The Toll Booth
Darrel Merchant was not known to have the best luck. He had Murphy’s Laws and the Corollaries to Murphy’s Laws taped to the wall in his basement office. One time, he bought his kids a swing set. He opened the box and pulled out the directions. The first line read, “So you think you’re going to assemble a Gym-Dandy Swing Set. It only took our expert engineers three days to complete.” When he was driving down the street, he hit every red light in town—but only when he was in a hurry. Water leaked into his basement. One of his kids had two accidents with the car—before he was 18. He either couldn’t put up a straight Christmas tree or his wife’s head was cocked permanently at an odd angle. He ran a ball team and every year it rained on Sponsor’s Night, the biggest crowd of the year. It was OK to laugh when these things happened, because it got so bad, he was left with no choice but to laugh himself. What else could one do?
His kids inherited his luck. The son who had the two car accidents was known by his first name in emergency rooms all over the state. He had more stitches than a quilt, and that’s how he came to be known—”Stitch.” His older brother, Darrel, Jr. had such bad luck with women that at one point (only for a second mind you) he wished homosexuality wasn’t biological. He never learned. He kept going back for more abuse. Darrel’s daughter didn’t get married until she was much older. Because she never met the right guy, she kept saving up for the perfect house. Immediately after the marriage they bought a lot and built in the most exclusive part of town. Wanting to have children, she explored the various fertilization options. One year after moving into their new home, she got the good news that she was pregnant—with quadruplets. After she had the babies, she had to quit her job. It was 2009 A.C. (After the Crash). They could neither sell the house nor make the payments. Foreclosure proceedings began promptly.
Yes, financial bad luck was also inherited. Darrel inherited his work ethic from his mom, who did her best to take care of him, working in a factory and holding other part time jobs. Eventually, his mom would remarry and move to the Chicago area. At that point her fortunes improved. Darrel would take his family to visit grandma in August, and she would insist on underwriting the school shopping. On Christmas, a meat truck pulled up with a side of beef—dinner for the year. Those things helped. But any innate ability to generate positive cash flow was nonexistent. However, they lived in a blue collar town of working families who were mostly employed at one of several nearby factories. So Darrel’s kids were able fit in, unlike some communities where the wrong clothes were cause for permanent exile from the predominant peer group.
Darrel had his first child at a fairly young age, but that was relatively common at the time. His wife did not go back to work until his daughter was in school full time. Things improved a bit, but the overhead never decreased. College, for example was just on the horizon for his oldest boy, and there still was a lot of catching up to do. Though not poor, things were challenging enough. There wasn’t much room on the credit cards at times, but their credit was good and their name solid. Should something unforeseen happen such as the need for major repairs to a vehicle or the furnace going out, they found a way. Loans and paying them back—the American way. The moral of the story: It is much easier to stay ahead of the curve than to dig oneself out of the abyss of financial instability—and less stressful.
The kids knew their parents’ lives were about them, and tried to do their best not to complain or worry. It was their own existence, their constant outgrowing of the clothes, the music lessons, the athletic equipment, etc., that was the root of the problem. Without them, their parents would be going out to eat and taking vacations. The boys felt guilty asking for new basketball shoes or a new baseball glove. They were middle class, they knew it, and they accepted it.
On top of it, they were Germans; miserly Germans, who picked up pennies on the sidewalk, passed down clothes until there was nobody left to wear them or they had holes in them, and coaxed every last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Today’s society probably could stand to be a little bit more like they were. Darrel’s oldest son, Darrel, Jr. looked back on his childhood quite frequently. He came to the conclusion that there is a difference between cheap and modest means. He did not think his parents cheap. They had to make the money last as far as it could go. In truth, when called for, his parents were most generous people.
Still, things could get a little more ridiculous than was necessary and one of those things happened on the way to visit his grandma in Chicago.
When Darrel, Jr. looked back on his childhood, some of his fondest memories were of those trips. Chicago was the big city, the city of possibility. There were lights and excitement. Things were happening. As they got closer to the city on the Tri-State, Darrel, Jr. would know just exactly where the turn was where they could get first glimpse of the Sears Tower.
