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Coastal Commuter

If you’re going to San Francisco

Ever since I began working in Los Angeles for months at a time, I’ve been noticing profound changes in San Francisco whenever I’ve returned north and settled in at my apartment for a breather.

Sometimes it’s a closed restaurant, bar, or retail store in my neighborhood with a new joint in its place. Sometimes it’s new tenants in my building. Sometimes when I’ve been in Southern California for a particularly long time, I’ll return to the Bay Area and even observe a ripple or two in the local demographic — like more dog-owners or more Wednesday night drunks or more law students in my favorite cafe.

But I was particularly weirded out by a recent change I encountered quite unexpectedly. I’d been away for almost two months and was invited by a friend to have dinner at her place in Marin. A home-cooked meal prepared by a superb chef? Count me in.

So it was off to the Golden Gate Bridge early on a Sunday evening. I got to her place, and dinner was, as expected, exquisite: homemade pasta in a spicy arrabiata sauce, sautéed garden-fresh veggies, and for dessert, the Porsche of cookies — oatmeal chocolate-chip treats.

I was stuffed and happy and relaxed when I suddenly realized that I was actually supposed to be present at one of those profound changes I’m always noticing. It was, in fact, the final night at the landmark North Beach watering hole Tosca before it closed for renovations by its new owners. I knew that quite a few friends would be there, and I wanted to pay my respects to the outgoing management and staff, and have one last sweet-n-frothy house cappuccino.

Heading back to the City, I fumbled in my pocket for the requisite, increasingly pricey Golden Gate Bridge toll, and managed to get my hands on $6 in bills. As I approached the toll plaza and started to slow down, I realized that other cars were zipping past me and through the plaza via lanes that were electronically registering the Fast Pass devices on each auto’s dashboard. But I didn’t have a Fast Pass device. I spend so much of the year in L.A., and when I’m by the bay, I hardly ever go to Marin or Oakland. Why would I have a Fast Pass? I’ve got money for those few bridge trips.

But wait. I looked across the breadth of the toll plaza, and saw nary a toll-taker. Instead, a sign was flashing that I shouldn’t slow down. Now, I was starting to freak a bit. If I blew through the toll plaza without paying, would a policeman chase me, pull me over, and give me one of those $500 tickets that I’ve heard about — or worse, toss me into the clink? Without a human in a single toll booth, I almost wanted to find a cop to ask him what the hell was going on. I knew for sure that it couldn’t be a free ride in these economically challenged times. There didn’t seem to be a person in the bunker to the right of the toll plaza either.

So I kept driving. Maybe they wouldn’t notice that I snuck back into town.

I made it to the Tosca, embraced my pals, and had my last house cappuccino — at least until the new Tosca opens, assuming that they’ll continue to make the bar’s signature drink. Eventually, I said my goodbyes, went home and sacked out. By the next day, I forgot about the toll thing.

Two weeks later, an official-looking envelope arrived in my mailbox. It looked like it might contain a summons. As I opened it, I was thinking, Crap! They got me! It’s the $500 ticket for running the toll plaza!

They got me all right. Inside the envelope was a bill for $6, payable by check or credit card. I wasn’t around when it happened, so I never got the news. All of the toll takers were laid off, and an electronic system was put in place with cameras at every tollbooth. They shot me (and my license plate), the computers did their research, they found me, and they billed me.

Now, if you ever cross the Golden Gate Bridge into the City and you don’t have a Fast Pass or some sort of monthly account you can pay into, the machine will track you down and get its money. Apparently, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or whose car you’re driving. Someone somewhere will have to cough up the dough or suffer the consequences — an ever-increasing fine.

Yes, it happened. Big Brother is our toll-taker. And that’s kind of creepy.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture every week on Sirius/XM's Alex Bennett Program and KPFK/Public Radio's David Feldman Show, and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at YouTube and Digidev TV.

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