zonked-out kids. “Hey man,” said the driver with eyes that struggled to focus. “We don’t have any money” (to pay the 50 cent toll). “How about these instead?” That day, the Tappan Zee toll was an orange and a warm Coke.

Most days, life as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee was a delight, as I was usually assigned the outside lane, also known as “the country club” because of its green vistas and views of the mighty Hudson River. But then, as luck would have it, I was transferred to the night shift on the New Rochelle toll barrier.

Overnights on the New England Thruway (I-95) were dominated by trucks… hundreds of them. Most feared by all toll collectors was one vehicle that usually came through about 4 am… “The Chicken Truck”.

This flatbed truck was piled high with open chicken coops stuffed full of terrified live birds on their way to their demise at markets in New York City. Careening down the highway at top speed, the chicken truck left in its wake about a quarter mile of noxious effluent of chicken feathers and bird poop. So when the truck slowed to a stop to pay its toll, this cloud of noxious gas and seepage would continue into my lane.

As old-timer toll collectors would warn me, when “The Chicken Truck” chooses your lane, close your windows and door. Wait til the driver is ready with the toll money and open your door only wide enough to accept the cash, then seal yourself in the booth and don’t breathe!

Gee. And I thought the truck exhaust was bad!

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JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the organizations on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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