Nearly every time I’ve ventured across the Hudson River to New Jersey, something terrible has happened. The state is like my own personal Bermuda Triangle, if Bermuda smelled like sewage and had more middle-aged women with titty tattoos. In 2001, I got sun poisoning after baking for hours in the parking lot of the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel while attending the annual heavy metal festival Ozzfest. In 2008, I slipped on black ice at the Meadowlands just before a Giants game and broke my right elbow. And while driving cross-country in 2010, I got a speeding ticket in Missouri. Yes, that has nothing to do with New Jersey, but I had to drive through it to get back home to New York, and that really sucked. Years later, my luck with the Garden State has not improved.
My most recent battle with Bon Jovi’s birthplace took place just this past Labor Day weekend when my fiancée (Annie), our dog, and I took a trip down to Delaware. Annie’s family owns a house close to the shore, and we were meeting another couple there for a nice, long weekend away from the City. It’s a good four-hour drive to the First State, and our route always takes us through the never-ending, hard-boiled egg fart that is New Jersey. Being the poor Manhattanites that we are, we borrowed Annie’s college-aged sister’s car — a beleaguered Mazda hatchback that hadn’t run well since Chumbawamba topped the charts. It didn’t make a difference to us — we would have driven a rickshaw pulled by subway rats if it meant getting down to Delaware. We looked forward to the trip every summer since we had been together. Far enough North to still get a decent plate of pasta, yet far enough South to encounter plenty of uncomfortable Confederate flag imagery, Delaware is a state of entertaining contrasts. And between the beer, beaches, and batshit crazy townies, it was always a weekend well spent.
We embarked after work on the Thursday night before Labor Day. It was well after rush hour, so we were able to blaze a trail straight up through Harlem and over the George Washington Bridge. Crossing the GWB always spurs mixed emotions. On the one hand, it signifies your breaking the surly bonds of the city, and onto the American mainland where unending adventures await. On the other hand, you’re in fucking New Jersey. It didn’t take long for tragedy to befall us. Not five minutes after the bridge, we heard a rattling from beneath the car. The noise of the engine grew from its normal lawnmower-like buzzing to a roar more befitting of a muscle car. It was clear something was very wrong. My fiancée was driving, and I urged her to pull over to the pitch black shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. I was terrified, but as her manly future husband, I couldn’t show my hand. “Wait here, I’m going to check the car,” I said, feigning machismo. Exactly what I was going to check, I had no idea. I never so much as changed a tire, and I hadn’t regularly driven a car since 2006, when I lived with my parents on Long Island. An automotive expert I certainly was not. Luckily, the problem was apparent as soon as I peeked underneath the undercarriage. Some kind of pipe — possibly the muffler? — had become dislodged from wherever it’s normally lodged and was dragging on the pavement. I jumped back in the car and delivered the bad news to Annie. We weren’t making it to Delaware that night.
We got on the phone with a representative from AAA, who transferred us to the New Jersey Turnpike patrol, who dispatched a tow truck to our location. We sat in darkness on the side of the road, our tiny car rocking back and forth with every tractor-trailer that rocketed past us at upward of 80 MPH. If there were ever an opportune time for a crazed, murderous turnpike drifter to rape and kill us, it was now. Just as panic was about to set in, we saw the blinking lights of a tow truck approaching us from the front. I began to feel better, but then remembered that Time magazine article I read about serial killer truckers, and then I started to sweat all over again. We cautiously emerged from the car, our poor, traumatized dog in tow. A rescue, she normally spooks when she encounters a lone garbage truck on our block, let alone dozens of large vehicles whizzing past her on the side of a busy highway. The tow truck backed its way up to our front bumper and came to a jerky halt. The driver’s side door opened, and, to my surprise, out jumped a little person. I was relieved, not because I have an odd fascination with little people like other writers on this site do, but because if this guy did turn out to be a homicidal psychopath, I knew I could take him. I’m only 5-foot-2, but to him, I probably looked like a giant. Not to mention, he was very overweight. I didn’t have a tape measure on me, but I was willing to bet he was at least twice as wide as he was tall — like a poorly inflated beach ball. After securing our car to the back of his flatbed, he informed us that he’d be taking us to his service station in North Bergen…right into the belly of the beast.
All three of us — Annie, our dog and I — crammed into the cab of the truck with our new friend, the little person tow truck driver. Despite there being an unseasonable chill in the late August night air, he had the air conditioning cranked up to 11, which wafted every fart that he unceremoniously spewed from his abbreviated bowels straight into our faces. Power chords and cheesy guttural singing from the modern rock station blaring on the radio mercifully drowned out the uncomfortable silence as we rocketed down the turnpike, speechless. Within a few minutes we turned off an exit and arrived at a service station in an industrial part of town that likely topped the short list of shooting locations for Rob Zombie’s next slasher film. Our chauffeur instructed us to go inside and talk to “the girls” who would “take care of us.”
We entered the office to the service station well past midnight. The part of the station where cars were fixed was closed, but apparently the office remained open all night to trap victims — I’m sorry, rescue motorists — by dispatching tow trucks to disabled vehicles along the turnpike. The empty reception area looked like the waiting room from Beetlejuice, but sadder. Annie sat down with the dog, and I went up to the window to talk to one of “the girls.” She was a gruff, heavyset woman who mumbled when she talked. The only times she spoke clearly enough to be understood was when she periodically paused our conversation to hurl insults at the drivers who called every few minutes asking for directions or confirmations on the makes and models of cars that were in distress. She informed me that it would be $60 for the tow to the station, and that we could either choose to keep the car there overnight or have it towed to a location of our choosing, for another fee. Annie texted with her sister, Maggie, and told her what happened. Maggie said she’d come pick us up in her parents’ car, and that we should just leave the car there overnight and figure things out in the morning. We soaked in the ambiance as we waited patiently as she made the 45-minute drive from Westchester County. To our left sat a vintage soda machine with drinks so old they could have been served at the Last Supper. To our right, a ghetto ATM that charged a $4 service fee. Below us, our unhappy, stressed-out dog, lying underneath our chairs. About a half-hour in, I got up to use the bathroom — not because I needed to go, but because there was simply nothing else to do. The sign hanging above the sink told me all I needed to know about the caliber of people here…
Shortly after I finished in the bathroom, where I purposefully didn’t flush the toilet out of spite, Maggie arrived to save us from our purgatory. Having to be rescued by your younger, soon-to-be-sister-in-law because you and your fiancée broke down in the car she loaned to you is a special kind of emasculation reserved for only the most awkward, folly-prone of men. But I didn’t have time for self-loathing. My only concern at that moment was getting out of New Jersey. And we did…for a few hours.
Maggie drove us back to her and Annie’s parents’ house in White Plains, where we spent the night. Once morning came, Annie and I rented a car. Unfazed by the calamity of the previous night, we ventured back onto the road with as much vengeance in our hearts as Captain Ahab when he set back out onto the sea. But unlike Ahab (who was a pussy), we didn’t succumb to our whale. We retraced our steps down the New Jersey Turnpike, this time in our late model, able-bodied Nissan rent-a-car. Just after the GWB, we saw the exact spot where we had broken down the night before. It didn’t look so creepy in the fresh morning light. Within the next two hours, we crossed into Delaware, leaving the cursed Garden State in our rearview.
New Jersey had gotten the best of me in the past, and most certainly will again in the future, but on this particular day…we had won.