Traffic was light on the Golden Gate Bridge at 1:30. In the eight years she had worked as a toll taker, Barbara had never grown tired of watching the milky white fog roll over Wolf Back Ridge onto the roadway, sometimes so dense only the orange tips of the bridge towers peeked above it. That afternoon the fog smelled of the sea and Marin County wild sage, sinking Barbara into an indefinable meloncholy. As the cars appeared and disappeared into the fog, Barbara felt the first jolt before the bridge began to sway, making a frightening groaning, grinding sound. Drivers sped up trying to get to solid ground, racing through the toll booths without stopping. A woman coming from the headlands lost control of her car and slammed into the guardrail. Two bridge sergeants courageously ran onto the still swaying walkway to divert oncoming traffic and help the injured woman. A driver who had seconds before entered the bridge, made a frantic U turn back toward the city, nearly causing a pileup.
As Barbara slumped down on the floor of her booth, riding out the quake, her first thought was of Seamus. When the shaking stopped and the bridge stood still and proud again, she rose and saw three other toll takers huddled together by the bridge captain’s office. Ignoring the drivers slowing to pay, she ran to join them.
“Rick, can you shut down my lane so that I can get home and check on my dog?”
“No way, Barbara!” the bridge captain shouted, “We have to keep all lanes open for emergency vehicles!”
Barbara was shaking, tears welling up in her eyes. Seeing this, the captain softened.
“Barbara, I can’t let you go home to check on your dog when others have kids in school they’re worried about. You can see that, can’t you?”
She knew he was right and felt ashamed of having asked. The bridge captain ordered everyone back to their posts. Barbara begrudgingly returned to the repetitive task of toll taking and making change for tens and twenties as rattled drivers slowed to pay. The earthquake had coalesced her years of ennui and loneliness. With frightening clarity, she realized how pointless and empty her life had become. For nearly a decade she’d worked at a job a machine could do as well and her closest, most intimate companion was a dog. Gradually, resentment replaced self-pity and she became terse with the drivers wanting to commiserate as they passed through.
“They’re saying on the news that the Marina is on fire and dozens of people are dead,” one of them told her.
“Did they say anything about Pacific Heights?”
She tried to call Daniel but the phone lines were jammed with callers. She still had two hours left before her shift ended and another half hour ride home, assuming the buses were running on schedule. Other toll takers were being allowed to leave while hers and one other lane were left open. Her anxiety mounted as she thought of Seamus alone and terrified, possibly hurt or worse.
“Why do I have to stay and they get to leave? And what’s the point of closing lanes?” she thought, “Just open the damn things this once and let everyone go through for free. What difference would one lousy day without tolls make?” Before she knew what she was doing, she propositioned the next driver.
“Listen, I’ll pay your toll and give you twenty if you’ll drive me to Fillmore and Buchanan.”
The young man looked perplexed for a moment, then sensing her desperation said, “Sure. What the hell. Get in.”