AL COSGROVE, who drives a tow truck for the Triborough Bridge, is a very understanding person. He says so himself. ``I'm very communicable,'' he says. ``I can deal with any kind of people. It's very unique to have that kind of rationality about yourself.'' And to a lot of people whose cars have stalled out in ``Roadway One'' - the fast lane of the Triborough Bridge - Al Cosgrove is a regular knight in shining armor. Al, who has the job title of assistant bridge maintainer, is strong and tough-looking, but he is easy to target as a nice guy. He has a lot of boyish facial hair that doesn't quite make it as a beard, and, although he is black, he has the almond-shaped eyes of an Asian.
Al grew up in Queens (``in the same neighborhood as Bernard King and his brother Albert King'' - both pro basketball players), and now he lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He has been working for the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority, at their main offices on Randalls Island, for 13 years, starting off as a custodian.
``The union and Triborough were kind enough to give me a chance to, you know, pick myself up,'' he said. ``They allowed me to go to school. I went to New York City Technical College for a period of time, and, you know, accumulated enough knowledge to take the test. To get this job it's a pretty hard test you have to pass. It's not about driving trucks; it's on the multitrade skills - carpentry, plumbing, being an electrician, a mechanic. I did a lot of studying, and I passed. I wanted this job.''
The first thing Al does on his shift, which usually begins at 11 at night and ends (unless there's a major accident or the weather is awful, in which case Al is obliged to work overtime) at 7 in the morning, is set up those tall orange rubber cones that help funnel the morning rush-hour traffic into and out of the toll booths. Now, he zigzagged back and forth, carrying four or five cones at a time, setting them about 10 yards apart. On windy winter nights this particular part of his job can be torture, he says. Tonight was wet but it wasn't all that windy; it was the kind of night during which Al expects to get a few calls.
``A lot of people think with a little rain they can move real fast. But that's the most dangerous time on any roadway, 'cause, see, a little bit of rain with mostly oil makes it extra slippery out there. When it's a lot of rain, people are prepared mentally to slow down. In the wintertime, we get a lot of cars that stall out. A nice day we don't see many vehicles.''
Aside from all the different things that can happen to cars, occasionally Al has to help psychiatric patients from the Manhattan State Hospital on Randalls Island who have at times wandered on the bridge and into traffic.
Another tricky, dangerous thing that comes up every now and then is that dogs get loose in the traffic.
Some nights Al doesn't get any calls at all. Then he takes care of his routine responsibilities, or maybe he chauffeurs Triborough employees on or off the bridge, or maybe he'll just drive around to make sure everything is OK.
``One of the main scary parts of this job is cars on fire,'' Al said. ``We get a lot of fires - well, not a lot, but summertime, that's mostly when we get fires. In the summertime. Every time I see a major fire, there's a little voice in me that says, `I hope this thing don't blow.' One time I had a fire - this is when I first started. A blazing fire. And I said, ``Holy boy, what am I going to do with this thing?' But I got there with my hose and sprayed it out. And after I did that, the car was really, really hot, but I didn't realize that because once you see the fire gone, you don't imagine heat any longer. And when I went to hook the car up to tow it, I burned my right hand. (I'm right-handed.) I said, `Holy boy, now how am I going to tow this car?' Then I went with my left hand, and I burned both hands.'' Al sighed and laughed.
After he finished up with the cones, Al and a sergeant from the toll plaza replaced the heavy-duty metal boxes (they call them ``vaults'') in which the fares are collected with empty ones. Then he went to get coffee to go, as he usually does, from a Twin Donut in Astoria, and came back to drink it in a lounge near the toll plaza that the toll-booth attendants use during their breaks. An older man, who had his own special chair situated squarely in front of the TV, fiddled with the reception. Al's walkie-talkie began to crackle. Al said things into it, like ``This is the wrecker, come in,'' and ``Roger,'' and ``ten-four.'' Then he turned, and with a trace of urgency in his voice he said, ``We got a call.''
As it turned out, a van had blown some sort of gasket; the short, surly man to whom the van belonged already had help on the way, and in the meantime didn't want any assistance from Al and the Triborough authority.
Al drove around some more. He took some accident reports to the 25th precinct in Harlem, and to the 40th precinct in the South Bronx, and then he got back on the bridge and parked behind the tolls in the calm slip stream of traffic and sat for a while in the cab and finished his coffee, which by now was pretty cold.
Except for the low drone of traffic, it was quiet. The rain had stopped. The clouds that shrouded Manhattan were fuzzy and luminous. Across the East River, the city looked like a painted backdrop in a Broadway musical.
``So far it's a quiet night,'' Al said.