Counting the Cars

Counting the cars
on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America…
America, Simon & Garfunkel

This is the second in a series of posts about New York.

When we first moved to New York, we drove a packed Volvo up from Washington. I feel like a lot of my stories lately have been about Volvos, but I am the kind of generic, blonde woman who was once married to a guy whose family had come over around the time of the Mayflower, and whose mother was a D.A.R., so Volvos have featured prominently in my life.

Those were not my finest hours – that trip up from DC. We had just graduated from law school; my grandfather (with whom I was extremely close) had just died; we hadn’t yet found a place to live. We had left DC under cover of night, and I hadn’t bothered to change clothes after whatever post-grad event we had run from. I was brittle and angry, and honestly, wearing the correct clothing for any occasion was the least of my worries.

Halfway through the drive, it occurred to me that I should probably take off my heels and my trousers, and I slipped into pyjama pants. I did not notice that I had not put flat shoes in the front of the car with me, and I was that fragile kind of grief-stricken where nothing really made sense, so the idea of wearing proper shoes wasn’t really something I could comprehend in that moment.

If you have ever been swamped under those lilypads of grief – where the surface looked undisturbed but you were just choking – you know what I am talking about: Shoes, why do I need shoes, I have these shoes right here, I will just put them on my feet and everything will be fine. I know that if I put these shoes on my feet I can walk out of the car when we stop and that will be fine. Everything will be fine.

It was not until we stopped, at the top of the New Jersey Turnpike, around Midnight to relieve ourselves and maybe buy Diet Cokes for that last hour of the drive to my future inlaws in Darien, that I realised 1) I had forgotten flat shoes, and 2) I would have to go into the Vince Lombardi Rest Area in pyjama pants and heels.

For the uninitiated, the New Jersey Turnpike is dotted with 12 rest areas/service areas, each named after a famous person who has lived or worked in New Jersey. (New Jersey is known not only for its Turnpike, but also for the fact that one cannot make a left turn or pump one’s own fuel, but those are stories for another post.)

Beginning at the southern end of the state, just after crossing into New Jersey from the Delaware Memorial Bridge, one encounters the Clara Barton Rest Area. Near Philadelphia, one would find the Walt Whitman Rest Area.  While one might not associate Walt Whitman with the Garden State, as Whitman was born and lived as a New Yorker, he moved to New Jersey late in life after a stroke and lived there until his death.

 The Turnpike continues through its tour of state-famous relief areas, encountering perhaps its most famous son – Grover Cleveland – near Woodbridge. Cleveland was Governor of New York from 1883-1885, and served as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States; winning the popular vote three times, but securing enough electors only twice.

Finally, the rest areas end with the Vince Lombardi Rest Area, shortly before the turnpike heads over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Vince Lombardi, of course, was the born-and-raised New Yorker, legendary coach of several NFL teams – the New York Giants, as offensive coordinator; and head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Washington’s team. Unsure of the connection to New Jersey, but I suppose the Giants have always played there?

I digress.

Ten years ago, I got out of the car at the Vince Lombardi Rest Area in my flannel pants, and my high heels, and went into the ladies’ room. There I found a half dressed woman eating a Whopper and snorting a substance off the sinks.

What do you want? she sneered.

I ignored her; peed; and left, my ridiculous heels clip-clopping on the floors of the rest area.

My ex met me in the lobby, two Diet Cokes in hand. In the car, I recounted what I had seen, and he said, Welcome to New York. 

The best, or maybe the worst part was, in the haze of my grief and anxiety that night, it took years for me to even remember this, and even longer for this story to be even remotely funny.

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