For Whom the Hell Tolls

What's it take to get a tollbooth attendant to crack? We wish we knew.

Some months ago, on a hot winter afternoon, I found myself crawling toward the westbound tollbooth on the Venetian Causeway. The bridge was raised; the only thing moving in the dull orange light was a line of boats up ahead. Bored and hung over, I began fishing around under the driver's seat and came up with an unused can of shaving cream that had fallen out of a grocery bag long ago.

Whatever the reason, I began pasting it all over my face. By the time I made it to the booth, my features were buried in white foam. I handed the attendant a dollar, and he raised the mechanical arm.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he replied, without so much as a flinch.

As the cream began evaporating from my mug, I wondered at all the horrifying things the Venetian's tollbooth operator might have seen: drugs, sex, perhaps violence? Lording over the favorite South Beach-bound artery of every local oddball and degenerate in Miami-Dade County would doubtlessly harden a fella. But just how much weirdness could a toll collector take before cracking up?

Wednesday, July 11, proved a slow day at the office — the kind of day that would push a reporter to drive to a crooked botanica and buy a sickly chicken for $12. The lady behind the counter — whose arms were covered with scratches — taped the bird's legs together and stuffed it into a brown grocery bag. It gurgled and shat all the way to the causeway.

On the first pass, heading east, the chicken was seated next to me, still wearing its Scotch tape shackles; the toll booth attendant looked at us with relative disinterest. "Now where did I put that dollar?" I asked, fumbling with the bird. The charade elicited no response.

On the second pass, I freed the chicken from its bonds. As we came to a stop at the booth, my passenger stood up in a defensive position — beak open, wings cocked. Like his counterpart, the westbound attendant didn't take notice.

"May I have a receipt, please?" I asked. Gesturing to the bird, I added, "For my friend here."

The attendant poked his head around and regarded the chicken, which coughed menacingly.

"A receipt?" he replied. "Certainly."

And that was it.

Twenty minutes later, I arrived smoking five menthol cigarettes. They were manufactured in the Philippines, cost two dollars a pack, and smelled awful. The attendant did not seem to mind.

I thanked him for the receipt. "You're very welcome, sir," he boomed.

Around five minutes later, westbound again, I arrived eating a lemon meringue pie without utensils. I drove with my knees. Cheap yellow filling and cheaper imitation whipped cream dribbled from my right hand and beard. I stopped the car directly in front of the attendant, filled my mouth with a gob of the tart goo, and rested the pie on my lap. I handed him a dollar, with my clean hand.

"May I have a receipt?" I gargled through the gelatinous swill.

"Yeah," he answered, with a tinge of contempt.

He handed forward the receipt, and that was all.

About a half-hour later, I zeroed in on the same booth. This time a five-pound black grouper head (about the size of a football) rotted on my windshield, clutching a wiper blade in its toothy mouth. As I pulled up, the stone-faced attendant was shouting across the lane to one of his colleagues.

"My wife...," he began in a jovial tone, and then he saw the fish head.

He glanced at the macabre ornament and then looked back at me. He silently handed me a receipt. He raised the mechanical arm and let me drive on as if the giant disembodied head were just a restaurant flyer I had neglected to remove.

There were other ideas: filling a metal trashcan full of firecrackers and setting them off; having a friend, naked and gagged, pop out of the trunk and run around like Woody Woodpecker. Most were overruled for fear of being shot.

Approached later for comment, the tollbooth operators refused to speak or be identified by name. "There are cameras everywhere," said an elderly man with frightened blue eyes. "There are many strange people, but we are not permitted to talk about such things."

In the end I decided to call the causeway and ask for "the boss." I was connected to a man who also refused to identify himself. "We're talking about the Venetian Causeway here," he rasped. "People come through all the time and try many ways to shock toll collectors. It could be anything from nudity to abusive behavior. We've seen it all."

He scoffed at my lame shenanigans and seemed pleased I had failed to make anyone crack. "Yeah, good," he said.

The public information officer at the Miami-Dade County Public Works Department, Delfin Molins, was a bit more reticent. "Clearly," he began delicately, "you have to take these kinds of things with a salt of grain ... er, a grain of salt." Molins apologized; he was driving.

On Thursday, August 9, at 4:35 p.m., my Corolla came rumbling over the horizon of the causeway. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries — the music that accompanies the napalming mission in Apocalypse Now — blared at full volume from the open windows. A small stack of dinner plates and a large claw hammer sat at my side. When I pulled up to the attendant, I waved a dollar bill in time with the ear-splitting German music and smashed the pile of plates into smithereens. White porcelain chips flew out of the car, striking the wall of the tollbooth.

"May I please have a receipt?" I hollered.

The little gray-haired man sitting inside the booth regarded me with a mixture of pity and boredom. He handed me the receipt.

"Thank you!" I said. What else was there to say?

Molins later explained, via e-mail, that toll collectors receive training in cultivated indifference, and that they make more money than I do (more than $15 an hour at night). According to Molins, the weirdest thing that ever happened to Venetian toll collectors occurred during a police chase that ended with a stolen truck "upside down in front of the tollbooth." The truck burst into flames, Molins said, and burned down a pair of booths. He failed to mention how the toll attendants reacted. I imagine they just sat there, like bored geometry students, while firefighters blasted them with powerful hoses.

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