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September 05, 2017

"Getting There" Summers in the Toll Booth

In a matter of days the first part of the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge will be opened to traffic.  But already demolished is the site of my favorite summer job.

For three of my college years (in the 1960’s) I worked as a summer-time toll collector for the NY State Thruway, both on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and later,  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.”

The Woodstock festival happened during 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 festival was well underway, the Thruway “authorities” 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 then 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.  The job wasn’t very demanding and gave me plenty of time to listen to the radio, my eventual career path.  But then, as fate 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 heading to the Hunts Point Market 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 a plume of noxious effluent of chicken feathers and bird poop.  So when the truck slowed to a stop to pay its toll, this cloud of 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 until 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!

Today, with E-ZPass, “The Chicken Truck” doesn’t even slow down and toll collectors can all breathe easier.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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