MARGATE — Debbie Iwashika leans out from the tiny turquoise booth to help an elderly lady swipe her card. She smiles wide and often, as evidenced by the lines around her mouth and sprouting from the corners of her eyes.
“Let me try that for you,” she says with a deep Southern twang.
As the computer “ca-chings,” a yellow bar lifts.
“Thank you. And you have a great day,” Iwashika says as the car proceeds over the Margate bridge.
It’s just two days after Memorial Day — the time when shore towns awaken from sleepy offseasons. The weather this Wednesday morning is foggy and cool, but the traffic is fairly steady.
MARGATE — On an overcast May weekday afternoon at the shore town, Mortimer Spreng was gettin…
It’s not too long before another car pulls up, this time with cash, and Iwashika maintains her positive attitude handing back an extra dollar to a driver who paid too much.
“You want their experience to be as positive as you can,” says the 62-year-old grandmother of six, her brown hair tied in a ponytail and tucked into a Downbeach Express baseball cap. She wears an orange safety vest, gold-framed glasses and dangling yin-yang earrings. “You might as well give them a smile and greeting.”
Iwashika has been collecting tolls on the Margate bridge — known officially as the Downbeach Express — for five years, a job her sister helped her get when she moved back to the area after more than 40 years in Dallas.
“It was close to home, and I love being outside. I love the changing weather,” she says.
Iwashika spent her childhood in Northfield, where she lives now, before moving south with her mom and brother when she was 10. During her youth, Iwashika’s father, Irvin McCreight, maintained his residence in South Jersey and had five more children.
When her father became ill, Iwashika asked her husband, Ken, if they could move to South Jersey so she could spend more time with him. When she got back, it felt like home.
“It does get in your blood,” she says.
After her dad died in 2011, Iwashika began collecting tolls at the Downbeach Express, a job that was hard to come by.
“At the time, we didn’t have any openings. Nobody left,” she says, adding that since then there have been multiple retirements.
Iwashika says everything runs on a schedule at the bridge, down to the minute.
“The only variables are the customers,” she says.
Most customers are friendly, although they become impatient when the drawbridge opens for passing boats. A nature-lover and avid gardener, Iwashika loves people but the best part about her job is the view.
“Where are you going to get an office view like that?” she asks, her hand spread out flat to indicate the bay and marsh that line the western side of Absecon Island.
While she talks to customers, birds chirp loudly and a hawk swoops low to the ground, possibly inspecting its next meal. Iwashika says that on sunny days when people are out fishing, she watches as they bring in their catches and gut and clean them in the nearby parking lot.
If it gets too hot, fans and a small air conditioner keep the two collectors cool in their shared booth. But during peak times in the summer, the bridge can get so busy they can’t close the doors to keep the cold air in.
In the off-season, Iwashika gets to know the locals, the landscapers and the breadmakers who make their daily treks over the causeway. In the summer, she is the welcome wagon for visitors coming into the city.
“We have a lot of people who come down for the summer and for their vacation. You realize they just spent three or four hours on the parkway. And they get here and they’re exhausted,” she says.
Iwashika she gets a lot of questions on where to eat, where to park and where to find a bathroom.
Inside her booth, she has vacation brochures to hand out, as well as dog treats for four-legged guests.
It’s a team effort at the Downbeach Express, Iwashika says. The supervisors, collectors and maintenance workers all help out where they can to make things run as smooth as possible. And when they go out after work, they all go out together.
“The people I work with are the best,” Iwashika says. “They’re helpful, they’re encouraging and you always feel good about being here. If you couldn’t feel good about it, that’d be a hard eight-hour day.”