Sunday, May 19, 2002

I am home. Exhausted. Send me some love

God bless that anonymous Toll Booth Operator. Without him, who knows where I would be right now?

Packing with Morgan was intense, and enhanced my sense of distraction. Consequences of my distraction expressed themselves even before I departed. I managed to pack all my clothes and forget to leave a shirt out for myself, leaving my barechested for my Providence-Manhattan commute. As I was backing out of the parking lot in front of my dorm, waving goodbye to Morgan, I almost took out the side of somebody's Lexus. So distracted I was that I failed to notice Morgan running down the street behind my car, trying to get my attention because I had accidently put her Brown ID card in my back pocket and taken it with me. Although you might not think that interstate highway driving is advisable for a distracted boy, the ride was quite enjoyable and suitable for my state of mind. 4 hours. 2 cities. 1 road. 95 south all the way. Nothing but time to mellow in my own distraction.
All's well for the first two and a half hours as I begin to feel the gravity of the city, and I am due to arrive at my brother's apartment an hour ahead of myself. Once more I allow my mind to roam in broad pastures, and when I turn my attention to the signs once more something seems to have changed. The signs seem sort of shaped differently, and none of the exit names look familiar. A highway marking tells me I am now on 695.
Now I am pretty confident I've stayed in the same lane, so I conclude that one of two things could have happened: 1. 95 could have turned into 695 in the proximity of Manhattan. Maybe I was still on 95 and it was just called something else. 2. There was a split furhter back, and although I stayed in the same lane, I had gotten off 95 and onto another highway.
Although I considered the latter scenario more likely, I had no idea what to do if scenario 2 was in fact true. I had no idea where such a supposed split might have been, how long I had taken it, or how I might get back on the right track if I had departed from it. So I decided to continue along the 695 and see where it took me.
After a couple of miles I see the sign "Last exit before toll." As I approach the toll and cars start slowing down, I roll down my window and shout over to drivers in adjacent lanes, asking them how I might get to the Upper West Side. The universal response to this question: uproarious laughter. Eventually, I get someone to explain to me that I was going the wrong way, and headed into the heart of Queens, and, if I played my cards right, maybe even into Long Island. Now I was still moving as I approached the toll, and so were the other cars, so I could not hold any one car in conversation long enough to get useful directions of any sort.
As I approach the toll booth, I realize I have only one chance. I was heading from one highway to another highway that lay on the other side of the toll, both equally unknown to me, surrounded by completely unknown exits, with no opportunity to stop securely, get my bearings, and ask directions. The one person who could save me in this desperate situation was, sitting in the booth ahead of me, and I knew with him my chances were slim at best.
For among the worst jobs in the world must be operating a toll booth. Such a terrible combination of monotany, vulnerability, vertigo and danger I would not wish upon my worst enemy. So who knows what kind of people end up working in toll booths: What have they been through? What kind of anger do they harbor to the world that put them in their booth? What reason do they have to help an overpriviledged and terribly lost boy?
As all this runs through my head, I am approaching the toll booth an realize I am still barechested--which, from a view outside of the car would basically look like I was driving around naked. Now as small asI considered my chances with whatever lunatic might be awaiting me in the toll booth, I knew my chances must be infinitely smaller if he thought I was a lunatic driving down an interstate highway naked.

So I reach back to try to find a back with a shirt in it, and realize that all my bags of clothing were packed in the trunk. In desperation I opened the duffle bag wedged behind me, spilling a couple of toiletry bags and several pairs of shoes into the front seat. Still searching, I find a towel, and something that feels like a towel, but -- AHA! --is actually my bathrobe. Just seconds from the toll booth, I throw on the blue terry cloth and brace myself.
Pulling into the booth, I take out a $20, hand it to the toll booth operator, look up at him in the eyes, and say in a semi-frantic voice:
"Sir, I am in a desperate situation and I really need your help!"
Now the toll booth operator takes the bill deliberately,
looks at it,
puts it in the cash register
takes out my change
looks at my change
hands it to me
looks me in the eye (me, now frantically sweating, now convinced that the man is a mute, or does not speak English, or is just going to tell me to move along)
and says to me in a clear, calm, almost serene voice
"I'm listening."
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I explain to him as quickly and coherently as I can that I am terribly terribly lost, and trying to get to 93rd and Broadway.
The man pauses a gain, and once more for that saturated second I am convinced that he has no answer for me, no directions to pass on to me, that I will be condemned to drive aimlessly around the tri-state area for the remainder of the evenning.
But after that pregnant moment the toll booth operator delivered. With precision and deliberate care. Directions from the booth to my brother's apartment. Step by step.
Much love extends from me to the man who, despite being spit upon by fortune, chose to save me, knowing full well that he owed me less than nothing, and that I would never have an opportunity to repay him.