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LeBARON: End of an era for Golden Gate Bridge toll takers

Published: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 2:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 2:52 p.m.

People are expensive. They must go. That's the news from the Golden Gate Bridge.

I'm sure you saw or heard that in a month or so there will be no more human toll takers in their booths on the bridge.

That doesn't mean no toll, of course. It's just that technology is so much cheaper than warm bodies. Cameras and transponders and computerized mail do not require money for food and shelter, health care, a pension.

So it's “You there! You with the ‘Good morning' smile and the ‘Thanks' and the ‘Have a nice day.' You're outta here!”

Commuters used to be downright chummy with the people in the tollbooths. They'd line up for their favorite, bring them breakfast, Christmas presents and sometimes leave a tip.

I personally know of one who was more than just a favorite. He had a “regular” who commuted from Marin. She brought him coffee and donuts every morning. Once she got into the wrong line, paid her fare, turned around and drove back to Marin to come back through his line. Her dedication was rewarded. They've been married for 26 years.

A toll taker named Clemmy Mathis was a big favorite in the 1950s. He got more than his share of “gratuities.” Girls often left him T-shirts, panties, bras — and their phone numbers.

There was apparently something romantic about paying your 50 cents to the brother of singer Johnny Mathis.

I'VE KNOWN a few toll takers in my time. A lot of Sonoma Valley residents worked on the bridge; some were classmates at Sonoma High.

Ray McGill is one of them. Ray is retired, lives in Novato and spent 14 years “in the lanes” as he terms it — and another 18 as a sergeant in the bridge patrol.

Like all toll takers, Ray has stories to tell. He remembers the height of the “pay for the guy behind you” fad when “some of the responses were funnier than heck.”

So were some of the things that drivers and passengers were doing besides driving as they came through the lane. He recalls a Friday night shift when a guy with his girl beside him pulled up and, as he handed over his fare, said “Wanna see something funny?”

He reached into the back seat and lifted a blanket. Under it there was another couple that were ... well, lets just leave it there.

The best stuff, Ray says, came from people who arrived without money to pay. His favorite was the man who was taking his family camping in a car jammed with gear, but no money, no checkbook. It was the days before credit cards. When he was told he couldn't cross, he became very angry.

To avert a really bad situation (think handcuffs), Ray asked him if he had any collateral that he could leave to redeem with the proper fare.

At first, he said he didn't, and then he went to his car and rummaged around, coming back with a cast iron frying pan.

Now anyone who camps or cooks knows that those are worth a lot more than whatever the fare was in those days. So Ray wrote him a receipt and took the pan. The man returned to his car and came back again, carrying two big porterhouse steaks.

“You might as well take these, too,” he said. I have no way to cook them.”

Let the FasTrak transponders try to tell stories like that!

I HAVE a tollbooth story of my own to tell. In the late 1950s, I drove into The City one Sunday morning to a Newspaper Guild meeting. Two or three other reporters rode with me.

One of them was a lifelong New Yorker, a Brooklyn native who was new to California.

Small towns were an enigma to him. He often made fun of me when people spoke to me on the street in Santa Rosa, and I would explain that I had “gone to school with them,” probably SRJC.

He never ceased to be amazed at how many people knew each other.

Apparently, it wasn't like that in Brooklyn.

Anyway, here he is, in the car with me, crossing the bridge. And there's my old tennis partner Ray McGill in the tollbooth. He says, “Hi Gaye.” I say, “Hi Ray.” We do the “How ya been” stuff, a little catching up, and we go on to our meeting.

When I pull away, I hear a little gurgle from my passenger. He's staring at me in astonishment.

“That's it!” he said. “That does it! I have NEVER, EVER, in all my days, known anyone who has known a toll taker on a bridge.”

I pointed out that this wasn't the Brooklyn or the George Washington traffic-wise, but he insisted it was amazing.

He didn't stay long at the PD. He went on to greater things, including covering the Supreme Court for a national newspaper chain. Last I heard he was going to baseball games with Justice Scalia.

I wouldn't be surprised if he's told this story a couple of times — crossing a bridge.

WE DON'T go into San Francisco much anymore. Back in the day, when the world was young, we headed into The City on a lot of weekends — and some weekdays.

We went to hear music, to eat foreign food or see live theater. Lordy, I'm so old I can remember when you had to go to San Francisco to get a pizza — a place called Lupo's in North Beach made the first pizza I ever saw.

Those are bygone days. We've got all that stuff right here.

We still hit the bridge on occasion. So I'll have to sit down and figure out how we pay the toll. I'd better get it right.

I'd really miss my cast iron skillet.

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