It’s a brilliant October day. I pull my Saturn into the Joyce Kilmer rest stop and burst into tears. I can’t do it anymore! The problem isn’t my vision, hearing or coordination. There’s nothing wrong with my vehicle. It passed inspection. The brakes work fine, thank you. And yet, I know, with the certainty of an actuary, that my chances of surviving the Jersey Turnpike are nil to none.
I stand in line at the Starbuck’s counter. The woman in front of me is crying too, but not for fear of being crushed beneath the wheels of a Bolt Bus. She’s bereft because they just ran out of cheesecake brownies. I look around and can’t help but notice that the majority of people at the rest stop are of Brobdingnagian proportion, aimlessly milling about in “Got Jesus?” t-shirts and flesh-colored leggings.
They don’t seem to be in a rush to go anywhere, and it occurs to me that they might actually live at the rest stop. Which means I could live here too. Why not? The gift shop sells a spiffy array of clothing, if you don’t mind the word “Jersey” on every item. There are scads of reading material if your taste runs to maps. The restrooms are ample and, although they don’t actually contain showers, there’s a tattooed woman at every rest stop giving herself a sponge bath at the sink. Would a steady diet of fried chicken, burgers and pizza kill me? Well, yes, eventually. But it would be a much slower death than getting back on the turnpike. Burger King wants me to live another day. The Jersey Turnpike? Not so much.
Wait it out
I call my therapist. “Congratulations,” she says. “You’ve discovered your mortality. Many people your age find they can no longer handle the anxiety of turnpike driving.”
Yes, but how do I get home?
“Wait until after rush hour, then drive in the slow lane,” she says.
This is not helpful. When rush hour ends, it’s dark outside and the Jersey Turnpike becomes the setting of a grisly Quentin Tarantino movie. As for driving in the slow lane: In my experience, there isn’t one. Eighteen-wheelers would just as soon drive over my car as go around it.
I decide to wait it out — not just rush hour but late into the night, when the only cars on the road are drug dealers and the unmarked cars pursuing them. In the interim, I learn that Joyce Kilmer was not, as I had imagined, the first woman to pack salami sandwiches for a family road trip. He — he, mind you — was a New Brunswick poet and journalist who wrote for the New York Times. Think about that the next time you pull over for a mocha latte.
I snooze in my car with the seat in a fully reclined position until I am awakened by the sound of rain — not pitter-patter on the roof but a torrent of apocalyptic proportions. It sounds as if my car is being pounded by sheet metal. I look at the clock. It’s 1 a.m. I turn on my headlights. Visibility is six inches. I call my therapist again.
Her service answers and a woman named Bernice tells me that she never drives to New York anymore. “Take the train, hon. You’ll live longer,” she says.
Slow it down
Somehow, I manage to drive home that night, forever humbled and changed. Sharing my story with friends, I learn that fear of turnpike driving is quite common among us Boomers, with the exception of a few macho types who continue to hurl themselves onto I-95 with “Death Wish III” bravado.
Apparently, this is Nature’s plan. When we’re young, driving at perilous speeds represents rebellion, freedom and sex. There’s even a New Jersey soundtrack for it. “Baby, we were born to ruuuuuun.”
However, at a certain age, we slow down. Driving is no longer sexy. It’s a way of getting from one place to another. If we want to rebel, we eat chili and skip the Beano. Freedom? That’s just another word for senior discounts on public transportation.
Here’s the irony: It’s not that we doubt our own agility, judgment or reflexes. It’s that we doubt yours. Yes, you in the Ford Fiesta, changing lanes while changing your pantyhose! You, senator, in the Porsche SUV, sexting your constituents! And don’t get me started about the half-naked couple in the red Volvo attempting to achieve simultaneous orgasm before the next exit. I have had it with all of you! The next time you see me, I’ll be smiling down on you. Not from Heaven, but from the Chinatown Bus.
Stacia Friedman’s writing has previously appeared in the New York Times “Boomer” blog, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Main Line Today.