A Toll Tale

I guess I'm just basically pissed off. All around me I see pretty people with electronic devices in their laps, on their belts, attached to their wrists, stuck in their ears. They're so focused on the things going on inside those high tech gadgets that they fail to see the pain of the person sitting squeezed in next to them on the bus. Sometimes that person is me, tired after a long day in a toll booth, taking money from assholes driving overpriced toys that take enough gasoline to support an entire OPEC nation. The little prematurely balding guy in the huge SUV with the custom extra-huge, extra-knobby tires doesn't even deign to give me a nod. Just shoves money in my hand and roars off, leaving a choking trail of burned diesel fuel to mark his presence. Barbaric ass that he is, it's like he thinks he's somehow more advanced on the evolutionary scale because a family of five could live comfortably in the shadow of his off-road vehicle that's never left the pavement.

Then there are the little bimbettes that travel in packs and think that I'll let them through the toll gate for free if they flash me some perky flesh. Hell, I've seen enough pink-skinned college girls' breasts to publish my own soft porn magazine if I could figure out a way to download the images from my memory to glossy photo paper. I've never let one of them through for free, though. I pride myself on acting like I don't see a thing. One time about twenty-five, thirty years ago when me and my wife first moved to the Bay area so I could go to UCSF, but instead started this "career" of mine-early seventies I'd guess-this VW van full of little hippie chicks drives up. They were smokin' a doob and carrying on like they'd never been outta Kansas. "Hey, mister," they said. "We're kinda short on cash. Any way you could let us through for free?" Well, I told 'em they'd need to pay like everyone else, but they kept arguing and offered me a hit off their soggy roach. The little skinny blonde that was driving the van turned and said something to her lovebead-draped sisters that made them giggle like mad. Next thing I knew, there were six pair of sun kissed nipples up against the van's windows. The boys in the Mustang behind them went nuts, but I just held out my hand and asked them one more time for the toll as if this happened every day. Tell the truth, I'd already been married four or five years and those were the first breasts I'd seen in that whole time. But that's another story.

Worse than anything that's ever happened to me in the booth, though, is the way people pretend you don't even exist when you're on the bus with them. After a long day of breathing everyone else's tail pipe smoke, listening to the complaints about the toll being raised, having my heartbeat changed by the pounding bass of these punk-ass kids' stereos, and getting my butt chewed by my boss for taking two minutes too long in the bathroom, the last thing I need is to be reminded that if I wasn't alive, no one but my wife and her ugly freakin' crazy mother who practically lives on our living room couch would even know I was missing. My boss would replace me in twenty minutes with someone younger, faster, cheaper-less experienced, of course-with a "more team oriented attitude," who'd be happy to suck up to him and listen to his stupid ass stories about hiking in Yosemite. When some lady slides in next to me, smelling of cheap perfume and vodka, pushing her cushiony ass up against me so she can get her string shopping bag on the seat next to her-a carton of cigarettes, a box of Fruit Loops, and some cans of tuna falling out and rolling down the aisle-who's she to pretend she doesn't know I'm there? She's practically crawled up on my lap. The least she could do is give me a smile. Not like I'm going to molest her because she's treating me like a human being instead of like I'm a freakin' street sign put there just to lean her ass up against.

But let me tell you, it burns me up even more when I see it happening to someone else. Other day, I'm half asleep on the bus three or four stops from home and this young man's struggling to get up the stairs. He's using one of those metal crutches and carrying a backpack and some books and foreign newspapers in a plastic bag from that news stand right over there. I see about seventeen pairs of eyes look away while he bangs his shin on the bottom stair, drops the bag in the street, and bends to pick it up. I go out to help him pick up his books and try to fish a paper out from under the bus. "Thanks," he says to me in a guttural, kinda slurry voice, like maybe he's had a head injury or something. I just tell him no sweat and wait for him to climb up in front of me. Something about him seems to embarrass everyone else on the bus. They're all looking in every direction except at him. Well, except for the driver who's sighing impatiently while he digs the money for his fare out of his pocket. When he sits down, I see that the hand that holds the crutch has a slight tremor and one foot turns in limply. I hand him his bag and he smiles gratefully. I wonder about how hard it must be to do this bus gig every day when you move slower than most people under the age of ninety and no one wants to admit you're different or even alive. Then I realize, he's the only one who seems to know I'm alive, too, and I think maybe he's luckier in some ways than all the others.

About the author:

Bridget Cowles holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis from Dominican University in San Rafael. At graduation, she received the annual award for academic excellence and significant contributions to college writing and publication---although most of her work was considered "too controversial or too disturbing" for the college lit journal. Bridget's work was recently accepted for print publication by Liquid Ohio and Scars Publications, and she has had some stories on-line in Children, Churches, and Daddies Literary Magazine, the un-religious, non-family oriented publication. Bridget has also appeared in public dressed as Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, Boy George, Zorro, and Tammy Faye Bakker---all people/characters she admires for one reason or another, including their wild eyebrows.