Illustration: Megan Mericle
You’ll never take me alive, coppers!
I was driving in Tampa and didn’t want to go through town, so I jumped on the freeway. I got mixed up for a while before I finally found an Ybor City exit. But when I got off, there was a sign that read, “Toll Ahead.” I didn’t know I was getting off on a toll road. I thought I was on a “freeway.” This was before the cash toll suspension. At the end of the ramp sat an unmanned toll booth with no gate arm; just a red stoplight and a basket to collect change.
A digital sign at the booth read, “You owe 50 cents.”
I owed 50 cents. I had a quarter. And I had a dollar bill. I didn’t have 50 cents. I had tipped a bartender with four quarters instead of a dollar bill and in the back of my mind, I thought, “I shouldn’t give away my toll quarters.” Sure enough …
OK, it was only 50 cents. What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t pay? Well, a posted sign stated something about a statute and violators will be photographed or prosecuted or some such thing.
So, what does someone do at 1:30 in the morning at some godforsaken exit in some godforsaken port area of Tampa when they don’t have 50 cents?
I tossed in the quarter.
“You owe 25 cents.”
What could I do? I couldn’t toss in the dollar bill. The booth seemed to have some sort of swiping device. Does the DOT take Visa for 25-cent tolls? How about an IOU? “Dear DOT, sorry I missed you. Catch you next time.” Should I pull over, get out of my car and start walking around the deserted port asking for change? “Brother, can you spare a toll?”
I sat there for a while, contemplating what would happen if I went through the stoplight. I envisioned every old prison movie, where the sirens go off and searchlights scan the yard as guards start firing. “Escape! Escape! Shoot to kill!”
Then I saw a tanker truck in my rear-view mirror, barreling toward me with a driver who apparently was in no mood for tolls or stopping. I pulled forward and out of the way, just in time to avoid being hit, but also going through the red light and setting off an alarm. It wasn’t a loud alarm. It’s just a 50-cent toll after all. It was more like an alarm clearing its throat. And a light flashed just as I conveniently turned around to look at the truck flying by, giving the tollbooth camera a perfect pose for my mugshot.
I am a scofflaw. Catch me if you can.
Now I wait for the DOT to get the drop on me. I expect a summons. “You are being prosecuted. You are a bad man.”
I could plead insanity. “Your honor, I clearly was not in my right mind at the time. Why else would I be in Tampa? I suffer from Mitsubishi Syndrome. I bypass tolls to draw attention to myself.”
I could blame society. “It’s rush, rush, rush, go, go, go, no time to stop for tolls.”
I could blame the economy. “The quarter has no value. You want your stinkin’ 25 cents? Here, take 25 worthless pennies. Try to get rid of those.”
Maybe my parents are at fault. “I was raised in a strict anti-toll household. I was born to be
Or maybe I’ll go on the lam, traveling backroads and toll-less thoroughfares, yearning for freedom while looking over my shoulder for the next tollbooth collector who’s gunning for me.
A legend will be born. 50 Cent will write half a rap about me. Celebrities will protest on my behalf. I don’t know why, but it will no doubt involve Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix. I’ll become a social media sensation, the Toll Troll, or maybe just “that loser who didn’t have a quarter.”
The media will report occasional sightings: blowing through a toll plaza in Tulsa, a pile of burnt coin wrappers in Akron, a scrape with an ice cream vendor wearing a change maker in Frisco—“He just kept yelling, ‘Loose change is for suckers!’”
The reports will trail off, and years will pass. Sometime, somewhere down the road, I’ll slip up or my conscience will gnaw at me. The DOT thugs will haul me in before the TV cameras. I’ll be unkempt, bewildered, quarterless.
The DOT chief will seal my fate: “If you’re going to do the crime, you’ve got to pay the toll.”