Every visit to Chicago included a trip to the city. Sometimes they went to a museum or some other educational or kid-boring place, but almost always to a ballgame, and always to the Parthenon in Greektown, his step-grandfather’s favorite place. Roditas wine, flaming cheese, more Roditas wine, fights over the check, and a return back to the house for cards and arguing about each other’s misplays. Once they almost ran out of gas on Lakeshore Drive on the way back from a Cub’s game. Once when he was old enough to drive, Darrel, Jr., locked his step-grandfather’s keys in his car on Halsted Avenue and lived to tell about it. There were memories upon memories. A couple weekends a year when Darrel, Jr. was in Chicago, in contrast to his ordinary and mundane existence in his regular old blue collar town, he felt like he was big time.
But first they had to get there.
Darrel, Jr.’s grandmother lived in what is now a far southern suburb but was then mostly a farm town. To get there they had to go around practically the entire city on I-294. Usually, they had to go on a Friday night and traffic was brutal more often than not. On this Friday night, there was a blizzard, near white-out conditions. This slowed the traffic down even more, and what words Darrel had not learned help-watching his dad put up the swing set or the Christmas tree, he learned that night in the car on the way to Chicago. His dad spent most of his life in a hurry, and sitting in the I-294 Parking Lot stretched the limits of his tolerance to where an MRI, had they existed then, would likely have revealed upwards of a dozen mini-strokes.
During this most interesting display of humanity, Darrel, Jr. and Stitch laid down under a blanket in the back of the station wagon cracking jokes but secretly wondering if their dad was going to survive the journey. It seemed unlikely.
Then, they got to the last toll booth of the night. They were getting close. Perhaps their dad would survive after all. Cars rip out of these toll booths like horses out of the gate at Arlington. That was too much excitement for the kids to miss, so they peeked out of their blanket to check it out. As was typically her job, their mom began fumbling in her change to get the appropriate amount of money. With no quarters left, she was down to two dimes and a nickel, adequate to satisfy the hungry toll. Darrel, Sr., flipped the change toward the basket but a couple coins missed and landed in the snow drift.
“Give me some more change.”
“I don’t have any more change. I told you that.”
“Well, what the hell.”
“Get out of the car and find the money and put it in the basket.”
“It’s 20 below zero and cars are already backed up all over the place. I should get out of the car to look for 15-cents in a snow bank?”
“Get out of the car and find the money.”
At this point, the only other option probably would have been to meander over to a manual toll for change, which could hold things up even more. Whether or not either one of them even thought of that is unknown.
Darrel, got out of the car and started to look for the money, and Darrel, Jr. and Stitch started to roar at the hilarity, while Darrel undoubtedly saw no humor in his current dilemma. Darrel’s wife started to lean over toward the driver’s side of the car, she herself chuckling at the absurdity of their plight. The boys assumed she was just inching over to get a better look at the action, but not so. She actually moved over into the other seat. Just then, Darrel discovered the wayward change and put it in the basket. As he did, the arm of the toll went up, and Darrel’s wife tore out of there and sped off to the side of road. She feared the arm would go back down and they’d be stuck again. Darrel looked up in amazement. He was dumbfounded. Out of options, he pursued the only course available to him and began to chase his family down the Tri-State in a blizzard, weaving in and out of traffic and muttering words that were usually reserved for when he had a tool in his hand.
Fortunately for Darrel, and perhaps unfortunately for her, his young daughter slept through the entire episode, sparing him future humiliation in her teenage years. (“Well at least I never ran down the Tri-State in a blizzard because I didn’t have a quarter . . .”)
By the time Darrel got back to the car, his wife was sitting peacefully back in the passenger seat. He just looked at her, incredulous.
Words were exchanged.
“If I didn’t have another 15-cents, what makes you think I had a quarter?”
Darrel, Jr. lives in Chicago now, but to this day, he takes all the side roads whenever possible. He says he avoids the toll roads because he has an aversion to paying tolls. He also says he likes to experience the flavor of all the local communities. Either or both might be true. There were many times he was a dime or two short as well. There might be some psychological trauma that would be uncovered in therapy if he ever looked into it. Darrel, Jr. remains most cautious about finding alternate routes when his wife is riding along with him.