Toll taker wannabe waiting for call
I’m emotionally spent. The past two weeks have taken their toll.
I’ve spent them wondering if I’ll ever get to don the garb of a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission employee, an experience I was certain soon could be scratched off my bucket list.
Turnpike Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier recently challenged me not to walk a mile in a toll collector’s shoes — the vocation doesn’t require much walking — but to stand for a few hours in one of their 4- by 6-foot tollbooths.
The invitation came in an Oct. 26 letter to the editor in which Brimmeier accused me of using a recent column to take a cheap shot at his change-making minions.
While he did not reveal the specific source of his ire, I suspect it was a paragraph that noted most toll collectors at the infamous patronage factory possess a unique skill set. They usually are a friend or relative of a state legislator, and they can distinguish between nickels, dimes and quarters.
Brimmeier might have considered that characterization the cheap shot, although nowhere in his letter did he say it was inaccurate.
What he did say was this: “I invite Mr. Heyl to work just one shift in a tollbooth … the experience will change (his) perception. If I’m wrong, the Trib will have material for another column. If I’m right, perhaps the next laugh might come at Mr. Heyl’s expense.”
I wondered if Brimmeier was correct. I wondered if I sat in that booth whether I would share his obvious belief that toll collecting is as noble a profession as, say, disaster relief work or cancer cure research.
So I e-mailed Carl DeFebo, the turnpike’s media relations manager in Harrisburg, to inquire about setting up some time in the tollbooth and pose a few other questions.
“Will I get to wear a turnpike vest?” I asked. “Will I be able to finish the shift if I lose my temper and slug a motorist?”
(That last query was in reference to a federal lawsuit filed against the commission last year by Don Kovac, the agency’s former labor relations manager. Kovac alleges he was terminated after refusing to reinstate a politically connected toll collector fired for assaulting a motorist.)
When DeFebo didn’t respond, I went straight to the big kahuna and e-mailed Brimmeier. When he ignored my message, I went back to bothering DeFebo.
The gist of his message when he finally got back to me was this: Yes, I could work in a tollbooth. Yes, I would be provided a vest. No, I couldn’t punch anyone (apparently you have to belong to the union to be afforded that privilege).
DeFebo said he would check with the agency’s fare collection department to find out how it wanted to proceed. A week later, I haven’t heard another word from him.
This was Brimmeier’s idea, so the foot-dragging is puzzling. It’s almost as though he is concerned about setting a dangerous precedent by having a tollbooth occupied even for a few hours by someone who wasn’t first recommended by a state lawmaker.
These past few weeks have taken their toll. When will I get to take a motorist’s toll?
Only the Turnpike Commission teases know for sure.