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August 14, 2009

Woodstock on The Tappan Zee

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the grand-daddy of all rock festivals… Woodstock. I was in my teens the summer of 1969, but couldn’t get off from my job to join the swarms of rock fans. But I did see most of them.

My job that summer was as a “temp seasonal” toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge, joining Westchester and Rockland counties across the mighty Hudson River.

There were two things I learned in that job: how to roll quarters and how to listen to the radio. The tiny booths lacked air conditioning, but I could bring a fan or a radio. My portable FM entertained me eight hours a day as I listened to both the music and the FM DJ’s… a job I eventually earned at WLIR after college graduation.

The FM stations were buzzing about Woodstock for weeks, and that Friday and much of Saturday, every kid in the tri-state area was heading for Yasgur’s Farm. Most weekends were pretty crazy in that job, because in those days tolls were collected in both directions… fifty cents north-bound and fifty cents coming home. (Today the toll is $5 roundtrip).

Busy as it was on summer weekends on that bridge, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up heading to Woodstock, especially not 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.

Late into the night we had five lanes open southbound, most of us enjoying some handsome overtime. But traffic was so light, they sent us home by about 1 am. I was due back in the booth five hours later.

Of course, the music didn’t end until early 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.

That far outside lane was also the site of experiments pre-dating the EZPass system, and I was a witness to many failed attempts at automating toll collection.

One such experiment involved fastening special permit plates to the underside of trucks, then running them through my toll lane at 30+ mph while an automatic camera mounted in the road snapped pictures of their permits. The system didn’t work.

After being transferred to the New Rochelle toll barrier on the New England Thruway, I learned about the “exact change” lanes. As folks threw their change into the basket, the coins went into a machine with rotating discs and holes the size of nickels, dimes and quarters. As the coins fell though the holes, their value was totaled and the driver could pull away.

What I didn’t know was the people threw more than coins into those baskets.

One day, while inside the booth removing change buckets, I heard a car stop in the lane outside followed by an ominous thump. Not the clinking of change, but a thump.

Imagine my horror as I watched an entire orange work its way down the change chute, hitting the rotating discs like a food processor, spewing orange juice and peel everywhere over the machinery, the buckets of coins and me.

Oh, for those days in “the country club lane” back on the Tappan Zee!

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