SAN FRANCISCO -- At the Golden Gate Bridge, the toll takers are talking about the day a seafood truck driver gave a toll collector nine live crabs as a gift, and the crustaceans spent the afternoon trying to climb out of the toll booth. They're also recalling the epic streak when 48 drivers in a row paid the toll for the car behind them. And none of them can forget the time a driver broke down in tears at the toll booth after his wife called to say she was leaving him for his best friend.
"He put the car in park, turned it off and just started bawling. He was there with me for about three minutes," said Jacquie Dean, who, like her colleagues, has seen and heard it all while collecting the fare to cross one of the world's most iconic bridges. "Nobody honked; he needed that moment."
After 76 years of stories at the Golden Gate Bridge, the last few dozen toll takers are sharing their unforgettable moments while working their final shifts as the span prepares to switch to an all-electronic payment system starting March 27. Machines are replacing humans here as they have at so many other jobs, and the Bay Area's other bridges are expected to follow suit in the coming years.
With the end near, toll takers are signing autographs, kissing babies and saying their goodbyes to drivers they've gotten to know, six-second transactions at a time.
The new system, which relies mostly on FasTrak, should speed up travel times and save money for the
"Sometimes we're the only ones that smile at them, say hi and remember people's names and birthdays," said Dean, 43, who for two decades has been taking in the sweeping San Francisco Bay views through the city's trademark fog from inside her tiny rectangular booth, painted International Orange to match the iconic bridge. "We see people on their wedding day, kids on their junior proms -- you watch them grow up."
In serving the 110,000 drivers who cross the bridge each day, the toll takers are much more than cashiers. They're part counselor (listening to people's daily troubles), part concierge (constantly giving directions and tourism tips) and part cop (weeding out counterfeit bills and reporting drunken drivers).
"It is not exactly the kind of easy job that everybody thinks," said bridge manager Kary Witt, who tried the job as an experiment -- and failed to meet his district's performance standards.
After the toll takers leave, all drivers will have to use FasTrak or set up license plate accounts linked to a credit card. Cameras will nab drivers without the proper equipment, and the bridge will fire off a $6 bill in the mail.
Willing to share stories and secrets of the trade now that they're on their way out, some toll takers admit they sometimes accept gifts -- "you ought to see my wet bar," Dean says -- and they let drivers go without paying their full tolls as long as they're nice and apologetic about it (they can write it up so the money doesn't come out of their paycheck).
Richmond resident Adja Johnson, 28, has received her share of offers over her 8½ years in the booth: wine and wedding invitations, potted flowers and fresh-baked sourdough bread, drawings and Christmas cards. People short on cash have even offered her shots of Patrón tequila to pass.
People often try foreign currency and international tourists who don't speak English sometimes just hold out money and have the toll collector take what's needed. Then there's the famous driver who gives $100 to a lucky toll taker each Christmas. They're not supposed to keep any tips, but some do.
They try to pay it all back with kindness. Johnson remembers when the toll was $5 and an older man handed her a $50 bill and started to drive off, before she shouted out to him. He tried giving her a $20 tip, but she declined.
"And that happens all the time," Johnson said. "People appreciate the honesty."
San Jose resident Nancy Billings, who uses the cash lanes when she crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, appreciates the customer service.
"The folks taking the money usually said, 'Hi, how are you, where are you from, why are you here?' " she said. "It was like they were genuinely interested."
Los Altos Hills resident Eve Bennett-Wood, who has been driving across the span for 12 years, agreed. "There's no substitution for a real human. You can't Google your way out of everything."
But the human-powered toll booth days can't compete with the latest cost-saving technology. In 2006, 350 full-time toll takers were working at Bay Area bridges. After the Golden Gate's last 30 toll takers depart, 270 Bay Area toll collectors will remain.
By switching to an all-electronic payment system, bridge officials estimate saving $16 million over eight years. Already, 58 percent of drivers now use FasTrak to cross Bay Area bridges, up from 29 percent in 2005. At the Golden Gate, 70 percent pay with FasTrak, up from 48 percent in 2005.
Eventually, officials say the job of "bridge officer," as it's formally known, will go extinct.
Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority say if the Golden Gate switch goes well, officials as soon as next year will slowly begin removing toll takers at other Bay Area bridges.
Certainly, there are darker sides of the job. Toll collectors sometimes must defuse angry drivers. They have witnessed serious vehicle crashes, stabbings and even toll plaza shootings over the years -- most notably when a female toll collector at the Golden Gate was shot on duty in 2005, and a woman was shot and killed inside her booth at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in 2009. All but eight of the remaining toll takers are taking other jobs within the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District or retiring. Dean and Johnson, who are looking for work elsewhere, aren't excited to move to "the big toll booth in the sky," as Billings put it.
"It's been an amazing adventure," Dean said. "We love (our customers), and we're really going to miss them."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
Here's a look at Golden Gate Bridge toll takers' jobs:
Salary: About $57,000, based on full-time hours at a $27.53 hourly wage after three years of service
Annual vacation: Three weeks after a year of service, growing to up to six weeks after reaching 29 years on the job, plus 12 sick days
Holidays: 14 per year, including birthday and bridge opening anniversary
Maintenance and uniform allowance: $60 per month
The shift: Eight-hour stints starting at 6 a.m., 2 p.m. or 10 p.m., with 1 hour and 45 minutes of break time
Getting to work: They park at the headquarters building and walk through traffic, across a crosswalk, to their booth
Inside the booth: A chair and cash drawer; workers can bring radios and read during down times
Cash counting: Workers are expected to have no more than $1.75 in errors for every $1,000 collected
Fingernails: Can't be more than a quarter-inch long from fingertip
Facial hair: Shaved or "neatly trimmed"
Shoes and socks: Must be black
No-no's: Shouting, swearing, lying, using slang, arranging rides for hitchhikers, accepting tips
Source: Toll takers' union contract