Changing

I wrote this more than 13 years ago, a time of great change in my life. I guess I had finally determined to be the man I really am as differentiated from the actor who was afraid of that man. I’m still a bit afraid of the gentleness that is my nature but, over time, the fear diminishes. Maybe one day it will be gone.

November 4, 1993

There are signs at the toll booths of the New Jersey Turnpike that read “No Pennies Please”. There are lots of other signs presenting laws but none of them say please. In my need to resist authority of any kind in a way which wouldn’t be obvious or bring me harm and realizing that “Please” indicated a request and not a law I began to give pennies to the collectors. At that time I was a very angry and fearful man with a compulsion to resist authority of any kind coupled with a fear of being caught or hurt. As I paid the toll I would pleasantly say “please pardon the pennies” to the toll collectors. I loved their angry reactions. My resistance to and hatred of authority of any kind was particularly nasty if I perceived the authority figures to be unable to retaliate. Toll collectors fit neatly into this category and I also disliked them because, in my opinion, they were grossly overpaid. I would often calculate the number of cars they would have to collect from in order to justify their hourly rates and more often than not they would fall short. This “sideways anger” was another of the tools I used to hide my self loathing.

A couple of years ago I changed. I don’t know what prompted it but I decided to change directions. My anger was getting out of control; I was always in a quiet seething rage. I decided to carry exact change and to thank the toll collectors each time I had contact with them. My anger began to soften and I started to become easier on myself and others.

Over the next few months I became friendly with some of the collectors at the booth near my office. One day one of them who, up to that point, had been very nasty mentioned that he liked peanuts as he saw me with a bag one evening. His name is Jim. I began to give him a bag of peanuts on occasion as I went through his lane. He would, on occasion, not take my toll money. He would do so in his usual gruff manner and I started to see beneath the surface; mine as well as his.

A year and a half ago I left my wife of 26 years and for a month or so lived in my office. One night as I arrived back in Jersey City Jim was on duty. In his usual manner he asked why I was going to work at such a late hour. I told him what was going on and he sympathized sounding more and more human.

A half hour later as I was crawling into my futon the phone rang. It was Jim. He said he just wanted to know if I was OK and that if I needed to talk he was there and if I needed anything else to call him.

Our friendship continued and a few months later I began to notice that he was never on duty when I went through the booth. I asked another of the collectors about him and he told me that Jim was on sick leave with cancer. I asked for his phone number and called him to find that he was on the mend and would be back to work soon.

A few years ago he retired and I lost track of him but I’ll never forget how he helped me to become a bit softer and less afraid.

Posted May 31, 2007

5 Comments

This is a wonderful story Phil. Thanks!

Phil,

I don’t know why you don’t submit some of these blogs to the Times Magazine’s “Lives” column, so more people can get the benefit of your insight.

What a great story.Thanks for sharing it.

Phil;
I’m wiping away tears (you and Rosemary do that to me)again!
Please find a way to get this short story published. It needs to be shared. Thanks Phil. Betsy

What a beautiful story!! I agree. It would be a great story for anyone to hear.

Thank you!!

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