I get the same feeling every single time I return to New Jersey.

Why did I hold on so long?

What did I ever see in this place?

And damn, isn’t Wawa like so much better than Quick Check?

But I still return, on the odds, at least once a week. To retrieve mail, have someone else pump my gas for me, and enjoy the serenity that comes with me on my own, in the car and on the Turnpike. For the first 40 miles or so, you wouldn’t even know you’re back in Jersey. You get two lanes of traffic going either way, cutting through swamp and farmland, with the occasional gas station and Starbucks every 22 miles or so. It’s calm, it’s desolate and it’s completely not the New Jersey I grew up in.

And then it begins, around exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Two towers jutting into the sky; one’s a Sheraton, the other’s an office building. I spy it about five miles before the exit arrives, and I know their meaning. The beginning of congestion, the gates to Northern New Jersey and its close friend New York City.

Life takes on different meaning past exit 9 on the Turnpike. Traffic and the cutthroat driving that often accompanies it began here. Or was at least perfected here. All routes running North to South and vice versa become impassible between the hours of 6-10 AM and 4-8 PM. And unfortunately, driving an automobile is the only way to get from one place to another in this tiny but overpopulated corner of the world. (You can take trains, but the train stations are never near anything. So you need to drive to them, but you need to get on a waiting list to get a parking pass to drive your car to the train station, and that can take up to five years. So you’re fucked.)

With that established, I’m driving up the Turnpike yesterday. It’s about 3PM when I get to exit 11, pay the toll, then jump on the Parkway for a few exits. At exit 133, I jump off and make my way up Rt. 27 North. When it ends, I make a left at the NJ Transit tunnel, the same one I rode my bike under countless times, and continue down St. Georges Ave, past diners, strip malls, fireman bars and the general signs of suburbia discontented. At the Drug Fair plaza, I wait five minutes to make a left turn through oncoming traffic, park and proceed to pick up my mail at the UPS Store’s P.O. Box array.

In ten minutes, I’m back on St. Georges Avenue, waiting to head South on it, so I can get to the mall, buy some Christmas presents and get back on the Turnpike before 4 PM. But I’m kidding myself. That’s never going to happen. And I know this when I arrive at the Woodbridge Mall, five miles from the P.O. Box, 45 minutes later.

For the next two hours, I do nothing of the “buying Christmas presents” idea. I buy myself jeans at the mall, then get the hell out. 30 minutes later, I go for a massage in Edison, 8 miles down Rt. 1 South, and hope that my time spent in the darkened room of a Chinese herbalist will help get the traffic out of my way. 40 minutes later, I’m back on the road, aiming for South Jersey. But another mall, and still more traffic stands in my way. 30 minutes later, I again disembark from Rt. 1 for a Target, buy cat litter and spend more time searching for a parking spot than I do within the store. I also stop at a liquor store and actually do some Christmas shopping. (I’m still not accustomed to the ins and outs of Pennsylvania liquor stores. New Jersey does have that on me.)

And then again, I’m in traffic. Rush hour traffic, heightened by Christmas traffic, exacerbated by an accident. I capitulate to the right lane, then stop and go til signs for 95 South/Philadelphia begin to make an appearance. In an hour, I’m home. And on the way in the door, I drop a bottle of wine that was bought as a Christmas present. A $30 bottle of wine.

Still, I escaped the mess that raised me. And returned home relaxed, relieved and only $30 worse for the wear. New Jersey isn’t the home it once was. It holds a lot of my past, and that takes a long time to navigate through; it’s just no longer the place I thought it once was. But I’ll return to the beginning.

Why did I hold on so long?
Cause I thought I belonged there.

What did I ever see in this place?
A home at first, a crutch later on.

And damn, isn’t Wawa like so much better than Quick Check?
Fuck yeah, the Peach Iced Tea is calling my name right now….

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