2018-08-09 / Front Page

Guardians of the Gate

By Rona Mann

Neil Sullivan and Jim Perry give visitors a welcome at the Pell toll plaza. 
(Photo by Lynne Tungett) Neil Sullivan and Jim Perry give visitors a welcome at the Pell toll plaza. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Jim Perry. Richard Laurie. Neil Sullivan.

Three men essentially retired from the jobs they engaged in, most of their lives. One worked for the telephone company in New Jersey, another was a vibrant part of Newport’s food and beverage industry, and the third enjoyed a long career at Raytheon. None was willing to retire outright.

“For a couple of months, I played some golf, fished, did some volunteer work, then I saw an ad,” Laurie said. “The Bridge Authority was looking for toll collectors. That was five years ago, and here I am, still working there, still loving the job.”

Laurie moved to Newport from Worcester in 1970 and loves living on the island. He knows many of the residents and always welcomes vacationers and day-trippers with a smile and a kind word.

“You get to meet some interesting people, even if you can only converse for a few seconds,” he said. “Now that Jay Leno has property in Newport, we get to see him occasionally, and Judge Judy just bought a home on the island, so I hope to meet her as well.”

Perry moved to Jamestown more than a decade ago and calls his part-time gig at the bridge “the perfect retirement job.”

Sometimes, he meets people he had long forgotten. “One day a motor home pulled up and the guy inside asked my name,” he said. “When I told him, we realized we had worked together in New Jersey more than 15 years ago. Small world.”

Sullivan is well known in Newport, having been in the restaurant and beverage business for many years. Castle Hill “regulars” will fondly remember him from his time as bar manager at the property. While he has only been part time at the bridge for a year, he looks forward to one day working there full time.

“When you’re part time, you never know what shifts you’re going to work,” Laurie said. “They give you a schedule a few weeks in advance, and that’s what you work. When you’re full time like me, you get a set block of time.”

Whether full time or part time, the men enjoy recounting some of their experiences.

“I [met] a woman, a Rhode Island resident, who had never gone over the bridge before,” Sullivan said. “Her comment to me when she realized she had to pay a toll was, ‘I didn’t know there was a bridge here.’ I guess she doesn’t get out much.”

Laurie has a number of stories. One driver on the way to Newport asked him, “‘When did they build this?’ He said, “1969.” The driver, he said, couldn’t believe it.

The GPS sometimes causes problems, Sullivan said. “They don’t always work properly around the bridge. I had a woman one day with kids in the car going toward Newport. She told me she was going to Narragansett, and I told her she was going the wrong way.” ‘Oh no I’m not,’ she said. ‘My GPS said so.’ I wished her a good trip.”

Perry remembers meeting a governor in the middle of a blizzard. “It was bad out, and suddenly this car stops in my lane, Lincoln Chaffee got out, and went to all the toll collectors, thanking them for working in the blizzard,” he said.

All three men have helped people by paying a toll or two out of their own pocket or aiding someone in obvious distress. “And the public is so good,” Laurie said. “I have many people who like to pay it forward for the car in back of them. One day, I had nine in a row.”

But there are times when their patience is tested.

“Like getting 400 pennies to pay the toll,” Perry said.

“Or when the Uber drivers act like they made a mistake and want a free pass,” Sullivan said.

“When they hand me wet bills from their pocket,” Laurie said. “We call it ‘pocket lettuce.’

Occasionally, after a night of drivers partying in the City by the Sea, the men detect impairment, and report it to the local police.

Do these guardians of the bridge have advice for the public?

“Absolutely! Mount your transponder properly!” Sullivan said.

“Don’t text and drive,” Perry said.

“And read,” Laurie added. “People don’t read the signs before they get to the bridge, and that can cause problems…”

“One day I had someone complain that $4 was too much for a toll,” Laurie said. “So I told [him], when they tear down the bridge to build a new one, they’ll send you a piece of it. The guy said, ‘Really? How will they know where I live?’ I told him, they’ll find you.”

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