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Joyce MacIsaac, bridge ambassador

Toll booth worker Joyce MacIsaac takes your money, lets you slide on the last diem and sees what's going on in your backseat.


Joyce MacIsaac has the blinds open in her toll booth on the A. Murray MacKay Bridge.

She's doling out quarters and counting the axles on semi-trailers and watching, watching, watching...always watching: cars, passengers, lanes, drivers pulled over talking on cell phones, cargo vans rumbling at her down Highway 111, dogs popping their heads out of back windows and licking her hand as her gives their owners change.

Kiss's "I was Made for Lovin' You" stomps out of the grime-covered boombox in the corner but 56-year-old MacIsaac says she's too busy to even hear the music.

Mostly, though, I think, it's the sound of her own voice that sinks the songs---a volley of "How are you today dear?" and "Thanks so much!" and "You're going to have a good day now, aren't you?"

Joyce says the secret to cheery commuters is simple: you get what you give. "If you have a toll booth operator is who is nice, you are going to get a driver who is nice."

Helps, too, that MacIsaac, who wears her grey hair short-cropped and matches pearl studs with her standard-issue Commissionaire's blues and safety vest do I say it? Human.

She grants occasional IOUs at the booth---"I had a woman say, 'My wallet is in my other purse and I have no money!' And I say, 'OK. Get me next time.'" Other days the odd guy will pull up only managing to have scrounged 65 cents from the seat cushions and ashtrays. She'll let him go.

"It's common sense," says MacIsaac. "You have to trust."

And usually, she says, people actually come back and pay.

Of course, it's not all hymns in happyland in the toll booth. Because here's the thing: it's not easy to have 18-wheelers barreling down on you at 100 clicks. And less so---at least in my new and limited experience---when you realize how penned in you are in the booth. There's only a foot's latitude left and right.

MacIsaac says she's used to it. But not the way a window cleaner gets blase about heights. MacIsaac, rather, is hyper-aware: "That guy is going too fast," "See him shoot around there?" "He didn't even signal."

Other professional hazards? Cigarette smoke curls into the booth. Cold blasts through the door. But she's got heat (and air conditioning) and even masks if the polluted air becomes too much. She does wear latex gloves; more than one commuter commented on her flu-protection savvy.

Except MacIsaac doesn't wear them for

the flu. "Money is dirty," she says, noting that many drivers put it in their mouths before they pass it to her.

And speaking of inappropriate behaviour, here comes a 20something dude in a blue sedan.

How are you today? You're lookin' good!

Thank you. I like that! I don't know if my husband would like that, after 35 years.

That long? You should still be on the menu!

You have a good day now sir.

"Sometimes," she says, good-naturedly, "you have to draw the line."

But where MacIsaac can't draw the line is what she sees looking into cars. She's got a bird's-eye view into occupants' laps.

"I see a lot," she says.

Today, it's mostly coffee cups and phones and bagged winter tires in backseats.

"Friday nights? Taxis? People coming from the bars? As an older woman I can say, 'Oh! I didn't know you could do that!'"

A shift for MacIsaac is four hours in the booth, four hours walking the lanes and another four in the booth.

And forget what I said about the booth being nerve-wracking. It's lane-floating that's an unequivocal terror---like Frogger, but with only one life.

To get from the office to MacIsaac in booth 14, I donned a fluorescent safety vest and crossed with the help of the lane floater, Paul. I timed it: three minutes and 48 seconds. About 70 percent of vehicles use MacPass and barely lose speed through those tolls. Terrifying.

"A couple of people have had bruises," Paul tells me.

Not bad for about 100,000 crossings a day.

Sometimes people holler at MacIssac, she says, if the traffic's backed up or they feel like the toll is too high (though it hasn't increased in 17 years): "I let them vent."

I ask MacIsaac what's she's learned on the job so far (she's only been full-time since January). "We are the most friendly Nova Scotians," she says. "Toll booth operators."

Yeah. She's probably right, you know.

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