|Worst Rest Area Ever.
As I write this, I’m on a bus to New York, pulling out of the worst rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike—James Fenimore Cooper. I know it’s the worst one not because I can’t imagine there’s anything worse, but because I’ve been to all of the other ones. This is a route I know well because since moving to DC, I’ve spent a lot of time on buses or in cars traveling the east coast to NY or CT, and let me tell you, no matter what James Fenimore Cooper may have done in history (no really, what did he do? I’ve looked it up like seven times now and always promptly forget. The only thing I know about him is that I read a really douchey quote from him once en route to CT), he does not deserve this legacy. Pretty much every other rest area at least merits a Starbucks. Our friend James, however, gets little more than a Burger King, a shitty convenience store, and a Cinnabon that’s almost always closed by the time we roll into the rest stop around 10pm. In fact, the only thing noteworthy about James Fenimore Cooper is that it’s located the exact distance between DC and New York that I have to pee really badly, and so no matter how much I’d like to avoid it, I almost invariable end up stopping there.
Thanks to a very memorable trip two years ago–one of the first times I traveled this NY to DC route, in fact–the New Jersey Turnpike holds a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, that place is heavily diseased, probably with a clot or something. I hate the New Jersey Turnpike, y’all. And this is the epic story explaining why.
Sometime at the end of college, K, L and I decided we were all going to move in together (not a very original idea, as we’d been doing that for four years already) after graduation down in DC. We needed a place to live, however, and so K and I Craigslisted it up and found some suitable places to sublet for the summer while we figured out what the hell we were doing with our lives. K and I prepared to drive down to DC to check them out. L wasn’t available to come (don’t remember but she probably had cool places to be), but we needed to drop off our soon-to-be-former roommate KLin in NY on the way so she could move out some stuff at her sister’s. I usually play DJ on road trips, so I loaded up an iPod with the challenge of finding music that all three of us could tolerate, and we headed out in K’s Chevy Malibu.
The first half of the trip went splendidly. We left Boston singing along to my playlist of mostly Britney Spears (so much that K pretty much refused to listen to Britney Spears for the next year; if our three musical tastes were laid out in a Venn diagram, the mutual overlap would be alarmingly small), laughed, missed all the traffic, and had a generally awesome time. And then the amazing happened. We got to KLin’s sisters apartment, where we were staying for the night, and there was a parking space. Directly in front of the door. In Manhattan. At night time. When people tend to park their cars. When we had a trunk full of KLin’s shit to unload. It was like the traffic Gods shone down upon us, bestowing us with golden car karma.
The next morning, we had to drop KLin off at the bus on the other end of Manhattan so she could go back to Boston. We were almost there when a voice from the back seat cried “SHIT I forgot my phone we have to go back!” Unfortunately, we had no idea how to do that. Our Mapquest instructions did not tell us how to go back to get an abandoned phone, and without said phone, we had no GPS. K, if you’ll remember, has the worst sense of direction in the world, and we had to navigate our way back with our wits alone. But miraculously, we did not get lost. And even more amazingly, there was no one else on the road, and we didn’t hit a single red light. I will forever associate New York with driving down an empty street, watching the lights change to green for us one right after another. I’m guessing no one else in the world will share this association with me, except maybe K. This was turning into the Best. Roadtrip. Ever.
However, the universe noticed that we were enjoying far more than our share of good car karma, and our luck was about to change.
Phone in hand, we tried again to drop KLin off at the bus in Chinatown. But this time, something went awry. We took a wrong turn, and suddenly we were on the Brooklyn Bridge. This, we knew was bad, and we manage to turn around and get back on in the other direction. But as soon was we got back to Manhattan, we didn’t know where we were. We asked KLin to turn on her iPhone and tell us where we were. While stopped at a stoplight just off the Brooklyn Bridge, the following conversation actually happened:
Me: KLin, are we go north or south?
KLin: We’re stationary.
K: KLin that is not helpful. Can you see where we need to turn?
KLin: Yeah. You need to take a left at the yellow road.
K: KLin, is the road actually yellow?
KLin: Oh, I guess not. No.
Somehow we made it to the bus stop; I must have commandeered the iPhone from KLin. After we dropped her off, we got back en route and made our way to the New Jersey Turnpike. We pulled into the first rest area (Alexander Hamilton!) to grab some necessary breakfast items and then continued on our way.
