Having worked as a toll collector on the Atlantic City Expressway in 1969 and 1970 (I was still in high school), I got to see a microcosm of the best and worst of life in New Jersey. It was a political patronage job. I got it because an Uncle had been Mayor of Camden for many years. In the summer, the toll booths were filled with a combination of rich spoiled little creeps and overachiever, goodie two shoes nerds. Yeah, I was the latter. In my opinion, all you needed to get the job was the right political connections.
The Atlantic City Expressway, like many other toll roads, was privately owned. Even though it could get you from Atlantic City to Philadelphia in well under 2 hours, the road took a few strange curves in its 44-mile route from Sicklerville, NJ to the Shore. While I have no evidence of this, given the political nature of the highway and New Jersey, I always assumed that it took those strange curves to put it into some connected elected officials’ districts. That way, they could benefit from some tax revenue on the road.
The road took in a lot of money. The tolls were originally $1.00 at the Egg Harbor Plaza (where I worked) and $.25 at the Pleasantville Tolls. Obviously, it’s a lot more these days. Hey, gas was $.17 a gallon when I started working there.
Lots of funny and sad stories from those 2 years of my life. One night it was so foggy you couldn’t see more than a few feet. At about 3 AM one night, my whole booth shook and I was knocked off my stool and fell to the floor. There was a loud cacophony of metal striking metal. All of the windows in the booth, made from special shatter resistant glass, exploded, showering me with shards of what was supposed to be unbreakable material.
When I got up, I saw fenders, bumpers, door panels and other pieces of what was once a large automobile. As my eyes adjusted to the scene, I also saw body parts. There was a head, an arm and some unidentifiable innards.
It was so foggy my supervisor couldn’t see from the main building to my booth. He screamed through the intercom, “What the fuck is going on, Bryant? Do I have to come out there?” (He was always kind of lazy.)
I hit the intercom button and responded, “There’s a dead guy out here!”
He replied, “You can’t make that call, Dr. Bryant!” He snapped back.
“I don’t need a degree to see that this guy is dead!” I snapped back. Call an ambulance and get the State Police out here.” The road paid the New Jersey State Police to patrol the road, since it was a privately-owned highway.
I walked out of my booth, which had only sustained the broken windows and a huge dent in front. They always told me the booths were made from battle plate steel. Now, I knew what that meant.
Checking for survivors, I soon realized that there had only been one occupant in the car. I found his body with 1 arm and 1 leg still attached. The other 2 limbs were in the lane of my booth, along with his head. The ambulance arrived and we did a thorough search of the foggy area. The State Police joined in and we confirmed there was only one victim/occupant.
The car had been a new Cadillac Eldorado. Everyone told me I was lucky that the gas tank hadn’t exploded. It was thrown over a dozen feet into a grassy area.
The other overnight collector took over the center toll booth, where he could take tolls from both east and westbound traffic. There were a lot of looky-loos who pulled over to gawk. The State Police Officer told me to keep them away, which I did. Our toll collector uniforms looked a lot like police uniforms so it was pretty easy to shoo them away.
The report after the accident showed a massive blood alcohol percentage in the man’s blood. They estimated he was doing between 70 and 90 miles-per-hour when he struck my booth. Once they replaced the windows in the booth he struck and did a little scratch and dent repair to the front it was good as new. And the guy? Well, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have an open casket. Although, had it been me, I would have left instructions to put my head on display at the funeral home for the greatest viewing in history!
There were many non-lethal events on the road, too. One rainy day, a buss spun out of control and spun completely around 4 times. When the spinning stopped, the driver continued to drive into the toll lane. He was fine, but his passengers (the bus was full) all looked like they’d all just seen Godzilla coming through the trees. Even with the windows closed, I’m pretty sure I smelled poop.
Many times, I would be taking money from one car when another car would rear end them, knocking the car 10-20 feet forward. A toll lane is a bad place to find out that your brakes have failed. A few times each week, I’d see the reflection of a flame in the grease on the asphalt. I would calmly ask the driver to pop his hood. Then I’d hit it with the fire extinguisher that was in every booth. One guy complained that I got splatter on his leather upholstery. I apologized and told him next time I’d just let his car blow up.
We had several toll lanes in each direction and could change which ones worked which direction by shifting the traffic cones in the road. It was worth your life to go out there and change the cones on a busy holiday weekend. Lots of near misses.
I held the all-time record for amount of money collected. Cars paid $1.00, busses were $2.00, and 4-axel trucks paid $4.00. On one hellish Friday night before the 4th of July, I took in over $8,000 in 8 hours. Because of my good record, I was chosen to work security at the Atlantic City Pop Festival. The hopelessly clueless people running the festival even gave me a gun. While I was already an experienced handgun shooter, they gave me no training, just handed me a .38 and holster, telling me to use it if things got really bad. I wore my toil collector uniform, complete with badge. I looked like a cop, unless you read the badge which said “Toll Collector.”
Things were very peaceful at the festival, which was held at the Atlantic City Racetrack. One hippie came up to me and said, “Hey pig, want some pills?” I asked him what they were. “I don’t know, I just found them,“ he replied. He then walked over to a drinking fountain and proceeded to take a handful.
An hour later, I noticed the same hippie in a first aid tent. He was naked, puking and pooping like a geyser. I asked the doctor what was wrong and he said it looked like the guy was OD’ing on laxatives. I informed the doctor about the pills and he took the bottle out of the man’s pants. Sure enough, they were a powerful prescription laxative. The hippie lived and probably had a newfound respect for unknown prescription drugs.
A few times on the overnight shift, a good-looking lady would come through my lane and we’d start chatting and finally wind up having a romantic interlude on the toll booth floor. Many nights, I went home smelling like…well, you get the idea.
During September, the Miss America contestants would be driven through our lanes. I think they took them to tour the historic sites in Philly. Or, maybe they just went to the Pine Barrens to have a party. My lascivious side wants to believe the latter.
Back in the 1950’s and 60’, Miss America was huge in and around Atlantic City. The cars that the contestants were chauffeured around, all new convertibles that were used in the Boardwalk parade, were sold as premium used cars after the Pageant and usually had a waiting list. I don’t want to think the people buying them did so just to sniff the seats. I know I would never do that. Well, okay, I might have taken a quick whiff.
The Miss America Parade drew over 100,000 people to the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The financial impact on the area was huge. Sadly, as it became less and less relevant as the decades passed, they should have just ended it. Bert Parks once did a musical number with the contestants titled, “Call Me Ms.” By trying to make the Pageant more and more relevant, they were just adding nails to its coffin. They moved it to Las Vegas where it really almost completely died. They moved it back to Atlantic City but the magic was gone. Some say it died with Bert Parks. I’ve always wondered if that was his only job.
You could set your clocks by the Miss America Pageant. It was always the Saturday after Labor Day. Network Television had the Emmy Award Ceremony the next Sunday, heralding the start of the new TV season. This year’s pageant is in Atlantic City on the historic date in September. But now it just looks like a dinosaur they dug up that came back to life. All the political wrangling, accusations and attempts at political correctness have gutted the once successful pageant. But when you remember that people of color were banned form Miss America for the first 50 years of the pageant, maybe it’s time to just let it die. Or maybe add some “field hollers” to the musical numbers.
The Pageant wasn’t held in 2020, due to the pandemic. It’s supposed to be held this year (2021). Last one was held at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, again moving out of Atlantic City. The former “America’s Playground” can’t seem to catch a break these days.
Oh yeah, does anyone know which car dealer in Connecticut is selling the cars the contestants rode in? Asking for a friend.
© 2021 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.