Book Review: Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike
Recently, I made a trip to my local Barnes and Noble. Like anyone crazy enough to start a blog about life in New Jersey should be, I was perusing the “local” section, which was full of books about the Armpit of America. Just out of curiosity, do all Barnes and Noble stores have a local section? I guess that means the local sections of stores in Oklahoma would only have two books, if that. Ha.
Back to the story. In between books about ghosts of New Jersey and dog parks in New Jersey and bird watching in New Jersey, there was one book that really stood out. And I mean it literally stood out. With bright yellow letters against a loud teal background, Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike was hard to miss. And with a name like that, inspired by the lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel song “America,” I couldn’t pass it up.
The book was written by two Rutgers University professors: Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland. I actually had the former for a class back when I was in school. Anyway, the book talks about all aspects of the hellish highway. It starts with the Turnpike’s construction in 1950, at which point beautiful farmland and forests were cleared away and covered with asphalt and steel. The authors then walk us through stuff like the toll system, the accident rate, the rest stops, etc. And, of course, they touch on the corruption of the Turnpike’s management and its law enforcement. Basically, the book has all the information you could possible want to know about the Turnpike but never really cared enough to ask.
Since the book was written by two college professors, it can, appropriately enough, read like a text book at certain points. They definitely pack a lot of information into the 200 or so pages. Still, there are some really fascinating parts, like when they discuss the life of a toll collector. There are also plenty of random and interesting facts. For instance, did you know it is illegal to take pictures while you’re on the Turnpike? I also bet you didn’t know that this camera rule and all the other Turnpike policies are posted on small signs in front of each entrance ramp. And, yes, Gillespie and Rockland point out how ridiculous it is to have a sign loaded up with fine print that no one can actually read while driving by in their cars. Only in New Jersey.
The highlight of Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, for me at least, is how the authors include references to the Turnpike from the pop culture realm. While the title is just one example, they cite no less than three Bruce Springsteen songs (which is to be expected from two Rutgers professors). The works of poet/dirty hippie Alan Ginsberg also make appearances, as do songs by people I’ve never heard of like Joseph Cosgriff and Dan Fogarty. Another part I love is when the authors describe how people, both in and outside New Jersey, view the Turnpike and the state itself. Indeed, it is clear from the book just how intertwined New Jersey and the New Jersey Turnpike really are.
Despite all the good things, I have to confess something. The book was published in 1989, making it 20 years old. Don’t let that scare you though. It is still a great, interesting read. If anything, it almost makes me want to learn more about the Turnpike. Like how many toll collectors’ jobs were cut once EZ Pass came into the picture? And how has the security of the road changed since September 11? Perhaps an updated version is in the works…
To sum it all up, Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike is essentially the bible of the Turnpike. Though it can be a little dry, and is somewhat outdated, the book is still entertaining and informative. Despite all the bad things that people say about the Turnpike, Gillespie and Rockland somehow manage to elicit some sympathy for the Armpit of America’s most hated road.