Exact Change

May 18, 2004

“From the expressway,” the instructions read, “take the Canal Street exit.” How often the romance and mystery of travel spring from what is not at first revealed.

Had we known in advance that this was an “exact change” exit, we might have had the appropriate coins on hand; we might have rehearsed the throwing of the coins in advance. But no, the “Exact Change” sign, and unmanned booth, up at the top of the ramp took us by surprise and challenged us as travelers.

“I don’t have change. Do you have change?” I said calmly to Laurie, who was driving.

“How do you open these windows?” she replied confidently from the wheel of her mother’s car, equipped with power windows, a luxury we haven’t yet experienced.

“It says 20 cents,” I said inspirationally.

“In my purse,” she said helpfully.

“Where in your purse?” I said.

“In my wallet,” she said, her voice a vessel of cheer.

“Where in your wallet?” I said, smiling at a picture of Abbie next to Laurie’s business card, as my passenger-side window opened with a whir and a warm breath of air wafted in.

“How do you open these windows?” Laurie said, as the window behind me whirred downward, joining its passenger-side mate, letting in more of the refreshing, asphalt-scented breeze.

“Do you have any dimes?” I said optimistically.

“How do you open these windows?” Laurie replied, on a new note, as the window behind her made its way downward. Three windows were now open at varying levels, but the driver’s window remained steadfastly unmovable, unfathomable and impenetrable. Which was not yet a problem, because I had not yet found dimes or nickels to throw into the toll booth’s tiny maw, which was fast approaching on the left.

Laurie’s change purse was in fact a bustling family reunion of the Quarters and Pennies, but then a thin sliver of silver announced the presence of a dime and my heart leapt. “Do you suppose there’s one more dime,” I said, as much to the purse as to Laurie.

“How do you open these windows,” she answered, just as I found a second dime and the driver’s window bowed to the laws of probability and began making its way downward. For a moment I laughed at the notion of abandoning the car at the top of the ramp, or paying with a quarter and running the light, letting the Virginia State Police arrest my mother-in-law a week after we’d left. Of course we wouldn’t have done either of those things, when begging from pedestrians or backing the borrowed car back down the ramp were still options.

“Which way do we turn?” Laurie said.

“Left,” I replied with renewed confidence as we surged forward with all four windows at different levels, an arrangement of auto glass that appeared to be uniquely our own on the streets of downtown Richmond.

“How do you raise these windows?” Laurie said with a winning smile. I ran mine up by way of example. “How did you do that?” she said, radiating calm.

“You need to pull it up,” I replied.

“What up?” Laurie said in a relaxed and confident manner.

I reached across and demonstrated, and moments later we were rolling to our destination, all four windows all the way up, and the two experienced travelers unruffled, unflappable, undeterred.


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