Last week the Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco to Marin County made a transition from toll collectors to an automated system that eliminates the people. I didn’t take the news happily. Though on one hand I used to wonder if standing in a little toll booth all day taking cash was dreadfully boring, I also remember when those toll takers were part of the personal support system that helped me overcome my anxiety about driving across bridges.
Some of you may have read my earlier book, Journey from Anxiety to Freedom. This book is a self-help book, but it is also a form of memoir filled with self-revelation. Along with the stories of seven other heroic people, it is my story of silently struggling with anxiety for many years. In my effort to keep my panic attacks secret, I didn’t find out that others could help me. It’s also true that in the eighties, panic was not a household word and the resources were not as plentiful as they are now. But I discovered in my recovery process, that feeling alone and isolated added to my anxiety, and if I could have a feeling of connection to another person, I felt calmer. Though it is slightly embarrassing to admit, I could relate a little to Nicole Krause’s main character in The History of Love. Leo Gursky made it a point to interact with another person every day so if he died alone and unnoticed, someone would have seen him that day and known he existed. He might just drop something at the cash register, or give the wrong change just to evoke notice. I can see in hindsight that I needed someone to know that I was about to drive across the bridge and the toll collector became my witness and support person.
As I stopped at the booth, I made it a point to say something friendly, or silly, or quirky to the toll taker. For just a moment, I felt a sense of connection to another human being. Then I exhaled and sped forward onto the bridge (often the San Rafael bridge from Berkeley) feeling that I was not alone. Honestly, I did that, and sometimes I got a warm response back, sometimes a blank look, but either way, I smiled and felt better.
What I learned from the comments of some of the Golden Gate employees who were interviewed, is that they too valued their relationships, and had stories of human interaction that enriched their lives. In fact, the Marin Independent Journal said “In serving the 110,000 drivers who cross the bridge each day (55,000 actually through the toll lanes), the toll takers are much more than cashiers. They’re part counselor (listening to people’s daily troubles), part concierge (constantly giving directions and tourism tips) and part cop (weeding out counterfeit bills and reporting drunken drivers).”
One toll collector told a story about an elderly Asian man who arrived before dawn wishing to walk across the bridge. She informed him that he would have to wait until daylight. He stepped aside and waited patiently with a bundle tucked under his arm. When the sun rose, she gave him the go-ahead and he unwrapped the bundle and put on a pair of well-worn shoes. He told her that his deceased grandfather’s wish was to walk across the Bridge. He was now there to fulfill that dream for his ancestor.
I was touched by learning, as always, that there is so much more to people than sometimes is obvious. Thank you to the toll collectors. I miss them. And I was moved by the literal story of a man walking in his grandfather’s shoes. It was so reminiscent of my journey across continents and lifetimes in The Woman in the Photograph, to walk in my mother’s and my grandparents’ footsteps in my effort to understand more about them and the legacy they passed on to me. I hope I can use that knowledge to cross more bridges and create a new vision.
I’d love to hear comments from your own experience. I’ve continued to have some technical issues so please let me know if you’re getting your posts. Thank you.