Friendly Faces Yield to Transponders and Kiosks

By Phineas J. Stone

In another blow to human interaction, the toll takers at the various stops and starts throughout Boston have passed into the past – and with little to no fanfare.

Most have applauded the change and prefer to be able cruise through with the illusion that it costs nothing, when in fact, it costs the same amount of money. I consider it a loss, though, as we need more of those interactions with people – real faces of real Bostonians – even if the interaction is brief. I guess I’m one of those rare people who enjoyed my toll taker over the years. Somehow or another, on most trips, I could pull up to to the toll booth and find my friend, whose name was Bob.

The new gantries, I’m told, don’t have names.

I tended to hit the Ted Williams Tunnel most often as I go on a lot of airport runs and visit friends in the kind-of-Boston neighborhood we call Eastie. Over the years, like any other person you see a lot but don’t know well, one builds a rapport with folks like a toll taker, a cashier or a corner store owner.

In all the years I paid a toll to Bob when I crossed the Harbor, I never saw him outside of the booth in a real-life setting. Still, I felt there was the kind of bond one forges in the city with people whose face we know and see often – yet who don’t come over for dinner and drinks.

When my kids were young, Bob would often give them lollipops as we passed through.

He was quick with a receipt and one time, when a guy rear-ended my vehicle and tried to get away by switching lanes and going through the other booth, Bob grabbed the license plate – saving me a lot of time, trouble and money.

He handed it to me on the back of an old Turnpike ticket.

On a similar note, I happened into the Panera store in the Back Bay recently. Now, this place does some heavy business for the daily lunch crowd. I used to be familiar with a young man who worked there and lived in the neighborhood.

I would often see him walking on the sidewalk as he went to work there. So it was, there was a sort of kinship when I would sidle up to the cash register for lunch.

“Hey, you’re that guy,” he once said.

“Yea, you’re the kid always walking,” I said back.

That was pretty much as far as it went, but it was a bit of a bond that yielded smiles, pleasantries, a few stories about the neighborhood and, one or twice, some undeserved M&M cookies from the back of the house.

I was disappointed to see recently that his cashier spot had been replaced with a touch-screen kiosk. I used the kiosk, and it worked just fine – had some nice pictures to peruse, but it didn’t say hello and doesn’t walk past my house on the way home from work.

Nor will it ever fork over some free cookies on occasion.

Likewise, gantries and transponders don’t hand out lollipops to kids.

And so here Mr. Boston is this week, whining again about technology and how it’s changing our lives. But don’t you think there might be something to it all?

By no means do I hate technology, but the fact of the matter is that people will type or say all kinds of whacky stuff when they don’t have to look a person in the eyes or risk the consequences of their physical reaction. Face-to-face changes things; it’s why the old-time wise guys in Boston never did business over the phone. (I’m told the North End wise guys back in the day wouldn’t even call in a pasta order ahead of time when they visited a ristorante for fear of not being able to size up the person they ordered from and the cook in the back).

There’s something to these frequent interactions with people we don’t necessarily know. We have a need deep-down as big-city dwellers to forge unique acquaintance relationships with the people we see frequently, but don’t really know. Kiosks, gantries and Facebooks have quickly taken away those interactions to a point where we aren’t so good at relating to other people and we don’t have much of a kindness filter any longer.

You can’t offend a computer, as they say.

I, for one, miss people.


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