Approaching the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge on a visit to Philadelphia this evening, I am flooded with memories. In the summer of 1982, before my freshman year at Yale, I worked as a toll collector on this old-fashioned drawbridge spanning the Delaware River from south Jersey to northeastern Philadelphia. I loved my job working the night shift. It started around that magical hour when traffic slows to a trickle. The whole world seemed to come past my booth then—bankers, politicians, prostitutes, Atlantic City gamblers, truckers—and every shift was like a moving buffet.
One night I had just sat down when a well-muscled guy pulled up and gave me a strawberry-topped slice of cheesecake; it turned out he was an exotic dancer on his way home from a bachelorette party, and the cake had been part of his tip. Another night a Tastykake delivery man reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a whole box of Butterscotch Krimpets to give me. They were still warm from the oven in the Philadelphia factory where they were baked.
But it was our staff breaks that I remember most fondly, when a few of my fellow toll takers and I would shut down our lanes before congregating for a meal in the break lounge, a bare-bones room with scuffed linoleum that was filled with the camaraderie of a firehouse. Our shift supervisor, Joe, big-hearted and bigger-bellied, used to heat homemade chili or spaghetti and meatballs on the kitchenette stove. The tomatoes for his red sauce were grown in his backyard in Camden.
Another toll collector used to bring a giant cheese-filled stromboli with provolone and mozzarella cheese, red peppers, and broccoli rabe to feed the whole crew. An incomparably delicious cousin of the calzone, it came from the Pennsylvania side of the bridge, where there was a pizza shop, Romano’s, that claimed to be its birthplace. Those meals, eaten in the dead of night, would keep me going until the morning, when I’d hop the jitney down to Atlantic City for a casino buffet breakfast and then sleep on the beach until it was time to head home and get ready for the next shift.
Now, as the cars surrounding me wend toward the E-ZPass lanes, I choose to pay my toll in cash—wishing I had a box of Butterscotch Krimpets in the back to give to the attendant.
Meryl Rosofsky is an adjunct professor of Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health at New York University.