Finding Bliss on the NJ Turnpike

A pair of U.K. visitors renews a local’s Jersey pride—via an especially unlikely landmark.

Illustration by Michael Witte

In my office, getting ready for class, the phone rings. “This is the BBC,” a man says in a British accent. “We’d like to interview you.”

Intrigued, I say, “But I only have 10 minutes.”

“We mean to fly over. How about this coming Tuesday?” With no classes that day, I arrange to pick up my caller at Newark Liberty International Airport at 8 am on the appointed day.

Rupert, the man who had phoned, and a videographer whose name I never did catch, arrive at the airport. Rupert is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “NEW JERSEY; ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE.” He had bought it online. 

“Where would you like to go?” I ask. “The New Jersey Turnpike,” Rupert replies.

This startles me. I had imagined taking them out to the beautiful towns in western New Jersey along the Delaware, or maybe down the Shore. 

I drive to the Turnpike and head south. Rupert is in the back seat asking questions, while the videographer is shooting out the window—the airport, the giant cranes, the Conrail yards, the refineries. “Gee, I love this road,” Rupert says. 

Having once cowritten a book on the Turnpike, I could understand some admiration for the world’s most traveled road. But “love?”

Rupert wants to talk about the Turnpike, but also other things. He had just seen Jersey Boys in London. “Loved it,” he says. He also loved The Sopranos, in reruns. It is still, he says, everyone’s favorite TV show in London. He is fascinated that James Gandolfini went to Rutgers and that I had known him. 

Then he starts to sing Bruce Springsteen’s song “State Trooper”: “New Jersey Turnpike/ridin’ on a wet night/neath the refineries’ glow/Out where the great black rivers flow.” We stop at the Molly Pitcher and Clara Barton rest areas, the first for coffee, the second to get rid of it. The miles go by, and soon we are approaching the Delaware Memorial Bridge. I find a way to turn around (that I’d best not reveal here) and head north. We stop at the Joyce Kilmer, and the Brits buy me lunch—Roy Rogers. 

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We’re approaching Newark Airport again. “It’s 1 o’clock,” says Rupert. “Our flight to London doesn’t leave till 7:30. How about doing it again?”

“You’re joking,” I say. Rupert shakes his head.  

Anyone else I would have refused, but, heck, these guys had come over from London. So down the Turnpike we go. Again. 

On the return, I ask Rupert how many times he had been to New Jersey.

“First time,” he replies.

“Then whence comes this great affection for our state?” 

“Oh,” he says, “everyone in London loves New Jersey.”

“We appreciate that,” I say. “But why?” I would have picked London as the last place on Earth where the populace loved New Jersey.

“The energy,” he says. “This place hums with energy. Anyone who’s cool knows New Jersey is where it’s happening.” 

I found his remarks—indeed, the whole day—improbable. But I kind of get it. Heck, I had just round-tripped the Turnpike twice. If that wasn’t high energy, what is?  

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