Sometimes, in quiet moments, Beverly Gernert will lean back against the stainless-steel counter in Tollbooth 10, hum along to a Tanya Tucker tune playing on her radio and gaze out the window at the majestic bridge soaring over the Chesapeake Bay in the background.
It might be nice to go along with all the people hurrying to the east, she will think: to the ocean, the bay, the casinos, to fun and leisure on the other side. It just might. But her reveries are brief.
Because in seconds there's another tattooed forearm shoving a twenty from a truck cab toward her window, another pair of sunglasses peering from a 'Benz, another voice calling from a van, "Can I have a receipt, please?"
Beverly Gernert, 46, is a toll taker on the Bay Bridge. And this weekend, working two shifts on what is officially known as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, between Sandy Point and Stevensville, she will have little time for reflection.
The annual summer weekend migration of eastbound humanity is underway -- cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles, at times 500 an hour, 3,000 a day. By 4 p.m. yesterday, the backup stretched five miles from the bridge toll plaza, but by evening, Maryland State Police said traffic was flowing with no backup. From her perch in Tollbooth 10, Gernert has seen a seemingly endless stream of life, glimpsed in all its variety in snapshots a few seconds long.
This weekend, most of those passing are happy, she said, glad to be getting out of town for the weekend. But in the time she has been manning one of the 11 booths at the western end of the two-span bridge, she has seen the entire range of human emotion, and much of its range of conduct.
She has served as complaint department, mediator and drive-in psychologist.
She has seen both joy and grief; people eating and people on the phone; people virtually naked, people lost, people angry at the driver behind them, people angry at people sitting beside them, people with pets and plants and screaming kids, and people without the $2.50 to pay the toll.
She dispenses directions -- 80 miles to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, 280 to New York City -- along with change, receipts, advice and dog biscuits.
Late this week, as the holiday traffic was just beginning, Gernert, a jovial woman in a gray V-neck, sleeveless sweater with the Maryland state seal, a white blouse, black shoes and gray slacks, paused in Tollbooth 10 and in the plaza's small cafeteria to chat about life beside the slow lane.
The daughter of a B&O train dispatcher, and a native of Baltimore, Gernert, of the little Eastern Shore town of Grasonville, has been working at the bridge since last July. She previously worked there as a toll taker from 1972 to 1979.
She serves as a "floater," meaning she can be called on to work any of the three shifts -- 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. She has worked all days of the week -- this weekend it's 6 to 2 Friday and Monday -- and all the seasons of the year.
Each shift, day and season has its own atmosphere and dynamic, she said: homebound commuters on weekday evenings, truckers on the overnight shift, motorcycles and boat trailers by the score on Saturday mornings, and vacationers on weekends.
"They'll say, `Oh, we're going to the beach,' " she said. "They'll tell you. They're tickled to death. They're in a good mood. . . . We get them when they're going down."
Since 1989, the bridge has collected tolls only eastbound. There are no tollbooths on the westbound span, and no witnesses to the mood on the way back. The older, eastbound span opened in 1952. The westbound span opened in 1973.
Gernert said she likes her $18,000-a-year job because she likes people. "You meet a lot of people," she said. "It doesn't seem like you meet them, but you do."
Commuters, for example, who come regularly, Gernert said, she gets to know well. Often they will try for her lane and come through just to say hello.
But mostly her encounters are with the anonymous masses that flow like a zany river past the white and red sign on her booth that reads: "Caution. Entering Active Traffic Zone."
Truckers she finds the most easygoing. "They don't complain about the price. They're the easiest people, as far as that goes. I don't care what you say to them, they never complain, never."
Older people in motor homes tend to complain, she said. They're on fixed incomes, and "they do not want to pay for that extra car they're towing behind it," she said.
Gernert said she once was mooned by guys in a passing car, during that fad from several years back. "Swear to God," she said. "I acted like I didn't see it. Just turned my head, because I think they were looking for attention."
That doesn't happen much anymore, though other things do.
"I think the weirdest thing is men dressed as women," she said. "You see a lot of that . . . . Earrings and makeup . . . . I don't know where they're going."
The vacationers can be a sight, too.
"People coming down in bathing suits, they look like they hardly have anything on," she said. "I mean, I wouldn't ride down the road like that. But they do."
Then there are the dogs.
"Everybody's got a dog now," she said. "They travel with dogs like you would not believe. Not with one, some of them have three and four in there. When I was here before, I don't recall seeing the dogs like I do now."
But Gernert is partial to dogs. She has a basset hound named Sneakers, hence the biscuits in her tollbooth.
After a break, Gernert strode down the whitewashed tunnel that goes under the toll plaza, through door No. 10 and up the steps to her booth.
She fastened the white nameplate that reads "Beverly G." to the outside of the booth. She unchained the black and white lane barrier, and pushed it aside, near the flowerpot of pink gardenias that decorates the prow of the concrete abutment.
Immediately, like an undammed stream, the flow started her way. Gleaming tractor trailers, Kenworths and Peterbilts, from Kentucky and the Carolinas. A smooth-looking guy in a blue Corvette. A beatnik in a battered Volvo. Retirees in a Caddy. Two guys in red on German motorcycles. Vans loaded with beach chairs, sleeping bags and suitcases. And on and on.
Brakes hissed. Engines snorted. Gears ground. On the black plastic radio in the booth, Tanya Tucker crooned, "Why don't you love me like you used to . . . ." In the distance, the gray-blue spans arched over the sparkling bay.
Sure, she thinks about going along, Gernert said. "If they look like they're going to the beach and all having a good time, you wish you were there with them."
But a hand interrupted, clutching cash. "Thank you," Gernert called over the din.
"You need a receipt?"
CAPTION: Beverly Gernert, from her post in the Bay Bridge's Tollbooth 10, takes a motorist's money and dispenses a smile.
CAPTION: It's one outstretched hand after another for Beverly Gernert, a Bay Bridge toll taker. The hands will come more fast and furious over the weekend.