Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Cult of the Sun Pass

I'll admit it, I'm a cult member. I resisted for a long time, but finally they broke my will with their hard core, relentless techniques. As I sat in endless lines, watching the cult members whiz on by me, my resolve slowly melted and faded into the cliche, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Now I have to confess that I, too, am a member of the Cult of the Sun Pass, with a beeping box mounted on my windshield to signify my supplication to the Great Tollway God.

You may wonder why I resisted at all. After all, Florida is the Land of the Tollways (as well as the Sunshine State, the Hurricane Magnet State, and according to Homer Simpson, America's wang.). Worse yet, those tollways are clogged with dazed and confused tourists, telling their life stories to the tollbooth attendants while those of us who know where we're going grind our teeth to powder and create new bald patches while pulling out our hair in frustration. At least with Sun Pass you have half a chance; you can use the Sun Pass Only lane, which is virtually tourist-free, except for the occasional illiterate soul who doesn't glance at the signs until it's too late.

For me, it's a personal issue. The whole thing smacks of Big Brother. I can just imagine some government official sitting in a back office somewhere, pouring over records of the comings and goings of masses of Floridians. For what purpose, I don't know. I don't really know why it should matter to me, either. After all, it's not like I'm robbing banks or convenience stores and making my getaway on the tollway. But I just have a vague unease whenever the government gets a bit too nosy. I'd rather hand over my dollar and travel in relative anonymity (which is an illusion, since there are cameras at the toll booths too, although supposedly they only snap photos of deadbeats).

My annoyance at the invasion of privacy eventually was crushed under my greater annoyance at spending precious minutes at the toll booths. In Illinois, they have the same sort of thing (dubbed I-Pass), and I lived my whole life without it. The sea of toll lanes there goes on as far as the eye can see, and long lines are rare except at rush hour. I never felt any urge to get an I-Pass. It just didn't seem like it would gain me anything, other than perhaps eliminating some frantic fumbling if I dropped the coins.

In Florida, it's not even peak tourist season yet, and already I've faced some interminable waits. There are far fewer booth than Illinois and a far greater number of dazed and confused drivers. Not too long before the "Big Move," I think that the toll booth attendants actually switched shifts before the moron five cars in front of me finally deigned to go on his way. Those sorts of people are immune to horns and the waves of hatred being mentally directed at them from the line of cars behind them.

Thus, the next time we went grocery shopping, I purchased my Sun Pass transponder at Publix. I didn't have Canyonero (my Aztek) in Florida yet, since that was going to be our transportation for bringing our menagerie down. I figured I should buy the unit in advance, and it would come in handy for that long drive from Chicago to Celebration (or at least the last part of it). I logged onto the appropriate website, charged up my Sun Pass with money, and figured that we were ready to go.

Unfortunately, the initiation of my Sun Pass unit would have to wait. We somehow managed to pack it in the unreachable bowels of the car. With the frigid weather that lasted pretty much our whole journey, we didn't want to open the tailgate and search for it for fear of giving the bird a chill. We only went through one toll booth anyway, so we didn't have to worry about any hold-ups. Even if someone had devoted 15 or 20 minutes to telling their life story to the toll booth attendant, it would have seemed like nothing compared to the four hours we had just driven (and stopped) through the Atlanta ice storm.

We were eager to break in our virgin unit, and we had a Disney cruise scheduled for that Thursday. Driving down 417 and 528 would be the perfect opportunity to give our Sun Pass transponder a good workout. My husband mounted it on the windshield with the little Velcro strips provided in the package. Supposedly, it had been activiated via some remote magic when I registered my charge card online. We made the turn off Celebration Avenue toward the toll booth to enter 417, our eyes glued to the light that should flash a cheery shade of green, accompanied by a beep. We drove through the Sun Pass lane...and nothing.

Well, actually something did happen, but that was the red violator light flashing ominously while an alarm buzz announced to the world that we're deadbeats. I half expected a SWAT team to materialized and forced Canyonero off the road, but fortunately nothing happened. I am still picturing a ticket showing up in the mail, but there wasn't much I could do.

The next toll booth was a manned one, so I pulled up and shared our dilemma with the attendant. She took the transponder and waved it frantically at whatever magical sensor deducted the money. Nothing. Sigh! Just my luck to grab a defective unit from the the stack at Publix. We paid cash and continued on our way.

As we drove along, I instructed my husband to dig the Sun Pass handbook out of the glove compartment and find the toll-free number. Surely it was worth a phone call. After working his way through Voice Prompt Hell, he managed to get a (presumably) live human on the line. She told him that in an Aztek, the box should be mounted on the passenger side rather than near the rear view mirror. She seemed to think that would cure all our troubles, but my husband explained that the toll booth attendant had waved the darn thing around as though she were having an epileptic fit and it still hadn't worked. No, his phone friend assured him, that didn't make a whit of difference. Move the box and it will work.

Big Brother had spoken, so he dutifully moved the box. Nervously, I approached the next toll booth, prepared for abject failure once again. I just knew that I'd never see the green light, never hear the beep of success. I prepared to stop and hand over my cash when I heard it! It sounded like the voice of angels, and that green light blinked like a ray of hope sneaking through the black clouds of misery. Our Sun Pass was officially working.

I know the person on the phone insisted it was due to the box location, but I'm not buying it. If that were the case, it should have worked when the toll booth attendant waved it manually. I'm sure they pressed a button or flipped a switch on some giant control panel somewhere. Oh well, no matter. I am now a member of the elite faction. Lines of tourists stretching like a metallic snake down the roadway? No problem. Just veer left and buzz through the Lane of Privilege. In the mood to rob the Circle K? Don't forget to pop the transponder into the handy metallic bag that comes with it, which supposedly prevents it from registering (that's probably just a Big Brother trick...do that and it goes into super tracking mode.

Yes, it's an annoyance, but it's like the tourists and the gators and the humidity...a small price to pay to live in a place where you can stroll around in shorts in the middle of February. Poor Canyonero will have to bear the Mark of the Cult. It's another fact of life in the Sunshine State.

My email address is celebration@gmail.com

My Celebration website is at www.celebrationinfo.com

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