A Place to Stand
If you have ever gone through a toll booth, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth is not the most intimate you’ll ever have. It is one of life’s frequent non-encounters: You hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off. I have been through every one of the 17 toll booths on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge on thousands of occasions, and never had an exchange worth remembering with anybody.
Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the booths. I heard loud music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the toll booth. Inside it, the man was dancing.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m having a party,” he said.
“What about the rest of these people?” I looked over at other booths; nothing moving there.
“They’re not invited.”
I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: Find this guy again. There’s something in his eye that says there’s magic in his toll booth.
Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party.
Again I asked, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I remember you from the last time. I’m still dancing. I’m having the same party.”
I said, “Look. What about the rest of the people”
He said. “Stop. What do those look like to you?” He pointed down the row of toll booths.
“They look like tool booths.”
I said, “Okay, I give up. What do they look like to you?”
He said, “Vertical coffins.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can prove it. At 8:30 every morning, live people get in. Then they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they reemerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.”
I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. I could not help asking the next question: “Why is it different for you? You’re having a good time.”
He looked at me. “I knew you were going to ask that, ” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer someday.” He pointed to the administration building. “My bosses are in there, and they’re paying for my training.”
Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! He and I did have lunch later, and he said, “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.”