Sunday, 19 May 2024

CyberSoulMan: Encounters at the toll booth

T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.


I received an email from a colleague this week that contained a job posting from Caltrans about an open exam for the position of toll collector. I chuckled a bit upon receiving the notice. You see, I was a toll collector on the SFOBB from for about eight years starting in 1984. Back when the toll was a whopping 75 cents!

For the superstitious and/or the faint of heart, you may take solace in the fact that on Oct. 17, 1989, your CyberSoulMan was ensconced inside Toll Booth number 13 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. As you can tell, I’ve lived a few seasons since then.

I’d like to share with you some memories I have of famous folks I’ve tolled. For those of you born since Loma Prieta, you may not recognize some of these names I’m about to drop. You may take notes from this soliloquy on celebrity nuances from a guy that had his hand out. It’s just a humorous look at how some past Bay Area notables, forked it over at the Bay Bridge.


Joe Alioto cruises up in a silver Volvo. We smile hello. A $100 bill is proffered.

“Nobody would break it in Oakland,” he sheepishly explains. He thanks me as he eases toward the metering lights, out of reach of my voice.

“Hush, Mr. Mayor, methinks,” chiding him telepathically, you’re still in Oakland!


Accomplished artist and poet Maya Angelou whizzed up to my booth well before midnight one New Year's Eve past. My literary jealousies flared up, then subsided when somehow my cerebral muse of logic informed me that I was graced with the presence greatness. I gladly pay her toll. She’s flattered. Now, I too know why the caged bird sings …


I became cordial with several Bay Area television news journalists who passed through my booth. Anybody remember Van Amburg? He was polite and tight. In the days of the 75 cents toll, he never said, as blue collar people frequent did, “Keep the change.”

Gary Radnich was cool. He’d sail through in his Jag, wearing those dark, dark Ray Bans. He’d always joke that he couldn’t talk to me if I was wearing shades …

Bob McKenzie from Channel 2 News has the distinction of being the only famous person I had in the lane with no funds. People sometimes ask, “Whaddya do when someone has no money?”

We’d write what were called No Fund slips which were agreements to pay within five days. While I was writing his, McKenzie told me a great Jamaican Blue Mountain story. It wasn’t about the coffee …


I had taken actor Danny Glover’s toll three times before I recognized him. He’d hide behind the sun visor. Didn’t want to be recognized. I got him though.

“Excuse me. Mr. Glover? Danny Glover the actor?”

He nods.

“Excuse me sir, but you don’t have to hide. I just want to tell you that I enjoy your work.”

He grins.

“Thanks. See you later …”


I’ll never forget the Sunday morning I was taking toll when, in the distance I spy a yellow Rolls Royce creeping cautiously up to my booth. Lo and behold – Richard Pryor, white knuckles and all. He was gripping that steering wheel so tightly that power steering fluid was oozing from his hands!

He nervously asked me for directions to Highway 1. I shook his hand twice. He had a very fine young lady, kind of semi reclined in the back seat. She was like, posing for a photo shoot. The camera was the back of Richard’s head.

RIP, Mr. Pryor ...


The great Rock drummer and vocalist “Machine Gun” Buddy Miles was so surprised that I recognized him that he almost lost control of his gold-packaged, white Benz for a moment.

I was so intrigued by the way he intoned the phrase, “HOWAREYA,” into one word that I inserted it into my toll collecting vocabulary and used it hundreds of times daily.


Jazz songstress Kitty Margolis has personalized plates that say, “Scat It.” When she drove up, some hard bop just happened to be on the radio in my booth. Noticing the plates, I said, “Can you scat to that?” She couldn’t hear it, though I turned up the volume. Too much noise. But she tried. She’s good …


Big El Dorado with a Southern California license plate frame. Middle-aged guy with a curl and receding hairline. Hey, it’s electric saxophonist Eddie Harris. I recognize him just as the toll transaction is complete. I call his name. His face lights up as he eases toward the city …


A tale of two beamers

MC Hammer’s beamer came through my lane once. He wasn’t driving, nor was he a passenger …

Mr. October Reggie Jackson’s beamer almost flew through my toll lane. I thought I was an air traffic controller for a moment. CyberSoulTower to Reggie, come in please. There’s a flashing red light here. You’ve got to stop. Thanks buddy.

Alas, the twisted portals through which we beam!

And speaking of baseball, All-Star second baseman Joe Morgan sat for hours one morning, stuck in the mud off the frontage road adjacent to the toll plaza. I think it was some kind of weird Hall of Fame ritual …


Car pooling is not conducive to everyone’s psyche. It should be, but some people have to ride solo.

One person who rode solo through my booth was the legendary New York Yankee, Joe DiMaggio. Do you recall the somber face the camera would pan to at major baseball events? Could you car pool with someone who deadpanned like that? What would you talk about? None of my business.


And finally ...

Powerful California politician Willie Brown would drive up in a hurry, frequently with a scowl on his face and literally try to seemingly take my hand off when he paid the toll. It was like a bad marriage. The more I tried to be polite, the ruder he acted.

Power is hard to fathom sometimes. I think he should have car pooled with Angela Davis. She was an excellent toll payer …


That’s it for now. The incidents just described were real once upon a time. As is the notice to apply for the toll collector job. The deadline is Feb. 3. Check with Caltrans. And if you get the job, try not to breathe the fumes. Pretty damn toxic.

Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


Upcoming cool events:

Don’t forget Morris Day & The Time at Cache Creek Casino on Valentine's Day at 8 p.m.

The Teeny Tucker interview will be rebroadcast on on Tuesday, Feb. 3. Name of the Show? In Blues Spot. It airs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The interview airs at 3 p.m.

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at


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