State of Denial: Gene Weingarten solves New Jersey's inferiority complex

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 21, 2010

I am on the phone with Joe Orlando, spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

Me: I recently traveled many hundreds of miles on your excellent thoroughfare. I have a few questions.

Joe: Shoot.

Me: At the rest areas, I noticed that most of the men's bathrooms have fold-down diaper-changing stations. What is the purpose of these things?

Joe: So that husbands can take their fair share of responsibilities.

Me: To your knowledge, has any man ever used this convenience?

Joe: I have no specific knowledge of that.

Me: I didn't think so. I couldn't help but notice that your rest areas are all named for famous New Jerseyites, such as Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, a genuine benevolent genius who spent most of his life and all of his career in New Jersey, for which I congratulate you and the Garden State.

Joe: Thank you.

Me: Also, there's one named after Woodrow Wilson, who was your governor. However, after that, don't things begin to fall apart just the teensiest bit?

Joe: What do you mean?

Me: Well, for example, another rest area is named after Vince Lombardi, a great football strategist from the days when coaches dressed like Dick Tracy. However, according to my research, Mr. Lombardi did all of his best work in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Although he is buried there, he wasn't born in Jersey; and though as a young man he did briefly coach a high school team there, he beat it out of the state as fast as he could. You've got about as much claim to Vince as you have to Chesley Sullenberger, based on the fact that Sullenberger momentarily considered landing his disabled airliner in Teterboro before he had to ditch in the Hudson.

Joe: Okay, I happen to know that Chesley's goddaughter cuts hair in New Jersey. So, actually, there is a connection! We could have a rest stop for him.

Me: You see where I am going here.

Joe: I think so.

Me: There is another turnpike rest stop named after Alexander Hamilton, who briefly lived in New Jersey as a boy, but whose only lasting connection to the state was the 25 minutes or so he spent getting murdered there. Then there is Walt Whitman, who was a poet, essayist and journalist but not, for the most part, a New Jerseyite. This famous, joyful, bubbly, optimistic, explosively exuberant writer moved to Jersey only to wither and die after he had a stroke that left him paralyzed and depressed. There is also the Molly Pitcher Service Area, named after the famous gun-totin', cannon-loadin', water-haulin' Revolutionary War babe whose credentials as a Jerseyite might be suspect in the sense that some historians doubt she ever existed.

Joe: Do you have a question?

Me: Yes, let's be honest here -- you guys ran out of famous New Jerseyites before you ran out of service areas, didn't you?

Joe: It is possible that this happened 50 years ago or so when the rest areas were named. You have done a lot of research.

Me: I have! And I have a suggestion. You should name some of these stops after real New Jerseyites. I would like to suggest, for example, "The Guy Who Played Epstein on 'Welcome Back, Kotter' Service Area." Or "Joe Piscopo Eat 'n' Excrete Service Area."

Joe: Okay!

Me: Will you promise to consider these things?

Joe: I will promise to always remember this conversation.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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