An Open Letter to a Fussy Woman at a Toll Booth

Intro from Jay Allison: Donald Whalen is a computer programmer, among other things. He makes stories, like this one, because he has something to say. It is an eloquent statement about casual oppression that many will understand.

Listen to “An Open Letter to a Fussy Woman at a Toll Booth”

About An Open Letter to a Fussy Woman at a Toll Booth

Toll collection is the second oldest profession.

In Greek mythology, Charon the ferryman (one of the oldest service workers) required that a toll be paid to carry souls across the rivers between here and Hades. Souls unable to pay were left to wander around for eternity searching for the damn place.

This is the story of a nightmarish customer who felt entitled to a free ride across the river Styx.

What it is like to work in a tollbooth

(That, above, was hyperbole.)

In 2005 I was in school and working at the parking ramps. I bugged them for weeks to hire me because the idea of being paid to sit alone in a booth seemed absurd and amazing. Up until then all my income was made through doing magic shows for birthdays and banquets, and I was ready for something that felt a little less exposed. Parking seemed to accommodate the level of introversion I was seeking and provided some spare time to work on a few media projects.

Here is a video from that time.

Personally, I feel that paying for parking is a fool’s errand, but I am also a cheapskate and have burned whole tanks of fuel hunting for a free place to ditch my car. I did not blame any of my customers for valuing convenience, however.

I produced this piece in 2006 through a course in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The group was led by Jeff Porter, who helped me to focus in on the specifics of my fascination with the tantrum I had witnessed.

This was not intended to be a strong commentary on socioeconomic separation. At the time, my perception was that the low wage working class was rather small, and that we, the members of it, were simply biding our time until becoming doctors and professors, or wealthy and imbued with clout by some other means. This was simply the affect of the times in a liberal arts town like Iowa City, and the basis on which many of us were funneled into school.


I have always felt a bit of sympathy for the woman in this story. I have to assume that this was not one of her proudest moments. Perhaps she went on sabbatical to Tibet following this experience, and is a much calmer person now. Who knows?

While the story is about her, it is certainly not for her. Instead it is a love letter to my friends in the service industry: the overeducated under employed, and the undereducated over employed. It is dedicated to anyone who can state, without looking, how many dollars and cents are in their wallet and bank account. To people who accept work in stations vulnerable to deprecation and demoralizing treatment. It is to any barista who has made me a beautiful design in my latte as thanks for a tip. It is to the bussing crews at buffets who turn tips over to lost and found.

To the messengers and foot soldiers who show up, stand all day, and then walk to job number two. Mainly, it is to the ones who share themselves with the world, rather than assuming the world will be privileged to receive them.

Donald Whalen

Donald Whalen

Donald Whalen lives in Iowa City where, today, he is a computer programmer. In his spare time he enjoys producing music, games, and audio works. He is also a fan of the Oxford comma. His website is


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  • lauraherberg



    Donald – First and foremost, great essay. I love how you respond to the lady not with her same irrationality and rage but with calm, cool, collected reason. As someone who has served many years as a busser in the service industry but who currently volunteers my time as a radio producer [yes that’s right I said, ‘volunteers,’] it should go without saying that this hit home.
    In addition, I really enjoyed your video about working as a parking attendant. It’s funny to note that at first I was like, “Parking attendant — hm, that sounds like a good job. Maybe I should get a part time job in a parking garage.” As for your video – no offense but if you told some people about it, I’m sure they might think “There’s no story there. Why did he make this video?” but it’s your simple commentary about your job and the way you highlight some of its “finer” moments that I think make this a great little video. I know ‘computer programmer’ is listed as your primary occupation, but I look forward to coming across newer creative content from you.

    • Donald Whalen



      Thank you for your kind words. You’re right, if you’re in the market for an interesting job, it can be enjoyable. After being a parking attendant I worked in restaurants, like you. Customers who have never worked on the other side of a menu may be unaware of what highly skilled individuals they are dealing with. Good service is actually a miraculous, precisely executed act of engineering. I miss my time in the restaurant, but I can’t hold a flame to my good friends who are expert servers.

      Also, as someone who understands what it is to be compelled to create radio, you are in good company here 🙂

  • mayantours



    Hi Donald,

    Great piece – thanks for making it. I directed an entire documentary on this very subject of entitlement and parking and the parking attendants who snub the parkers and vice versa. It’s called ‘The Parking Lot Movie.’
    I think you might enjoy it so please check it out and let me know what you think.


  • Leslie



    Hi Donald, I have to confess that, although I don’t drive a late model car or wear $400 suits, (my car is 27 years old and my work outfit is old jeans and a T-shirt), I have at times approached the insensitivity of the lady you describe. It happens from time to time when I’m having a really bad day and feel oppressed by bureaucratic bullshit. I truly regret taking out my emotions on the poor slob who is helping me in whatever capacity. At the same time, I have run into some truly unconscionable bureaucracy here and there. Like the time the hospital refused to contact the other out of network hospital to get my $1,000 ambulance ride paid for; and the out of network hospital refused to contact the in network hospital. Instead, they insisted that I pay, even though I was not responsible for payment. Neither party would contact the other, but they would, I found out (after a half hour of calling back and forth between them), remain on the line if I would conference them in on a 3-way call. (Thank God my work phone had 3-way calling.) This is the kind of stuff that makes me pull my hair out. Ever since, I have had a low tolerance for this sort of stupidity and it makes me furious. So, based on my own bad experiences, there’s a teensy part of me that can understand such outrage, even though I know it’s not the fault of the poor ticket taker or whoever might be on the receiving end. My apologies to your coworker and anybody else who may have been the recipient of what appears to be this lady’s and my unreasonable anger.

  • Whitney Jones



    Hilarious & delightful! The madcap music throughout is a perfect touch.
    Laughed aloud, indeed I did!

  • Marge Donoghue



    This made my day! so well done. I managed a wine bar for 4 years in a neighborhood filled with women like this.

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