How Much Does It Cost to Get Out?

          In the 1950's the easiest method of long distance travel up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States was via the train. Interstate highways were still a dream of the future and the economies of scale had yet to bring air travel within the budgets of most families. As such, when my aunt and her children, who lived near Washington, D.C., came to visit her father, they often came by rail. While the main line from New York to Miami did stop at Union Station in Washington, it did not pass through our tiny hometown of Mt. Olive, NC. The closest stop on the mainline was in Wilson, NC. So when Aunt Eugenia brought her family for a visit, they would take the train to Wilson and my grandfather would pick them up there.

          We children who lived in Mt. Olive always begged to accompany Grandfather Cox on these excursions because we loved the thrill of travel and the sites to behold in a big city like Wilson. In the 1950's, we viewed Wilson as if it were the Bagdad of the Coastal Plains with its population that easily exceeded 10,000. When there was room in the car, Grandfather Cox would let a few of us go with him. I still remember the first time I accompanied my grandfather to Wilson. He had selected my older brother and me to be his traveling companions that day.

          We arrived at the train station early and had about one-half hour’s wait until the southbound train arrived. As is the case with all small children, immediately upon arriving at the train station, my brother and I had to go to the bathroom. Grandfather Cox pointed out where it was and warned us to not tarry and to come right back. Upon entering the men’s restroom, I was confronted by a sight that I had heard of, but never expected to see, pay toilets.

          I stood in astonishment in front of the row of coin actuated doors with not a penny to my name. A kindly stranger looked down at me, sized up the situation in an instant, and promptly put a nickel into the slot. I opened the door, went in, and the door slammed shut behind me. Suddenly, I was panic-stricken. Mustering all the logic that a five-year-old mind could possess, at once I realized that to get the door to open, a nickel had to be inserted into the coin receptacle. I was trapped inside with no more money than when I had stood outside. In a voice that obviously betrayed my terror, I cried out to the kindly stranger,

How much does it cost to get out?

          Realizing that he was dealing with someone of limited familiarity with the big city, he quickly reassured me, between stifled chortles, that the door could be opened from the inside without the need for a coin. Based on the peals of laughter I remember hearing from the other men in the restroom, I have come to believe that the kindly stranger never spent a better nickel.