Some jobs take a huge toll


HAVING JUST returned from an extensive car trip through five states, I'm considering a career move which some may find startling, but which makes perfect sense to a man bent on reducing the stress in his life: toll collector.

From what I've been able to observe, basically the job description reads:

1 -- Stick hand out toll booth.

2 -- Take money from motorist.

3 -- Put money in till/make change.

4 -- Repeat Step 1.

Eight pressure-free hours later, boom, you're waving goodbye to your co-workers and gunning the Camaro toward the nearest tavern.

And I'm guessing you don't bring the job home with you, either. That evening around the dinner table, there's no talk about how you screwed up the O'Mara account or how the bond market took a nose dive.

Even if something did go wrong down at the toll plaza -- say you misplaced a roll of quarters -- you probably won't beat yourself over the head all night.

Oh, sure, occasionally a motorist might throw your rhythm off by asking for directions to a local landmark such as Walt's Famous World of Reptiles.

But all you do there is roll your eyes to the heavens and mutter (in your most world-weary and disinterested voice): "Three exits up, follow the signs to Rt. 40."

Then, unless the traffic's backed up to Key West, you go back to your Sidney Sheldon novel or your dog-eared copy of "Field and Stream." Or finish watching a "M*A*S*H" re-run on your four-inch portable TV.

I could do that. In fact, there's every . . . OK, I know what's going to happen here.

The mail is going to bring all sorts of letters from irate toll collectors, who, working some lonely toll plaza on I-95 at 3 in the morning, will turn the volume down on their Sony Walkman long enough to scribble: "THIS IS A DAMN TOUGH JOB, MISTER!" on Highway Department stationery. With the word "tough" underlined three times for emphasis.

To which I would respond: EX-CUSE ME? You think you have it tough? Try going through life as a humor writer, which, in the newspaper business, is sort of like eating off a tray table while the adults in the next room sit down to dinner.

There are times (more than you'll ever know) when I must bang my head furiously against a filing cabinet for several minutes in order to get the creative juices flowing.

You do that three or four times a week, 47 or so weeks per year, and your head gradually assumes the mushy, irregular shape of an over-ripe cantaloupe.

The pounding takes its toll in so many other ways besides ill-defined skull texture, too.

Slurred speech, disorientation, six-inch gashes along the scalp line, uncontrolled drooling, flecks of dried blood mixed with gunmetal-gray filing cabinet paint in the hair -- all have visited me at one time or another after a particularly trying session of summoning the muse.

So don't tell me about job hazards, Mr. or Ms. Toll Collector. I don't want to hear it, OK? Your, ahem, job is a piece of cake compared to the hell I go through turning out three dreary columns per week.

(BAM! BAM! There, I just slammed my head into a wall here at the office. Not a pretty sight, believe me. Uh-oh, must have startled the woman at the next desk. Three people are rushing over with handkerchiefs now to stanch the bleeding.

(BAM! But this is the price you pay if you want to write humor. BAM! Do you toll collectors have to do this? Huh? When someone hands you a buck and you owe them 60 cents change, do you freeze in front of the till and finally throw up your hands and cry: "I . . . I CAN'T DO THIS?!"

(I think not. Happens to me all the time. Horrible, agonizing bouts of writer's block, where my self-confidence plummets like a steel bucket down a deep well and . . .)

But enough about me. What's the worst way a toll collector can screw up on the job?

You give a motorist too much change? Or it turns out Walt's Famous World of Reptiles is four exits up the interstate, not three, and on Rt. 50, not Rt. 40?

Big deal. Your boss isn't going to know there's money missing unless he sees you walking to your car with a laundry sack stuffed with $10s and $20s.

And as for those folks trying frantically to find Walt's Famous World of Reptiles, well, the place is a dump anyway.

Besides, Walt's a broken-down has-been in the reptile-farm game -- that whole business where he climbs in a cage with 20 pit vipers is done with mirrors.

Or so I hear.

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