When Nancy Althoff reaches out to collect tolls on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, she never knows what she'll get. Sometimes, it's a toe.
"Yeah, some people, kids usually, like to put the $1.25 between their toes, and stick their feet out the car window," chuckled Althoff, a 12 1/2-year veteran of bridge collections. "I just take the money."
Stationed in tiny toll booths near the west end of the twin five-mile-long bridges, Althoff and other collectors say they encounter all manner of pranksters. The antics of some of the travelers, who made 3.7 million crossings to and from Maryland's Eastern Shore last year, can enliven an otherwise dull collection routine, but other "creative payment" schemes are less appreciated.
For instance, she was not happy with "a guy who had a snake and the money in the same hand . . . . I told him to put the snake away."
Motorists sometimes throw money at the toll collectors -- which can hurt -- as they speed through the 14-booth toll plaza. Some drivers proposition the toll-takers or spit on dollar bills before presenting them as payment. Occasionally, the money arrives with a little something extra inside -- such as the pin that jammed into Betty McRobie's right hand on Labor Day.
Since the original bridge was opened in 1952 -- the second span came in 1973 -- those have been some of the uglier on-the-job incidents for the toll collectors, whose regular ranks of 31 swell to 60 or more during the summer season and now stand at 56. (All but two of the collectors, who earn between $8,500 and $12,500 annually for full-time work depending on experience and performance, are women.)
But there's also the driver who folds his dollar bill into a neat bow tie, or the "tin man" who wraps his money in tin foil or the guy who presents his toll in an envelope, draws a picture on it and asks for the envelope back with a receipt. One woman, a regular bridge commuter, always hands out crackers and apples when she hands over her toll ticket.
Truck drivers are especially likely to present the collectors with flowers, watermelons or other tokens of affection. One such toll plaza romance reportedly led to marriage.
And then there are the travelers who arrive at the toll booth penniless, virtually an everyday occurrence at the Bay Bridge.
"One man said he was crabbing and went to dip over for a crab and his wallet fell into the water," said Martara Hannah, who has been a toll collector for four years. The theft of a purse or wallet at the beach is the most frequent explanation given for cash shortages.
Years ago, toll collectors used to take a spare tire or a jack as collateral until the toll was paid. Now, police stationed at the plaza pull the drivers over, check for identification and get them to sign a pledge to mail the money in. About 75 percent of those drivers do so, according to a toll facility spokesman who said the remainder are "just written off."
Police are on hand to provide other security, chasing down the drivers who run through the plaza without paying and guarding the collections, which on a busy day can climb to $3,200 per eight-hour shift. Thanks to their presence, there has never been a robbery at the toll plaza, officials said.
An intercom connects each booth to the nearby central office, so the collectors can report any trouble instantly, alert police to suspicious or drunken drivers and serve as "lookouts" for suspects who may be fleeing a crime.
But the toughest part of the job, according to Eloise King, the toll plaza's supervisor, is coping with summer weekend or hunting season traffic backups that cause tempers to flare. The toll booth is the first place where drivers can vent their anger.
"Regardless of what happens, we're the first ones they see to take it out on," says Kathy Noland, one of the toll sergeants in charge of collection shifts.
Motorists often think the toll collectors are causing the delay. "But it isn't the bridge that holds them up, it's the road that comes off of three lanes and goes into two," Noland protests.
The collectors stand during toll transactions and report that the job is more tiring than boring. They must make change, decide the proper tolls for multi-axled trucks and keep track of the cash and commuter tickets.
"It's not easy," said Althoff. "The job gets worse every year because there's more traffic and money to handle." But experience has taught Althoff and other collectors how to take care of themselves should driver confrontations turn particularly nasty.
"You just shut the door," says Althoff.