For some people it’s the call of the wild that draws them to find themselves or to seek refuge, for me in the summer of 1968 it was being a toll collector at the Atlantic Beach Bridge. You see my family’s house was not far from the beach, and my idea of a wonderful lazy summer, would be to lie peacefully on the beach in the early morning before the sun got too strong, and blissfully feel the cool salt air and watch some cute girl wearing almost nothing meandering slowly down the beach promenade.
The beach was my first runway. Women and girls strutted past me in an endless line of sunburned, beautiful bodies. Oh the joys of summer. But, my father would have none of this, and reluctantly I must admit, I agreed with him. Sloth is the mother of destruction, and it was time to get to work.
Slightly after Memorial Day weekend, I began my new summer job as a toll collector on the bridge. There were about twenty other college age boys, intermingled with the regulars. The bridge was the entryway to the beach and a few small communities. The summer was its high season, hence the temporary increase in collectors. We were called the lucky twenty.
One might think that this was a job from Hell, but in fact it was the most prized summer job available. It was a state job that paid far better than any other job, and for us boys (interestingly enough it was all boys at that time) it was a great fun job.
What could be better than to watch the girls in their convertibles, with their long suntanned legs driving slowly by to pay their quarter. I would sometimes pray that they needed change, cause then my eyes could linger longer on what was in the drivers seat. I, always full of nothing, would try to come up with something original to say to them, like “What’s your phone number?” or, “Are you available for dinner tonight?” You see I only had twenty seconds to get a lifetime of conversation out, so I had to distill my words down right to the heart of the matter. Even then they looked at me as if I were crazy, laughed and drove lazily away to the beach. Hope springs eternal that summer and you would be surprised at what one saw, simply being a few feet above the driver, and oh…those convertibles. But that is not the purpose of my ramblings. I have some other things to tell you about during that fateful summer of 1968.
The bridge operated on three shifts. There was an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. or the 12 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift, and we would rotate weekly from one shift to the next. If you preferred one shift, you could usually find someone to swap with.
Ironically on occasion, I sort of enjoyed the late night shift. It was usually dead quiet at 4 a.m. on a weekday evening. There was only one lane open in each direction and this usually gave me a chance to be alone to read and on occasion yell across the toll lanes to the one other person on duty. We would talk about life, girls, college, and funny stories about things we’d seen. All seemed in place and we were happy.
There was a story floating around the bridge by the old timers about how some years before a motorcycle gang had gone through the bridge very late at night and shot the toll collector for even trying to collect the tolls.
One weekday evening, deep into that long, lazy summer, with the Beach Boys playing quietly on my radio, I was the only one on duty, defending New York State’s ability to collect twenty-five cents from anyone who dared to cross these maginot lines. At first I heard this rumble and I thought it was the beginnings of a thunderstorm. Then it grew louder and more consistent, and as I looked out through my window, down the long dark vista of road that approached these booths, I saw them. It was a massive herd of motorcyclists, men in black tattooed (no one had tattoos that I knew in 1968) looking angry and mean.
Without one moments hesitation I opened the gate. Not that any of this angry mob of about fifty cyclists had any intention of stopping without even looking my way.
Over the call box I heard the Sargent who was inside on duty yelling at me to collect every last quarter that was due or they would remove that sum from my pay.
Over the huge roar of their engines, I was yelling back at him that if he wanted the money so badly to come out and collect it himself. There was no way I was stopping these guys and asking for quarters. A cute girl in a convertible was one thing, these guys were something else.
That summer at the toll bridge was full of all kinds of interesting stories. At some other time I will tell you more. Now as the summer of 2011 begins, I am looking once again over the horizon to find those peaceful, lazy summer days where the world seemed innocent and happy, and life had a rhythm that I could understand.