by Julia Buckley
My spring break this week involved traveling on the much-maligned, ever controversial Illinois tollway. This tollway is notorious not only for its link to the corruption scandals of two contiguous Illinois governors, but for its very existence. Its original purpose was to raise the money for highway construction projects, but somehow after the construction was finished, none of the four tollways in Illinois became freeways.
According to Wikipedia, "By 1999, Governor George Ryan began to publicly discuss the closure of the ISTHA and the abolition of toll collection in Illinois, but the plans were eclipsed by Ryan's increasing scandals. After Ryan declined to run for re-election and his successor, Governor Rod Blagojevich, had been elected (but had not yet taken office), the ISTHA board publicly suggested a sudden hike in toll rates that the new Governor could simply blame on his outgoing predecessor. The previous adjustment to Illinois toll rates had taken place in 1983."
Our toll rates were raised, in fact, from 40 cents to 80 cents, which we currently pay at each toll booth. We could avoid this hike if we chose to get an I-Pass, which involves buying a monthly pass that is scanned when one drives under the I-Pass cameras. I have resisted this partly out of perversity and partly because of the stories I've heard from people whose I-Pass has been mis-read or mis-charged, so they are charged, say, ten times instead of one. These errors, like any errors wrapped in bureaucratic red tape, take a long time to correct.
We take the tollway, though, because it's a nice direct route to some of the locations we frequent.
My reflections on this trip were on the tollway attendants themselves. From one perspective, this career could be seen as an existential misery. One is in a box, assaulted by endless streams of humanity but condemned to avoid interaction, because this of course would slow the line. Therefore one must take and give money without any added meaning, and one must find a way to pass the time in between cars.
Some toll attendants obviously view their jobs in this way, and their faces, when they turn them to me to take my eighty cents, are bleak, sometimes even unfriendly. Often they refuse to speak to me when money changes hands, despite the fact that I am ALWAYS, ALWAYS friendly to the toll people as a matter of principle. Some of the attendants will not look me in the eye--it almost seems a passive aggressive way of suggesting that they have control over at least one aspect of their jobs. However, this brings out the above-mentioned perversity in me, and I won't hand over the money until they make eye contact. Sometimes this delays the line. :)
There are other, rarer toll attendants who prove the theory that Albert Camus' espoused in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." His suggestion is that anyone, even Sisyphus (who was condemned to push the same rock up the same mountain for an eternity in the Underworld), can find happiness in his fate if he simply embraces it, takes ownership of it.
These rare tollway people are always smiling. Their box is not their prison but their place of meditation; they are often playing music and singing. They treat you to a vibrant smile and they will exchange words of greeting. They are evidence of the idea that one meaningful human interaction can have an impact on both parties. I leave these people smiling, my mood elevated by their positivity.
Sartre suggested that "hell is other people." Some tollway attendants may as well have this engraved on a plaque above the door of their cash stations.
But the happy attendants are the ones worth seeing.
When I leave the stream of traffic and pull into the orderly lines at the toll authority, my eighty cents clutched in my hand, I never know who I will encounter in that little room. We remain nameless to one another, yet our meeting can make or break my mood as I enter the flow of traffic once again.
I wondered, on this trip, if there is a job more paradoxical than that of the tollway attendant: entirely isolated despite interacting with thousands of people a day.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010, 7 pm--Redondo Beach Library. Sisters in Crime LA, and the Redondo Beach Public Library will present the mystery panel "Pondering Poe," a reflection on the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on detective fiction and modern mystery writers. The panel will be the kick-off event for the library's "The Big Read - A Month of POEtry" heralding upcoming National Library Week (April 11 thru the 17th). Panelist include Macavity and Shamus nominated author Jeri Westerson; Leslie Klinger, one of the world's foremost authorities on Sherlock Holmes and Dracula; best selling and award-winning author Robert Levinson; and moderated by Michael Mallory, Derringer winner.
Redondo Beach Public Library, 303 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, CA 90277. For any questions concerning this event contact: Kimberly Bishop Redondo Beach Public Library (310) 318-0676 X 2573.