A few months ago I flew to Oklahoma City to keynote at a conference about 90 miles outside of the city. I rented a car at the airport, refusing to pay extra for an “E-ZPass.” I impatiently told the rental clerk, “I’ll just pay the tolls.”
I started driving in pattering rain that steadily increased to a downpour. It wasn’t windy, but boy —
was it ever wet! I approached the first toll and chose the lane marked “cash only.” But as I drove up, I noticed there wasn’t anyone in the tollbooth. There was, however, a big sign that read: “Cars: $1.50. Quarters only.” Are you kidding me? Quarters only? Who just happens to have six quarters on them these days? And then I saw my salvation: A change machine sat just before the plastic tollbooth basket.
I stopped at the machine. With a line of cars already forming behind me, I tried to insert a dollar bill. But I couldn’t get it to thread into the machine before it wilted from the rain. I got out of the car, sheltering a fresh, dry dollar bill and tried again. No luck. I felt the pressure of the line behind me and the threat of the message lettered in red above the toll basket, informing me that my picture would be taken and I would be prosecuted if I passed without paying.
So I walked down the line of cars, asking anyone if they had change. No one would even open their window to tell me “no.” In their defense, it was raining hard and I probably looked pretty strange.
Left with no other option, I shoved two soggy single dollar bills in the basket, jotted down the phone number on the warning sign and passed through. A photo flashed, an alarm went off, a red light started blinking. I pulled off at the next exit, into a Walmart parking lot. I called the number from the sign, assuring the person who answered that I had left the required fee in the basket. “You shouldn’t have put dollars in the toll machine,” she scolded me. “They jam it up.”
I hung up and decided I’d better get some quarters in case I hit more tolls. I sloshed my way across the parking lot into Walmart and went to customer service. I took out a $5 bill and asked for quarters. “No ma’am. We’re not allowed to give change.” I explained my predicament, certain they would be moved by my story and would bend the rules. “We really can’t do that,” the cashier told me again. I got mad. “If the situation were reversed I would give you quarters,” I declared. A second cashier was apparently persuaded by this because she pushed her way past the first, opened the drawer and sullenly handed me quarters.
Ten minutes later I was throwing quarters triumphantly into the next toll basket. I would not be defeated. Just before I hit the exit for the conference center I had to go through one last toll. This time there was a person in the booth. Too bad for them, I thought. I am definitely going to complain about a lack of hospitality and organization related to these tolls. I opened my window, holding out my payment; I opened my mouth, ready to speak. But before I could say anything, the woman in the booth announced happily: “Ma’am, you don’t owe anything today! The car ahead of you paid your toll, and the lady in the car told me to tell you she hopes you have a blessed day.”
I closed my mouth and indeed felt a blessing flow over me, softening up the edges that had been growing sharp and cynical.
Grace abounds, I know. But sometimes a few quarters and a good wish can really help it along.
Cynthia L. Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.