It’s hard not to think of Jean Shepherd when I’m on the New Jersey Turnpike.The Jersey Turnpike,
I imagine him saying, it’s the best and worst of America stretched along an endless length of asphalt! Brave is the man or woman who risks falling victim to the clutches of its greasy talons!
And so it was last weekend as we made our way into the heart of Jersey to celebrate the birthday of a singer-songwriter of our acquaintance. The idea had been to fit in a stop at the indie record store so I could buy some jewel cases for a new CD project but, as the saying goes, making plans is just another way of making the Turnpike laugh.
We had barely made it past the toll booth when the traffic began to congeal. According to the radio, we were on the side of the Turnpike with the 7 mile delay. The other side was experiencing a 16 mile delay that wouldn’t become visible until we’d begun to ease out of our own dilemma.
There’s nothing worse than that stop-and-start peristaltic motion as your capacity for hope sinks somewhere into the floor.I warned you, you fathead!
I can hear Shep laugh. It’s the Jersey Turnpike, brother…Sargasso of dashed dreams and busted radiator coils. What made you think you could beat it?
As we eased out of the mess, it looked as if there might be 5 minutes to spare at the record store, so we dashed in to find they were having a 50% Off toy sale. There were, however, exceptions. Behind the counter was a large John Lennon figure with a sign that read John Lennon Is Not Part Of The Toy Sale.
I flashed back to reading about Mark David Chapman’s latest appearance before the parole board, just a few days before what would have been John’s birthday. It’s startling to see pictures of how he looks now. How could he look so old? How did I get this old?
With jewel cases and non-Beatle toys in tow, it was time to plunge ever deeper into parts of Jersey Unknown. The street address only made things worse as the numbers went up and down without reason. As dusk encroached, we stopped at a random house out of desperation. Who would answer? Jean Shepherd’s ghost, out for Halloween, telling us that we should have made a left at the Sinclair dinosaur?
Luckily, the man of the house doesn’t seem too disturbed by complete strangers knocking at his door looking for directions. The directions turn out to be good, too, until we get to the last block. The house’s address doesn’t seem to exist until closer examination reveals a handscrawled sign on the side of the fence. The house itself is well hidden by tall trees and untamed shrubbery, a microcosm of Jersey itself.
Inside, things were better, with the singer’s mom bringing out sausage and peppers and strangers exchanging their own stories of getting lost in Jersey. It was the best you could hope for in the Garden State, bumping into someone else and quizzing them about the Parkway exit that brought about their doom and how they escaped it.
The singer was well into his 4th or 5th Beatles song when I thought, well, John Lennon isn’t part of the toy sale any more, and neither is CBGB’s, but we’ve made it this far. And we’ve all gotten lost along the way, but we’re safe now and having a few laughs. And there’s more sausage and peppers in the fridge if the bass player will put it in the oven.
And I’ve got another birthday coming up in a couple of days.
And you know that can’t be bad.