On the Clock: Toll collector enjoys exchanges with drivers

Everyone is always in a rush when they see Mike Mascitelli.

Rush — everyone is always in a rush when they see Mike Mascitelli.

They give him tickets punched on New York’s longest highway, along with dollar bills and handfuls of nickels, dimes and quarters. Visits with Mascitelli, a toll taker for the New York State Thruway Authority, generally last about 20 or 30 seconds. If people in sedans, sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks decide to stay a little longer, they’re asking for directions.

“Especially during the shopping season,” said Mascitelli, 53, a talkative, stocky guy who lives in Niskayuna and works at the busy 14-lane Exit 24 toll plaza in Albany. “Everyone wants to go shopping — Crossgates Mall, Colonie Center, Northway Mall. And Christmas Tree Shops, like we’re supposed to know where the Christmas Tree Shop is. But I know it’s in Colonie Center.”

There’s always traffic. The “gateway to the Northeast,” as some Thruway employees describe Exit 24, puts people in position to travel to Boston, New York City, Buffalo, Montreal and all points east, south, west and north.

Steady flow of vehicles

On a recent Thursday, Mascitelli began his shift at 6 a.m. At 10:30, he was in the toll booth at Lane 3 — fed by two Thruway exit lanes used by motorists traveling from the south. He was dressed in the Thruway Authority’s navy blue zipper sweater and slacks, and a bright orange and yellow safety vest. By midmorning, he had already seen 775 vehicles.

“If you’re doing 200 in an hour, that’s steady,” said Mascitelli, a 1976 graduate of Linton High School who has been with the Thruway since 1983. “If you’re doing over 200, it’s busy. If you’re doing 300 in an hour, it’s backed up.”

Mascitelli stayed busy in his small booth, heated to 75 degrees. They’re air-conditioned in the summer.

At 10:35, a middle-aged man stopped next to Mascitelli’s open window and handed over some cash. “Everett Road?” he asked.

“Go 90 east, Exit 5,” answered Mascitelli.

“Right over to your left,” the toll man added, making sure the driver hit the far left lanes for I-90 and signs for the highway that cuts through Albany and leads to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Hondas, Subarus, Fords, Toyotas and Chevrolets rolled through. Tractor-trailers with license plates from Maine, Florida and South Carolina approached the booth with more caution. Mascitelli has to lean down to complete his transactions with sedans and hatchbacks; he has to stretch his arms up to take cash from the truck drivers.

Toll ticket autograph

“You want to hear my Julia Roberts story?” Mascitelli asked.

“I was working nights, I want to say it was in the early ’90s,” he said. “It was in the wintertime and I was in the middle and it was a snowstorm, they’d already closed the airport down. It was pretty slow here. So I’m sitting there, I think I’m in Lane 6, and a girl comes in my lane from Syracuse. I’m looking at her, and she’s got another girl with her. It was slow, but I knew who it was right away, Julia Roberts. I go, ‘Julia?’ And she goes, ‘Yes?’ And I go, ‘You’re kidding me.’

“Her flight had been canceled to Albany and she flew into Syracuse. She told me the story, she was so nice to me. She flew into Syracuse, rented the car, her friends were all skiing in Vermont, they had rented a chalet in Vermont. Nobody was going to believe me that she came through my lane.”

Mascitelli got an autographed toll ticket for his scrapbook. But Julia was just a one-time passer-by. U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-Amsterdam) is a more frequent customer.

“He comes through here all the time,” Mascitelli said. “He’s a good guy. He says, ‘I’ll never get E-ZPass. I don’t want you guys to lose your jobs.’”

By 10:45, Mascitelli had already rung up a bunch of $5.55 sales — drivers who had started their driving days at Woodbury station, outside New York City. Others had come from Saugerties. If people have lost their toll tickets, Mascitelli said, toll takers will generally take the driver’s word. If they’ve started from Rochester and exit in Albany, they’ll just pay the $9.55 toll — not the toll for the most distant station on the ticket.

At 11, traffic remained steady. A toll taker prepared to walk the pavement between toll booths to reach her booth. Mascitelli made sure the driver in his lane saw the pedestrian. “I’ve never had an accident in my lane,” he said. “I watch out for the employees, they watch out for me.”

Cars and trucks kept coming. Once in a while, a driver said, “How you doing!” handing over ticket and money, and thanked Mascitelli for the change.

People person

Mike moved money quickly; it helps a little bit that Canadian currency is now even exchange, so no calculations must be made in the booth. “It’s not good for our country, but it’s good for the toll collectors,” Mascitelli said.

Mascitelli has a bunch of reasons for liking the job.

“I like the customers, you get to meet a lot of people. They’re always talking to you, you start a little conversation,” he said. “And the fellow employees. We have some people here who are a lot of fun to hang out with.”

At 11:20, a young woman in a Nissan Frontier pickup truck stopped outside Mascitelli’s office. She was driving from Saugerties, and paid the $2.20 toll. She had other money for shopping.

“Do I take Western Avenue to go to Crossgates?” she asked.

“Yes, you do,” answered Mascitelli.

“OK, thanks,” she said, driving off.

Early November is not an ultra-busy time. Summer — with vacationers on the road — and autumn — with leaf peepers and balloon festival fans on the make — mean more motoring. Skiers will show up soon.

“As soon as they open up the mountains, Mount Snow, Burlington, all those places, we’ll get busy,” Mascitelli said.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply