Life at 'The Plaza'
Henry Gregorio takes a break from his job as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge to dish about work in the fast—and slow—lanes.
How many toll collectors work on the bridge?
Between full and part-time, about sixty.
Do you have a preference for which lanes you work?
A lot of the lanes closer to the building are truck lanes; some collectors prefer those. You’re dealing with bigger sums of money, wide loads, and a lot of military and government passes. Those are different than the outside lanes, which are passenger vehicles, so they’re more change oriented. Everybody’s different.
You must have met a lot of interesting people passing through those lanes over the years.
I’ve kept a list. I’ve seen Bernie Williams, Kevin Mitchell, Joe Torre, Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, Buck Showalter, Peter Frampton, Phylicia Rashad, Glenn Close, Danny Aiello, Gene Simmons. I had Tony Snow a couple of years ago. Most recently, I had Stephen King; he asked me for directions to Boston.
What’s it like in the booths?
They’re gigantic. We have intercoms so we can communicate with each other. We have air conditioning and heaters. We’ve got everything. It’s more comfortable than your car.
What about the exhaust?
It’s not as bad as people think. The booths have a positive pressure system, which is always pushing air out of them, so the exhaust never enters. And people always think the money is so dirty. We have tons of cleaning supplies and wipes. I get more filthy reading the newspaper.
What’s the number-one place people ask directions to?
It’s the roads: they’re looking for I-95, I-84, or the Taconic. A lot of people need directions to the stadiums. And they’ll ask for where to get gas, use the restroom, or get a bite to eat. We’re like tour guides out there.
Anyone ever try to pay by credit card?
No, but I get about three of four people a day who pay by check. You’d be surprised—you’d think there’d be all this road rage and people quick on the horn, but Westchester drivers are pretty patient.
What happens if I drive up to your booth and I’m broke?
Nothing, really. I get ID from you, I fill out a little form, and you can mail in the toll, or hand it in the next time you cross.
Has anyone ever tried to pay all in pennies just to be funny?
That happens. And a lot of times people find themselves seriously scrambling for the money. They pull up to the booth, put the car in park, look in their trunk, go under their seats, look in the ashtray…it can take several minutes. Once a day you’ll get somebody who’s digging for that last quarter—and sometimes you just let them go. They’re very appreciative.
Do people offer you tips?
We’re not allowed to accept gifts. Comedian Bill Murray offered one of the collectors a Christmas tip of $100. You get people having a good day, or coming back from Atlantic City.
What about jumpers on the bridge? That’s been an issue recently.
We had two in one day about six months ago. It’s very sad that people are that down to do that. And they’re inconveniencing so many people, because they stop the traffic.
What’s the busiest time of day on the bridge?
Between 6:30 and 8:30 am.
Are you ever worried that E-ZPass will put you out of a job?
Everybody asks me that. But there will always be people who need directions, and people who won’t get E-ZPass. I’m not afraid of losing my job.
Web-Only Extended Interview
How long have you worked on the Bridge?
Since 1994. Before I was a collector at the Pelham tolls on the Hutchison River Parkway. It was the sister station to the Saw Mill River Parkway. Thank God for the New York State Thruway; they picked me up when those tolls closed. Out of 60 workers there, they hired only 10 of us. I was very grateful.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Being accurate—with my axles and my money, to every quarter. And just getting people on their way when they’re lost. Sometimes they don’t understand you, or you don’t understand them. Or their GPS tells them something different. The job is a lot of multi-tasking. It’s a lot more than just handing out fifty cents to every car. One day at my racquetball club I saw a girl who used to come through my lanes. I asked, her, “What do you think about my job?” She said, “I think it’s mindless.”
What do you like most about working at the Tappan Zee?
I love the area, I love the people I work with, I like the security of the job. It’s interesting. Even though I do the same job every day, the people and interactions are different. I love the view, and looking at the water.
Any fun anecdotes from the celebrities you’ve met?
Mark Bavaro came through my lane. I joked with him that Superbowl champs don’t have to pay here, and he said, “You want to see it?” and he took off his Superbowl ring and handed it to me. I was blown away. My supervisor was with me, and we couldn’t believe it.
Ever have the President come across the bridge?
No, but a few years ago we had Hillary Clinton’s motorcade cross, back when she was running for the Senate. What happens is they will call ahead for a lane, we’ll shut it down and clear it, and then you’ll see like 10 Escalades zoom through.
Taking a bathroom break must not be the most convenient thing in the world.
Yeah, but we all work together. If you have to go inside for any reason, you can just put a cone in your lane and shut it down for a while. We all cover for each other and work very well together. We’ve won Station of the Year a few times. And the bridge itself is very self sufficient. We have our own power and generators, we have cranes and flatbeds and heavy tow trucks to keep the lanes open.
Any unusual things come through the lanes?
Lately, they’ve been sending down a lot of stuff, like slabs, for the new stadiums. Yesterday I was in Lane 1, and they were sending through all of these pieces of concrete for Citi Field, the new stadium for the New York Mets. And the other day there were brand new helicopters wrapped up on flat beds.
Ever have any irate people throw money at you?
I’ve heard stories from other collectors, but first-hand, no. I get people who are upset because they’re lost, or they went over the bridge by mistake, or they’re having personal issues. But I’m good at calming them down and showing them where they need to go.
Your personal opinion on what to do with the Tappan Zee. Repair? Replace?
What they did up in Newburgh was nice. They built another bridge right next to the old one, and they made one northbound and the other southbound. But I don’t know if that’s practical here, because it’s a different situation.