A woman gives her car keys to a strange man. He starts her engine. They both sit up front. Her kids are in the back seat making fun of her because she’s so afraid.
The man’s son is driving in the lane next to them, watching everything.
The woman is crying now, as she buries her head in the strange man’s lap. His son sees the woman’s head disappear below the window.
The man says to himself, “Oh Lord.”
Now the woman is screaming. The man tries to soothe her.
It’s all over in five minutes, give or take, and in the end the woman feels a lot better. And the man makes $30.
The man is Steven Eskew, who owns Kent Island Express, a Bay Bridge drive-over service; the woman was a petrified lacrosse mom on her way back from a tournament with a car full of kids.
Her nemesis: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The Bay Bridge is just over four miles long and takes all of six minutes to cross on a good day, without traffic. Sure, the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge (its official name) is a little high—186 feet from the deck to the water.
But as far as bridges go, it’s not that high.
What freaks people out about the bridge, says Eskew, is the combination of its height, driving over water for four miles, and its relative “openness”—its short concrete barriers and see-through guard rails, which send some drivers, figuratively, over the edge.
For years, the Maryland Transportation Authority drove skittish motorists over the bridge gratis to keep traffic flowing, but the calls became so frequent the state privatized the service about eight years ago.
That’s where Eskew comes in.
During high season, as many as 30 motorists a day pay Eskew or one of his drivers $30 each way to chauffeur them and their car across.
Their alternative is pretty unpleasant: Either don’t go to the shore, or drive up and around—adding an extra hour or more to the three-hour beach commute.
Eskew says drivers’ Bay Bridge apprehensions are a mixed bag of fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of crossing bridges (gephyrophobia), general panic attacks, and vertigo.
And, of course, everyone’s anxiety is different.
“Some people can drive over the east span but not the west, or vice versa,” he says.
The most common anxiety is what he terms the “Christopher Columbus fear.”
“As people drive over the bridge, it rises and they reach a point where they can’t see over the top. Some feel like they are going to drive off the bridge into the bay,” he says. (Columbus, presumably, was afraid of falling off the Earth).
In fact, most people who utilize Eskew’s service are so unhinged by the time they get to the bridge, they can’t keep their eyes open during the ride.“I’ve had people lay down in their back seat with a blanket over their head,” he says.
The bridge-phobic typically schedule their drive-over weeks or days in advance.
“They know it’s coming and they dread it,” he says.
“They ask me, ‘Am I the only crazy one?’
“I tell them no. We drive over between seven and eight thousand people a year. It’s fairly common.”
And apparently is becoming more so.
Eskew says a number of customers become gephyrophobic—at least of the Bay Bridge—out of the blue and are not nervous Nellies to begin with.
“They used to be able to drive the bridge, but for whatever reason, one day they can’t,” he says. “They pull up to pay the toll and realize: Oh crap. You see the fear in their face. It happens.”
His service has driven over campers, cars with trailers, even a tractor-trailer (Eskew has a connection with a CDL-licensed driver for such occasions but needs advance notice) when otherwise intrepid drivers suddenly lost their cool.
Sure, he sees the potential for comic relief in these misadventures (the lacrosse mom is his favorite), but he doesn’t judge anyone for their fears.
“We’re providing the support they need. It’s that simple. Imagine the scariest thing in the world that you ever had to do. Well, now imagine paying someone $30 to make that thing a whole lot easier. Wouldn’t you do it?” he asks.
Eskew, who bought the business five months ago, has been doing drive-overs for about nine years now. He’s developed relationships with his regulars, which include year-round customers who need to get over the bridge daily for work.
They appreciate his understanding and are seriously grateful, he says, and even give him a gift or souvenir from time to time.
“There’s a customer who brings me a tub of Fisher’s Popcorn from Ocean City, and another who gives me footlongs from Ann’s Footlongs in Glen Burnie,” he says.
“Those are the best hotdogs in the world.”