Thursday, May 28, 2009

Where to Stop Between Maryland and Home

Touch the Water Tower

Along the New Jersey Turnpike between exits 7 and 7a, there is a rest stop where we got stuck once because the brakes went. Well, they didn't go, but they made a grinding noise that we felt in our teeth and we got scared. We got especially scared because Amanda, our driver who was from Vermont, told her parents we were having a fun weekend seeing a band in nearby Montreal. We did see the band. In Baltimore.

The grinding grew louder than our conversation by the time we reached the Maryland border, but it wasn't until we were on our way home two days later—after we'd seen the band, of course—that our collective fear grew jittery and swollen enough in the confines of Amanda's sea green Civic that we finally pulled over.

The service station at exit 7 consisted of a gas station and a single garage manned, because it was Sunday, by a single mechanic. There was no fancy fast-food mega station with its side-by-side array of pizzas under lights and wrapped burgers. No machine to print an impression of the Statue of Liberty on a flattened penny. The service station at exit 7 was a service station, period, and a small one at that. We called AAA hoping for assistance, but you can't use it on the New Jersey Turnpike, which requires the autoclub to funnel all calls to state-run services, didn't we know?

So we were stuck. But Brian, the mechanic, seemed particularly eager to save the day for five forlorn young women, and promised us new brake pads, if we waited around a bit. He could send someone to get us the parts on the other side of town. Still, though, we had to get home. We had classes, jobs. And we were still so far from New England.

“If we left right now,” I asked, “Would the brakes keep working until we got home?”

“Maybe.” he said, “If you pump them.”

The thought of pumping brakes being sufficient enough to terrify all of us, we decided to wait. So we waited. We bought potato chips and gummy fruit in the tiny convenience store. We lounged across a sidewalk, reapplying sunblock, recounting every band story we could think of. The boredom became excruciating, the sun relentless. We took photos. Of Amanda's poor car, helpless up on the jack. Of each other looking bored. In one photo, taken from a low angle, my sister stands in a blue t-shirt with her index finger extended upward so it looks like she's touching the bulbous top of a green water tower in the distance. Under her giddy smile lurks a touch of frustration. Aren't we having such incredible fun. As though she wants, more than anything, to extend the other finger.

Brian fixed the car. We took a photo with him, too.


The first thing I recognize is the water tower. Or maybe it's the only thing. I unfold myself from our rental car and my feet touch the pavement and I'm starving, post-work, Friday afternoon exhausted in a black dress coming from New York City on our way to Ocean City, Maryland for the holiday weekend. We're halfway across the parking lot, and I'm already deciding what I want. A fast food cheeseburger? A rare thing, a treat reserved only for road trips. Or TCBY yogurt full of sprinkles, a frisbee-sized, single-serving pizza from Pizza Hut.

The rest area teems with food and services, with drooping American flags, with a staff of hundreds. You can sit, watch Fox News on the monitors on the ceilings, change a baby, press a penny into one of several shapes: The Statue of Liberty, a flower, or a tiny imprint of The Lord's Prayer. Everyone else is bewildered by the array of food, overwhelmed by their choices, by the stalls lit up in blaring primary colors, branding to the extreme. I'm starved. I want a cheeseburger.

I unwrap it on the way back to the car with my friends, who are sucking on shakes and picking beef jerky out of a bag. And then, it rises up in front of me, the green bulb of that water tower, and I an nearly knocked off my feet by a drowsy wave of deja vu.

It's been nearly a decade. I haven't heard from Amanda in years. I am tempted, for a moment, to go into the service station, to ask for someone named Brian. I miss my friends, my sister who lives far away now.

I do what I can in her honor. I pull out my digital camera and put my hand into the frame, extend my index finger. It's not the same, of course. There is no capturing that low angle, the look on her face. I touch the water tower. Well, I “touch” it.

Go there:

The Woodrow Wilson Service Area (the side with the water tower) is located between exits 7 and 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Richard Stockton Service Area (the one with the Burger King) accommodates the southbound lanes in the same location.

1 comment:

kitchendoor said...

This made me happy and sad :)