By Marc Phillips
Loretta Jackson is not like most NJ Turnpike tollbooth operators. This 52-year-old woman’s genuine, perky attitude is contagious. Visit lane No. 3 at the Raritan Toll Plaza, and you will be greeted with her pearly whites. Many passers-by feel the immediate burst of happiness. But what is Jackson’s secret?
“I could be unemployed!” Jackson laughed, as she gesticulated wildly with her calloused hands. “When I was little, I loved to sit on the front porch of my row house in Irvington and people watch,” Jackson continued. “Being a tollbooth operator puts people watching on a more frequent and diverse scale, plus I get paid!”
A rusted window-mounted air conditioner blows cold, recycled exhaust fumes into Jackson’s 3-by-6 booth.
“In the summer, I love when families from Bergen County come to the shore,” she said. “They’re almost always in luxury SUVs clad with lacrosse and Long Beach Island-themed car magnets. The wife is usually controlling and makes the husband rush out of the plaza. I always give the husband an extra big smile for having to deal with some cold, Botoxed Barbie bitch for a wife.”
Jackson’s self-described “festively plump” body sits comfortably in a faded, yellow swivel chair. Her welcoming brown eyes connect with a single male driver approaching the service window.
“Hello darling!” Jackson said, beaming as she gives the apprehensive driver change for a five-dollar bill. The even-tempered driver cracks a smile. “Have a magnificent day!” she said, laughing as the gray Prius speeds away. “That nerdy guy is definitely going to the shore to pick up some drunk and easy girls,” the intuitive tollbooth operator said.
Jackson’s co-workers unfortunately do not share the same perky demeanor. Fluis Gonzales has been working in lane No. 6 of the toll plaza for ten long years.
“I hate it here,” she said. “The sun, the people, the heat, the cold. Get me out of this hellhole!”
Gonzales cites her main motivation for working as a way to “pay the bills and then some,” alleviating the burden from her husband.
“He’s a painter,” she said. “But with this terrible economy, no one wants painters. His painting crew is thinning.”
Ralph Jones sighed emphatically before his response.
“Lane No. 8 is insane,” he said. “I see the most traffic and tons of ignorant drivers. Just ‘cause I work in a tollbooth doesn’t mean I’m not educated! I’m goin’ to night school. I want to work in an office one day—high above the polluted toll plaza.”
Jones recounted several times in which people have thrown change at him and asked if he could count.
“That just made me furious, and I’m normally laid-back,” Jones said.
Jackson’s co-workers may not necessarily have the brightest outlook on their tollbooth careers, but they certainly do their jobs well. Gonzales was employee of the month in September—her overtime efforts wowed the Department of Transportation. In effect, a rivalry has begun between Jackson and Gonzales.
Jackson prays for her constant employment in an era of E-ZPass toll tags. Her biggest fear is being “phased out” as her electronic counterpart takes over her job.
“If I were unemployed I would have to get my people fix by watching Maury,” she said. “This is much more realistic than that garbage.”
For the time being, Jackson is serving up endless smiles as she gives you your change—in small bills and quarters.
Marc Phillips is a freshman Integrated Marketing Communications major who aspires to be more than just a tollbooth operator after graduation. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.