Michael Catalano awoke at 4 a.m. Friday for his final shift as a Massachusetts Turnpike toll collector, putting on four layers to face a raw, rainy day.
But even in the waning hours of his 24-year career, Catalano was as chipper as ever, cheerfully calling drivers “boss” and “dear” as they handed him their $1.25. Some said they would miss him, and wished him well. Others just handed him the money, as he smiled and bid them goodbye.
“This is our home away from home,” he said, gesturing to a bare-bones tollbooth at the Allston-Brighton plaza, decorated with only a fan and an old RadioShack stereo.
As the state launched its all-electronic tolling system, Catalano and more than 470 of his fellow toll collectors worked their last day. The cash system was being phased out, and so were their jobs.
Some were given the chance to apply for other state jobs, such as plowing highways or driving a bus, but others had decided to retire or move on, leaving behind jobs that can pay as much as $80,000 a year with overtime.
At the Allston-Brighton plaza, three shifts of workers shuttled in and out of a dingy break room in their trailer, a temporary office that has been in place for nearly 15 years. Many lingered near the front office, not wanting to leave just yet.
On doors and the refrigerator, hastily made signs directed workers to farewell parties, called “End of Tolls.” The afternoon crowd would gather at Regina’s Pizzeria, the later shifts at a bar.
Victor Duran, a 36-year toll taker originally from Bolivia, smiled as he greeted Leah Phillips, a 10-year veteran on a short break.
“Don’t cry,” she joked, patting him on the back.
Toll collectors, they said with a knowing look, had seen it all. Ask any worker who has pulled an overnight shift the craziest thing they’ve ever seen, and many answers won’t be suitable for a family news publication.
“We see accidents, people having a heart attack,” Duran said.
“Someone having a baby,” Phillips offered. “You don’t think about those things, but you see a lot.”
Phillips, one of the relatively few female toll collectors, also had to deal with her share of harassing male drivers, particularly during the overnight shift. One told her he would pay her in kisses and started to get out of his car before driving away, a moment she still recalls with disgust.
Phillips said she wasn’t sure what she’ll do next. Some of her co-workers are retiring with pensions, but she is still searching for her next move.
One collector, who worked for the booths for five years, has applied for a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles in customer service, and on Friday got a call back. But it was hard not to feel nostalgic.
“I feel sad,” he said, taking a seat in the corner of the break room. “It was a good job.”
Workers described themselves as a family that bonded over the demands of the job, especially the grumpy drivers, and said they would miss that sense of fellowship.
And every now and again, a famous driver would come through, like singer Kenny Rogers or Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr, whom Catalano recalled as “a friendly guy.” Sometimes, it was a generous ice cream truck driver, who would stop in the lane and hand out frozen treats.
Friday was a bittersweet day, many said. Maybe more bitter than sweet. One longtime worker said he remembered when they came to work in a nice building, rather than a dilapidated trailer. But others were quick to note the job’s perks, particularly its solid pay and generous benefits.
Catalano readily admitted that his job could be seen as a “glorified cashier,” and said he was always grateful for the salary and the security it provided for his family.
Catalano said he had been bracing for his job to be eliminated since he started as a toll collector in the Sumner Tunnel, where he inhaled exhaust fumes for hours on end. Now that day had come.
Stanley Jue, of Newton, stopped by the plaza to take photographs in memory of his father, Sow G. Jue, a senior toll collector who worked on the turnpike for decades. A worker led him and his tiny digital camera through an underground tunnel from the break area to the tolls, where he snapped photos of the purple booth his father manned for years.
He remembered visiting the tolls as a teenager, how his father showed him to put his hand out, count the money, then put it in the register.
That’s what Catalano was doing Friday, when a woman in a red SUV asked him when the transition to all-electronic tolling would be complete.
“When are they doing that change to cashless?” she asked.
“Ten o’clock tonight,” said Catalano, handing her some change without a hint of bitterness. “If you don’t have E-ZPass, it’s ‘pay-by-plate,’ they’ll just bill you.”
“Well, I hope you guys are OK,” she said, before zipping off.