While skimming Twitter earlier today, a story caught my eye regarding a New Jersey driver who’d managed to rack up $12,000 in fines by blowing through EZPass booths all over the East Coast on 200+ occasions. Some of you may be thinking, “How’d he manage to do that? How could he have gone through so many times and not been caught?” I can testify that doing such a thing is rather easy to accomplish. I know this not from my own experiences, but let’s just say I might have had a hand in a similar tale some 20 years ago.
In the summer of 1990 if you were driving in and around New York City, EZPass signs suddenly sprang up overnight. There was no media campaign about them; no newspaper ads, no TV ads, and since this was 1990, social media consisted of whatever it was your neighbors had churning in the rumor mill on a Saturday afternoon while you were all doing yardwork. I was in college at the time, and since all of my available cash was being used to keep all the elements of my car attached to one another and working most of the time, anything not directly related to a repaint or repair was useless. EZPass, whatever that might be, was consigned to the “Whatever” pile.
Fast-forward two years to the summer of 1992. My sister, Karen, was a Senior in High School, while I was a Junior at Utica College. Most of my summer was spent traveling up and down the NY State Thruway heading to bike races, visiting friends, basically being a 21-year old counting down the months until Senior year. Karen was looking at colleges in and around New York State, and for the first time, was encountering those ubiquitous purple and white signs that got your attention and then told you nothing about what it was they actually represented.
One afternoon she asked, apropos of nothing, “So what in the heck is EZPass, anyway?”
My sister was a very smart young woman when she wanted to be. However, when she wasn’t quite feeling it she’d let her mind wander, and then forget to ask it to come home. I remember my father asking her if she knew how many gallons of fuel her car held, to which she replied, “I don’t know, probably like 40-50?” It’s worth noting that she was driving a 1985 Toyota Camry at the time, and not a C-130 Hercules or Abrams M1A2 tank.
Another classic was doing math homework when my father asked (with both hands firmly grasping his head), “Please. How many feet are in a yard?” She answered, “No idea. How many people came to your barbecue?”
So when she asked me about the details of EZPass, I paused for a moment. She was a young woman getting ready to set off on her own – a young lamb about to venture out among the wolves. This was not a moment to just sweep away. This was a moment where she was seeking my counsel – my experience – my wisdom.
And then I remembered above all, I was her older brother. An older brother who’d been the subject of typical sibling torture for years. An opportunity this perfect, this rich, would rarely present itself. I grinned like The Grinch (if only on the inside), and answered her with all the confidence of a well-traveled man of the world.
“It’s a great new system they’re testing out all over New York and New Jersey. If you don’t have money for tolls, you just head to the EZPass lane. You slow down and pass through – there are cameras setup. They’ll snap a picture of your license plate, and then send you the bill at the end of the month. It’s really sweet!”
My answer was 100%, on the spot, completely improvised bullsh*t. Weapons-grade nonsense.
Tragically, she believed. Every. Single. Word.
“That’s so cool!” She replied. And that was that. I figured eventually she’d know I was completely full of it, but for now, the stage was set for a fantastic joke.
I figured that sometime down the calendar – perhaps weeks later – she’d be on a road-trip with one of her mates, and nonchalantly roar through one of those Royal Purple lanes. Lights and sirens would flash, bells would ring, maybe, just maybe, a State Trooper having a slow afternoon would have to come after her and explain why such a thing was a no-no.
But that didn’t happen.
Fast-foward with me to 1995: THREE YEARS later. When I was finishing Graduate School, and Karen was a Junior at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.
My phone rang and as I answered it – before I could even form the “H” in “Hello,” the voice on the other end screamed out, “You are SUCH an INCREDIBLE JERK!” I knew it was a female right away, but as the high-speed stream of obscenities followed, I realized very quickly that it was Karen, and she was more upset with me than that one time I made a deal with a guy at school that he could go on a date with her if he could get me Pink Floyd tickets (great show, by the way – totally worth it).
She was unleashing a torrent of unbridled fury in the way that only a Long Island Italian can do – the kind where the obscenities are woven together to form a fluid and dynamic symphony of rage. While I noted she was going on and on without seemingly pausing to inhale, I was trying to figure out what it was I had done to make her so very angry. In my mind I was reviewing all of the fights we’d had as brother and sister, but none of them had any debts of vengeance outstanding – I figured we were square.
“YOU SAID THEY’D TAKE A PICTURE! YOU TOLD ME THEY’D SEND ME A BILL!”
Oh. My. God. Could it be? It couldn’t be. That was years ago. Surely she must have figured it out.
“EZPass?” I asked, closing my eyes to brace for what I knew was coming. It couldn’t be. It just COULDN’T BE.
“Wait. Wait. You, actually….believed me?” I stammered the words, teetering between sympathy, and implosion.
Have you ever heard the sound of a 747 starting a takeoff roll? This was like that, only much, much angrier.
“OF COURSE I F*CKING BELIEVED YOU! YOU’RE MY OLDER BROTHER! They have pictures of me passing through toll booths all over the Thruway! YOU SAID THEY’D SEND ME A BILL!”
I wanted to remind her that from a certain point of view, I was technically correct. They had taken her picture, and they had sent her a bill. Granted, it wasn’t in the exact method I’d described, but I didn’t think she’d really want to hear that right at this moment.
“The State of New York has sent me a summons. I’ve racked up $3000 in fines. THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”
Somehow my kid sister, in her 1985 Toyota Camry with the 50 gallon fuel tank, had zipped across NY State unchecked for three years, never once paying a toll, never once hearing the jangly bells, never once seeing the flashing lights, never once did a bored State Trooper come out to put an end to my insidious prank…a prank I had no idea was running on, and on, and on, and on.
EZPass had become Karen’s Waterloo.
She went to court to answer her summons.
She stood before a judge.
She stood there, 5′ 1″ (5′ 4″ with the Aqua-Net based Long Island hair that was in fashion at the time), and simmered, sheepishly.
When asked how she managed to evade tolls all over New York and New Jersey for three years, she told the judge the story of how she thought EZPass took a picture of your license plate and would send you the bill. She spoke in earnest tones, humble tones.
When she finished, the judge leaned forward. As he peered over his glasses he asked her where she came up with such an idea.
She unflinchingly narc’ed me right out. “My brother, sir. My older brother told me that’s how it all worked.”
The judge looked at her.
He looked, and looked, and then shook his head.
He sat back on his bench, and crossed his arms.
“Miss Mina. When you tell me that you thought that is truly how EZPass works, I believe you. I really believe that you believe this is how it worked. But I’m now going to ask you to do two things.
“One, you’ll pay a $200 fine for failure to pay required tolls on the New York State Thruway.
“Two, you will leave this courtroom, and you will never have an EZPass.
“Lastly, Miss Mina, when you marry, I suggest that you marry well.”
His gavel hit the bench, Karen rolled for the door and made her way back to Oneonta without using any part of the NY State Thruway.
She still had no idea how EZPass worked, and frankly, neither did I.
It’s worth noting that His Honor wasn’t kidding on item #2. Twenty-four years later, she is still blacklisted from use of EZPass in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Maryland, and Virginia. Her applications in every state have been politely declined.
She has only recently forgiven me. I can’t say I blame her.
I’m Sorry, Karen.
However, she still hasn’t forgiven me for pimping her out for Pink Floyd tickets.
(Doubt she ever will, but it really was a great show. Totally worth it).
Love always, your Big Brother