If you have ever gone through a toll booth, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth is not the most intimate you’ll ever have. It is one of life’s frequent nonencounters: You hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off.
Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward a booth. I heard loud music. It sounded like a party. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the toll booth. Inside it, the man was dancing.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m having a party,” he said.
“What about the rest of the people?” I looked at the other toll booths.
He said, “What do those look like to you?” He pointed down the row of toll booths.
“They look like…toll booths. What do they look like to you?”
He said, “Vertical coffins. At 8:30 every morning, live people get in. Then they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they reemerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.”
I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. I could not help asking the next question: “Why is it different for you? You’re having a good time.”
He looked at me. “I knew you were going to ask that. I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, and the Berkeley hills. Half the Western world vacations here…and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.”