January 19, 2000
The day I left for New Jersey there was a cartoon in the newspaper that showed a woman sitting in front of her television set. She looked annoyed, and she was saying, “Wouldn’t you know it. The first time I watch the Travel Channel, they’re showing a program about New Jersey!” I cut it out for my “Year in the Life” scrapbook pages, although as I did so I wondered if I really would use it, since I don’t particularly like negative stereotypes like that.
In my experience anyway. New Jersey isn’t so bad. I grew up spending part of every summer at Margate City, the second beach town south of Atlantic City, because my uncle had a house there. In recent years my sister and I took our kids there. Margate has a certain, well, conservative quality, but the kids were young and interested mostly in swimming and eating ice cream at every meal. And jazzier Ocean City was just twenty minutes away for typical boardwalk fun.
But it wasn’t the beaches necessarily that earned New Jersey its bad joke status. Northern New Jersey is regarded by some as the mud room for New York City and Philadelphia, although in college I knew many cultured young men whose Fortune 500 executive fathers had built impressive estates in the newer suburbs. And, of course, there is Princeton.
I arrived in Cape May via Mapquest’s turn-by-turn directions. As I noted yesterday, after the challenge of central Philadelphia, driving through New Jersey was a pleasant task along well-maintained state routes — 42 to 55 to 47 to 9 to 109, all in a straight line south. You know when you’ve reach the end when you get to the water.
It would have been possible for me not to move my car the whole weekend, as all of my needs were met within the conference facility. After lunch on Saturday, however, I decided to do some exploring . I needed one postcard and a few toiletries (I always forget something), and I wanted to find the bed and breakfast where I’d stayed one weekend in 1974.
I’d seen a shopping center when I turned onto Route 9, so I headed for the little inland town of Rio Grande. Just past the marina at the “Welcome to Cape May” sign the road splits. I was either not paying attention, or it was poorly marked. I soon found myself not on Route 9 but on a divided highway, the two halves separated by a wide strip planted with (a sign informed me) the lovely sounding “weeping love grass.” As I moved from the access road onto the main thoroughfare, a large billboard proclaimed “Welcome to New Jersey — Garden State Parkway.”
I knew this wasn’t Route 9, but I also knew that I was at least going north, and a glance at the map told me that there was an exit up ahead that would connect me with Route 9. And so I drove along, enjoying the weeping love grass and the satisfaction of actually having completed a poem during my morning’s work. At the exit for Route 9 I got off, and found myself approaching a toll booth.
It should be noted here that I had undertaken this trip directly from lunch, without returning to my room. I was not carrying my regular wallet — only a small case with my hotel key card, my debit card, and a folded twenty dollar bill. In my change tray were a ten dollar bill (set aside for the return trip tolls on the Walt Whitman Bridge and the Pennsylvania Turnpike), two pennies, and a Japanese coin found under the seat of my old car, the gift of a missionary who visited Lynn’s Sunday School class and which I’d kept as a sort of talisman.
The charge for my eight miles or so on the Garden State Parkway, WHICH HAD NOT BEEN MARKED “TOLL ROAD” (I cannot stress this enough) was 25 cents. You were supposed to throw a coin (“EXACT CHANGE ONLY!”) into a basket, and then wait for the green “toll paid” light to signal you through. “If coin misses basket, blow horn,” a sign advised.
I did not have a quarter. So I blew the horn. That’s when I noticed that the toll booth was shut up tight and deserted, looking not unlike the one Sonny Corleone approaches in The Godfather. This, I realized, was an unattended toll booth.
I thought for a moment that perhaps the toll was not charged in the “off season.” After all, the traffic lights were on blink in Cape May and the heads of all the parking meters had been removed. As I pondered what to do, a car pulled up behind me. I moved out of the way, and saw the motorist fling his required quarter into the basket. The toll light changed from red to green and flashed “Thank you” as he moved through.
I felt there was no recourse but to proceed through to the other side (there was no gate, nor any other obstruction). The light, of course, stayed red for me. I turned left, onto what I thought was Route 9. Once again, either the road was not marked well, or I was not paying attention (or I was so befuddled and concerned about breaking the law that I was driving blind). And so I found myself again on the Garden State Parkway, still going north.
I thought perhaps there would be an attendant at the next toll booth. But the scene there was the same. This time I did notice a rack of envelopes beside a lock box. I took one. On the front it was addressed to the New Jersey Highway Authority. The back flap read, “This return envelope is furnished as a convenience to motorists not having change to pay toll. Kindly enclose amount shown at right. Deposit envelopes with payment in receptacle, give to any parkway toll collector, or mail payment within 15 days. Failure to return envelope with proper payment may subject you to a fine of up to $200.”
Now you must understand that I am already a scofflaw in New Jersey. I have an unpaid parking fine in Ocean City from August of 1998. I was NOT GUILTY in this instance, but for reasons I shall probably relate at another time, this matter is unresolved. I had entered the state on Friday with some trepidation. Even though I have a different car now, it does bear my vanity plate “MAGY-MA.”
At this point I had only enough time to get back to the hotel for the start of my afternoon tutorial. So I had no choice but to get off the Parkway at the Burleigh-Whitesboro exit, reenter, and retrace my unpaid-for route back to Cape May. At the last exit I didn’t even slow down. I just drove on through, and heard an alarm sound as I passed the red light.
I related this tale in my group meeting. I found myself sounding just like a regular New Jersey-basher, comparing the place unfavorably with my native Pennsylvania, where you pull a ticket at a toll gate when you get ON the turnpike, which is clearly marked TOLL ROAD, and then at the conclusion of your journey you give your fare to an actual person who can make change, twenty-four hours a day. Some native New Jersians told me that the whole issue of the envelopes and the unattended toll booths is the stuff of many letters to the editor.
So the task before me now is to square up my 75 cents with the New Jersey Highway authority, and do a search through my “amazing clutter” (what the New Jersey boyfriend who was the subject of a promising poem now in draft termed all my stuff) for that Ocean City material. After all, I want to return for the Eighth Annual Getaway in 2001 with a clear record.
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