The few drivers on this dark, lonely stretch of the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco County pull up to the toll booth, hand their dollars to Lloyd Blair and then speed away. None of them knows why the old man sits here, night after night, working the graveyard shift.
Well, here’s why:
Because years ago, on a freezing winter night at a party in Queens, N.Y., he met a woman named Millie.
Because he fell in love with her brown hair and wide eyes and 100-watt smile.
Because they got married, moved to Staten Island, had a son and worked for decades in Manhattan; she as an accountant, he as a banker.
Because it had been their dream to retire to Florida, and so they saved all their lives to make it possible.
Because, just as they began to talk of leaving New York and heading south, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and they spent their time and money traveling to New Jersey, San Diego and Mexico in search of a cure.
Because, in the end, they came to Florida anyway.
Because they finally bought a house in Spring Hill, although she was too weak that day to get out of the car.
Because she died nine days later on Jan. 5, 2002, a day “the whole sky fell,” he says.
Because, after she was gone, he found himself alone and $100,000 in debt.
And so he took a job collecting tolls. The drivers who pass by see a smiling 71-year-old man with blue eyes and a gray mustache who tells each of them, “Have a great night!”
They don’t know the rest of Lloyd Blair’s story, or that he keeps Millie’s picture in his shirt pocket, just under his name tag, just over his heart.