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    Opinion | Roland Merullo

    The phantom toll collector

    OPS photo by john landers june 21 1962 sumner rush hour at the east boston toll booth and there are no traffic tie ups to be seen.
    OPS photo by john landers
    Summer rush hour at the East Boston toll booth on June 21, 1962.

    The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority announced recently that its tollbooths would be replaced by electronic license plate readers. E-ZPass holders won’t notice much of a difference — a bit less disruption to the trip — but those motorists accustomed to actually handing money to a human being will have their plates scanned by high-speed overhead cameras and receive a bill in the mail.

    The news bothered me, not because I stop to pay cash at Allston or Springfield, but because I used to be one of those guys standing in the little booth. Between my junior and senior years in college, my father got me a job collecting tolls at the Sumner and Callahan tunnels. If I remember right, the pay was $4.80 an hour, triple the minimum wage in those days. But even for someone who’d built swimming pools and scraped slop off food trays, the work wasn’t easy.

    Anyone who deals with the public knows there’s a particular weight to engaging humanity in all its various manifestations. Workers for the Registry of Motor Vehicles are often maligned for being cranky, but try dealing, day after day, with some of the personalities that fan across the human spectrum, and see what happens to your sunny nature.

    One of the difficult aspects of the job was the way it twisted ordinary interaction. For most drivers, you might as well have been a machine: in goes the dollar, out comes the 75 cents change. Multiplied by 10,000 in a given month, this perversion of human encounter could wear on you. These were pre-GPS days, though, and every so often someone would ask directions to Logan, Revere Beach, or Mass. General, and you’d enjoy a few seconds of conversation.

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    On a regular alternating basis, collectors took a shift “inside.’’ You’d go along the catwalk, sucking carbon monoxide, and take refuge in the glass booth, mid-tunnel. There you’d sit for a stultifying hour, ready to report an accident or emergency.

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    Other breaks in the monotony were created by the . . . what’s the nice word? . . . eccentrics. One sweaty afternoon, a cabbie paid, then hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Look at the crazies I get, will ya,” he said, and in the back seat was a couple, clad as they were at birth, involved in the act that sometimes leads to birth. Another time, a dark sedan pulled up to my booth, two hard-looking characters in front. The driver turned to his passenger and pointed to me, “This the guy?” he asked. The passenger leaned forward, eyed me for a few seconds, shook his head and off they went.

    For the most part, though, the days were a blur of greasy bills and slippery quarters, a parade of expressionless faces.

    That summer the collectors organized a softball team. We played half a dozen games, one of them against inmates on a field near the Deer Island jail. These were quiet guys, well behaved, doing time for marijuana possession or child support arrears, and, for them, the game broke up a different kind of monotony.

    One of my softball teammates fixed me up with his beautiful East Boston cousin, and then, as September approached, offered another kind of favor. “Ro,” he said, “why don’t you try to get on full-time when you’re done with college? I could put in a word for you.”

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    He was offering me what mattered so much to him: the guarantee of a job. For life, if he didn’t screw up too badly. Now, though, like so many other guarantees of that sort, this one has disappeared. Cameras instead of humans. Automated phone machines instead of live operators. Intelligent gas pumps instead of attendants. Self-checkout at the supermarket.

    And so the gleaming vehicle of progress speeds on, faster and faster, no time to stop for a chat, or even to ask directions.

    Roland Merullo, a Revere native, is the author of twelve novels and six works of nonfiction.