Monday, April 5, 2010

The Trials of the Toll

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.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, your post made me both glad and sorry I live in New York. An 80 cent toll seems laughably cheap to me. The toll over the George Washington Bridge is $8--but our EZPass is one of the few high-tech innovations that works perfectly. Tremendous convenience, no corruption, and no malfunction in the almost 20 years I've used it.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, there are many things that sound appealing to me about living in New York.

I'm sure part of my gripe with the toll system is just the idea of having to pay to drive down a road. It disagrees with my notion of freedom; I guess I wouldn't be very good at governing anything. :)

Julia Buckley said...

PS--I don't know if the George Washington toll is a one-time thing, but our tolls recur every twenty minutes or so. For our one hour trip, we go through three toll booths. So counting both ways, we're paying 5 dollars to drive to my parents' house. If we took a longer trip, our toll would be on a par with yours.

Also, there are different tollways in Illinois that charge more money--I'm only discussing the tri-state tollway, which is the one I regularly take.

Avery Aames said...

Julia, while I was in high school, I worked for my father who owned a quarry. Trucks came in and out of the quarry all day to pick up rock. I weighed the trucks. I was the nameless face at the window. Now, I was a cute little thing in high school, so my interaction with these truck drivers was probably a whole TON different than yours with the toll booth guys. I smiled. I learned their names. They invited me to drink lunch with them. Kid you not. I declined. But I am always, like you, always pleasant to toll both drivers. I love that you said it could be their meditation. How lovely would that be?!
Thanks for sharing and bringing back a tasty memory to me.
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

signlady217 said...

Reminds me of the scene in "Sabrina" (the remake with Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear) where Sabrina is talking to her dad and remembering him saying why he became a chauffeur: so that he would have plenty of time to read (while he was sitting around waiting for his employer). Nice observation!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, the $8 is just to cross the bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey. They only charge it one way, but that's plenty.

Julia Buckley said...

Avery, what an interesting job! And yes, I think a cute teen-aged girl would get a whole different set of responses. :)

Signlady, you are so right--it's all the way we look at the job.

And Liz, you're right too--paying once (and that much) is plenty!

Tracy H. said...

I travel I-355 (the tollway mentioned in the post) from Joliet to Schaumburg every day for work.

Of course, I wish it were an open freeway, but if I have to pay a toll, I'm grateful for I-PASS. It's so much better than stopping in a long line to pay the toll.

Jeri Westerson said...

Do they ever stop taking tolls once they start? Is that just one of those promises that is never fulfilled? It's like, "we'll lower the sales tax once X happens." I'm lucky. All freeways here in southern California, with some exceptions. There are a few tollways in Riverside County where I am, but I use my hubby's express pass thingy that sits on the dashboard and you avoid those toll gates all together.

By the way, thanks for the mention of my Redondo Beach panel. The mo'e Poe, the better.

Julia Buckley said...

I'm sure you're right, Tracy and Jeri, but I'm just so resistant to having them take that money out of my bank account that I wait in the line and clutch my archaic change. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

We've been fined TWICE on those same roads because they are difficult to navigate (figure out WHICH lane you are supposed to be in) so we took the wrong lane and once you are through you can't go back. I tried sending in the fee but navigating the website is equally difficult and apparently I sent to the wrong place. Sigh. I think our two former governors should have to WORK those toll booths every day instead of going to jail. Blago, are you listening???

Julia Buckley said...

I've been there, Lonnie! There's that moment of panic when you realize that even though you followed the signs, you are somehow in the wrong lane and headed AWAY from the tollbooths. Very frustrating; I don't like highway driving as a rule because of those split second decisions you have to make.