Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Me, Miami and tollbooth Wallace

By Tim McManus

Here’s a perfect example of why I like sports:

For the past six years, through three different jobs and two moves, I have taken the Pennsylvania Turnpike to work. And the one constant through that time (besides the fact that I can barely afford the rates) is this one tollbooth worker. Maybe you’ve seen him.

He looks and talks exactly like Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction. The man either has some infinite wisdom or is medicated, because despite the tight quarters, the terrible hours and the constant exhaust running through his nostrils, he always has this cool, I’m-on-an-island-in-my-mind demeanor.

Every time I pull up he gives the nod, says “What’s up man,” in a baritone pitch and then gives the affirming “Alright,” as I pull away. I like to think as I’m leaving that he gets a call, listens for a minute, then says: “It’s cool Jules, I’m on the motherfu*%er. Go back inside, chill those nig#@rs out, and wait for the toll booth man, who will be arriving directly.”

For some reason -- probably because the rest of the workers look somewhere between miserable to close to death -- I always feel a little bit better giving my money to this cat.

Now the interaction I just described has never wavered for six years. He always starts with the nod, says the same thing, and never breaks from the slightly-sedated, placid personality.

Until last night.

I was driving home from work during the fourth quarter of the Mavs-Heat game, trying desperately to find an AM station that came in somewhat decent. That was pretty much a failure, but I did find one that faded in and out every 10 seconds, allowing me just enough audio to give me an idea of how the game was going.

As I pulled off the turnpike and moved toward the tolls, Wade nailed a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left to put Miami up 95-90 and secure the franchise’s first-ever championship.

The sound faded out as I moved between the booths, but Wallace took over the commentary from there:

“We did it! We did it! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

He was doing some kind of crazy shimmy that nearly tore his compartment down, then threw in a couple Jordan-like fist-pumps. There was no room for the customary nod, not a word spoken to me before I drove off. He just took the cash and went right back to his moment.

It was the first time in six years that I saw my man smile, and it will probably be the last.

I get the feeling that there’s nothing else that could have happened that would have brought out the same reaction. If the woman he loved said “yes”, his kid got a scholarship or his company decided to give him an amazing early-retirement pension package, I doubt that I would have seen the same Antoine Walker-type dance as I had last night. Those types of celebrations are usually designated for loved ones or when you’re alone in front of the mirror.

Sports, though, is a shared experience. Even though we were far from South Beach and I just pulled up randomly, I knew exactly why he was pumped and he knew I knew exactly what he was responding to.

It made me remember why I’ve been putting up with this city’s failures for so many years: Once one of these teams finally pulls out a championship, it’s going to be like that experience times ten thousand; a whole city of tollbooth Wallace’s running around like crazy.

See, Wallace is like Philadelphia, a bunch of people walking around like everything’s alright, but not too alright. But like an adrenaline shot to the heart, a title wakes everyone up and paints them electric.

If only for a moment.

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