Just outside of Delaware, disaster struck. I needed to pee, and while I was whining, K spilled Starbucks all over her pants. I use the term pants loosely, because they were actually ill-fitting, vaguely transparent pajama shorts. She pulled over to the shoulder to mop up the mess, and while we were driving back onto the Turnpike, the oil light came on. The car instantly stopped accelerating. We pulled back onto the shoulder and turned on the emergency lights. We checked the oil, and it was really, really low. I called my dad to see how long we needed to wait before adding more oil (you don’t, apparently), but as I was on the phone, I notice a large, black puddle seeping from under the car. This was very, very bad.
We called AAA. Fun fact: AAA cannot tow off the New Jersey Turnpike. Only special companies can tow you off the New Jersey Turnpike. They tow you just off the Turnpike, where a AAA towing company can pick you up and tow you to a mechanic. We finally got in touch with the New Jersey Turnpike Towing People, and they said someone would be there in twenty minutes. Which was a lie.
Meanwhile, I still really had to pee. I would have gone into the woods next to us, except that there was a sharp drop off from the side of the road that also looked like it was covered in poison ivy. The worst part? We were exactly one mile from the last rest area of the New Jersey Turnpike, Clara Barton. I know this, because we were stopped directly in front of the sign declaring it so. That sign taunted me in my misery for a full hour before the tow truck guy showed up.
|Do not go here. There is nothing for you.
We got towed to a parking lot in a place called Carneys Point, New Jersey. After securing a bathroom, we figured out our next strategy. Terrified we would be forced to spend the night somewhere called Carneys Point, we had to do something. Apparently, K’s AAA membership covered 100 miles towing. As it happened, we were exactly 112 miles from DC. We decided our best option was to get towed to a mechanic in DC. K’s family friend gave us the name of a taxi mechanic, and we had a plan.
An hour or so later, our second tow truck showed up. As they were not prepared to drive us the 112 miles to DC right then, we got taken to a mechanic in the next town over, Penns Grove, where we were to wait for another indefinite period of time. Defeated, and with nothing better to do, we sat on a bench outside and stared into space for about three hours. Then, the owner of the mechanic shop was finally ready to tow us to DC. Since we no longer had a car, we had to sit in the cab of the tow truck with this man, who was exactly like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, except not remotely as cool. In fact, the only way he was like him was his tendency to ramble incoherently about his past wives and lifestyles.
For the next four hours (traffic was really bad), we got to hear Mr. Cogburn’s life story. I no longer remember all the details, but I do know that he’d had three wives. I think one marriage ended in infidelity, another one ended during his period of experimentation and drug use during the 80s. Then he got into drag racing, which he still does. His car was featured on some drag racing TV show. K left most of the conversing up to me, but luckily, I think Mr. Cogburn could carry on a conversation with a corpse. We covered gear boxes, suspension, and pretty much anything I could think of from a dozen seasons of Top Gear; at one point, he called his friend and had me chat on the phone to him about NASCAR, despite the fact that I never have nor will be a NASCAR fan. It was a very long and bizarre four hours.
Finally, we made it to the taxi mechanic in DC. K’s family friend (who does not drive a taxi, but rather the same model of car that most taxis are made from) met us there. We said goodbye to Mr. Cogburn. We got all the necessities out of the car. Unfortunately, one of these necessities was a bottle of wine, which I dropped on the concrete floor and shattered everywhere. The mechanic took a look underneath the car and knew right away what was wrong with it.
Whomever had previously changed the oil had installed the wrong size oil filter. The filter had been getting looser and looser, until one day, in a burst of pressure caused from the acceleration back onto the New Jersey Turnpike, the oil filter had fallen out. With it went all the oil. With no oil to lubricate the engine, friction between the cylinders and the pistons cause the engine to overheat, the pistons to expand, and the engine to seize up. In short, the car was quite dead.
Family Friend took us to dinner and dropped us off at our friends house in Columbia Heights. We went to look at our first apartment, and decided to take it then and there. We then spent the rest of the weekend depressed and defeated. We went to the movies and saw the next thing playing, which was Angels and Demons. It was not very good.
We took the Chinatown bus back to NY, and then another Chinatown bus back to Boston. I tried to convince K that at least this would all make a good story one day, but she was not convinced.