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Let's Not Call It a Toll This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

We missed our first three exits and took two wrong turns. We were already so desperately out of our way that the Massachusetts Turnpike was the only option left that would get us to the theater in time for the movie. Neither of us had driven on the Mass Pike before – not by ourselves, at least. Whenever our parents took the toll road, they would always shift over to the Fast Lane, where a little green light would usher them through, automatically extracting payment and circumventing any human interaction. Had we taken the car with the transponder, we could have followed suit. Unfortunately, this was the Acura, and we were going to have to face the tollman.

Anders, who was the one behind the wheel, had forgotten his wallet. All I had was a $20. When we got on the highway we'd driven up to a similar toll booth, where a similar tollman gave us a ticket, without a word, that was supposed to tell us how much our journey would cost. It was dark for 7:00, but I doubt that even if I had the light to read it carefully, it would've looked any less like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Neither of us had any concept of how much the toll was going to cost – we couldn't even ballpark it – so I gave Anders the $20 and hoped for the best. We drove up to the booth with the smallest congregation of cars flowing through it. We hoped that maybe if there weren't too many people lining up behind us, we could diffuse some of the awkwardness that was to inevitably ensue.

Approaching the little glass window, we began to feel like the billy goats from that old folktale; as if somehow we would need to fool the awaiting troll to pass on to greener pastures. The car lurched forward as Anders accidentally pressed the gas, and we overshot the window. The tollman, whose face we could not yet see, called out, “Hey! You're not trying to get through without paying, are ya?” The troll was going to eat well tonight. We clip-clopped backwards, pulling up properly to see our tormentor's face. What we expected to be a goat-munching grimace was not very grimacey at all. Rather, the man behind the window bore a wide Cheshire grin.

“Hello, gentlemen. Beautiful night, isn't it?”

It must be a trap. Anders outstretched our olive branch of peace – the $20 bill – hoping to wrap up the perplexing encounter. The tollman, whose name tag said Bruce, dropped his smile.

“Thirty cents.”

I furiously began searching the dashboard for loose change while Anders quickly retracted the bill. ­Before we could apologize, however, Bruce broke into hearty laughter – something akin to what one might expect Santa Claus to sound like.

“First time on the Pike?” he asked.

We began nervously laughing with him, if only to hide our surprise. While I unearthed dimes hidden in cupholders, he and Anders chatted about the weather. We told Bruce we were headed to a movie.

“Oh? Which one?”

“‘Pirates: Band of Misfits,'” we said sheepishly.

“Oh … the one in claymation?”

“Yup, that's the one.”

The conversation was quickly turning against us.

“I went to see that with my daughter yesterday,” he said. “She's a-ways younger than you two, but I'll tell ya, we both loved it. Really funny. Good stuff.”

By the time we pulled away from the toll, a line of cars behind us stretched out so far that the local news probably reported it as a pileup. We mentioned that we thought we were going to be late to the movie, and asked Bruce if he knew of another theater in town. It turned out there was a 8:10 showing down the street, which even gave us time to stop for dinner.

As we pulled away, Anders said jokingly, “I think I'll take the Pike more often. Maybe I'll run into that guy again. He was pretty chill.”

Bruce was pretty chill, and although Anders meant it as a joke, I wondered if he might've hit on something big. It was a grand irony, I thought, that we would have otherwise been late to the show had we taken the Fast Lane. A grand irony indeed, because I suddenly felt it wasn't just tollbooths and their amicable, albeit perhaps misunderstood occupiers that were the focus anymore. Siri could have just as easily told us what movie to see, and where to find a bite to eat, and in all honesty the Fast Lane would have been much easier,
for sure.

Something stood out about our time with Bruce. Although Anders is a pretty eccentric kid, it is incomprehensible to imagine that he, or anyone for that matter, would ever say, “That machine was pretty chill” after the bright green light with big, bold letters spelling out THANK YOU took his mystery currency from the E-ZPass Radio Transponder stuck to his windshield. We may be able to give Siri an attractive female voice and program her with a sense of humor, but the day a man asks his phone out on a date because he is too afraid – or just too lazy – to go a little out of his way to ask a flesh-and-blood woman … well, I hope we can all rule out the possibility of such a day ever coming to pass.

I'm not one of those conspiracy theorist types who thinks one day that HAL or Skynet will lead the iPhones of the world into a robotic uprising. I wouldn't even go so far as to say that technology is a weak point in mankind's history.
Our ingenuity and intelligence are central to our identity as a species. Therefore it could even be said that technology itself is part of the human condition. However, what identifies us even more than our ability to create, is our capacity to bond. Our innate nature is to crave society, to find meaning and order in the bonds we make with others of our kind.

Well, before I get too philosophical on you, let me pose a question. Are the extra thirty seconds you lose waiting in line to get on the highway really such a high toll for the benefit of a little extra humanity? I doubt Siri has an answer for that one. Think about it before you pick a lane the next time you take the Framingham exit off I-90 on a Friday night around 7 o'clock. Maybe you'll run into Bruce too. I think you'll be glad you did – he's pretty chill.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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opa-in-hawaii said...
Jun. 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm
Noah, you are pretty chill too, thanks for sharing - great story with voice and meaning even behind the text; I love it. opa
 
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