As a concept, over-the-river-and-through-the-woods is gone. Two nights before Thanksgiving, it's already bad. The rain picks up, and the traffic near Maryland House starts slowing to a smeary, wet crawl of red brake lights. It's pretty to look at, but soon enough the travelers shuffle in, somewhat zombied and surly, with scraps of information about a car wreck up ahead, past the Delaware tollbooth.
Variously, they saw the rescue helicopters, saw all the flashing blues and reds, saw "some jerk who passed by me an' everyone on the shoulder, like he's the [bleeping] king of Thanksgiving or something," and saw the traffic mess ahead and so they landed here, for a moment, at Maryland House.
In one version, what lies ahead is a four-car pileup on the southbound, but another traveler says no, it's on the northbound, two vehicles total, and still another person says a car crossed from the northbound and crashed into cars on the southbound. (This, in fact, turns out to be true, according to a state trooper.) Someone heard there was one person killed, then it's several people killed, then it's back to one.
Over a Cinnabon, which has 34 grams of fat, we talk of misfortune and death.
"The Lord decides," says the female employee who walks around and sweeps offending scraps of paper off the floor.
River and woods: Yes, but now they're blurred into a suspended state of dislocation, something existential and boring. The drive feels more and more like a swerving, panicked sprint through and toward an endless Nowhere. Leaving Nowhere and getting Nowhere, pulling over and eating some Nowhere (super-sized), filling the gas tank with Nowhere, and calling ahead on the cell phone to file a status report from Nowhere. Wadded-up Kleenex in your overcoat pocket, and 4-year-olds getting presented with spanking ultimatums, and lite-rock pop songs you forgot Fleetwood Mac ever recorded, and the way the roof of your mouth feels filmy after french fries.
Here comes Maryland House.
Sonny and Cher availed themselves of the services here once, back when they were Sonny and Cher. That's part of the lore, although no one ever wrote it all down, or took a picture, or kept any sort of log about the place beyond the most vague oral history and rumors and footnotes in highway appropriations budgets. There is one black-and-white photograph, hanging on a wall upstairs, of Maryland House when it was new and the trees hadn't grown up around it yet. This is how it often goes, in a place that is no place in particular.
State of Mind
The bladder senses Maryland House just as the "Maryland House Left Exit" sign reveals itself through the juicy vwip-vwap of the windshield wipers. People are always walking into this manse-like, full-service pit stop on I-95, 66 miles north of Washington, and asking where, exactly, they are.
"You're in Maryland!" enthuses Vern Bingham, who for eight years has been the general manager of HMSHost Corp.'s contract to operate Maryland House for the state's transportation authority. Perhaps 9 million or 10 million travelers walk through here every year, making a beeline for the restrooms before all else, and no matter how unhappy they look, Bingham wants them to be happy they've made it this far.
"But where in Maryland?" they sometimes prod. (Or they say: "Maryland? Still?" Or worse, as Bingham once heard: "Maryland? What state is that in?")
Aside, perhaps, from the vacation condo he owns in Park City, Utah, Vern Bingham has no more favorite spot in the world to stand than in the foyer of Maryland House on the day before Thanksgiving, 'neath the Christmas-bulb reindeer and across from the sunglass vendor and the penny-flattening souvenir machine, and greet the masses, most of whom barely notice him. He stands there -- his hair neatly parted on the side, a trimmed mustache, wearing round glasses, a slight tremor in one hand -- waiting for them to look lost.
Bingham is absolutely certain that Maryland House is, in fact, a somewhere, because he has worked very hard to make it so. (It would be even more of a somewhere if his wildest dream could be fulfilled and Maryland House acquired a Starbucks.)
No one who works here suffers that lulling sense of dissatisfaction with modern interstate homogeneity, although Leo Sullivan, the Sbarro Italian Eatery manager, has "worked this highway one way or another for 30 years" and says he's finally a little burned out by it.
At Maryland House, there are no preservationist paeans to the back roads and "real" life. (At Maryland House, Kerouac would have fits.) The super-sized rest areas like Maryland House have no literary quality to them, no history, no remarkable architecture and only show up in movies about kidnappings; nothing about them seems adventurous or picturesque, and yet they are a far better example of who we are:
"You can get off somewhere and go look for it," says Randolph P. Brown, a Maryland Transportation Authority administrator who oversees the state's northern stretch of Interstate 95, "Or you can just stop here and watch America go by."
If it were indeed a Nowhere, it wouldn't have an address: "Milepost 82," Bingham affirms, "Aberdeen, Md. 21001." If it were a Nowhere, it wouldn't have seemed proper to rededicate Maryland House to seven highway workers killed over the years along I-95, and commemorate them with a plaque at the door.
If it were a Nowhere, he reasons, it wouldn't have 500 parking spaces (and 90 more for 18-wheeler trucks), and it wouldn't employ 250 people, many of whom have worked here a decade or more, and whose parents worked here before them, as if anchored to some ship that never leaves port. (The employee ranks swell to 420 between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which included, last summer, 29 Russian teenagers on an exchange program, who wound up spending their paychecks on manicures and pizza and getting film developed.)
Perhaps its most important feature, Maryland House has:
"Twenty-eight urinals and nine stalls in the men's room," reports Ken Deming, a general manager-in-training, who has dispatched a female Maryland House employee to go count the rest, which reveals: "Thirty-eight stalls in the women's room."
"We like to say we're in the bathroom business," says Bingham, who insists on a bouquet of fresh flowers at every sink stand and abhors a mess. "Ninety-nine percent of everyone who walks in here goes to the bathroom. That's a higher percentage than those who will ever buy any of the food."
He considers it a special sort of genius to extend the corporation's branding efforts from the food court all the way into the bathrooms, having contracted Lysol to practice the sanitary arts, with big Lysol logos greeting you as you enter all that white and green tile and porcelain goodness and sidle up to a urinal (or daintily plant yourself on a commode).
The oxygen in here has been transformed into a breathable Lysolosphere. (Someone's idea of eternal reward in Heaven smells like this. Harps should be playing.) Men bump into one other coming and going and don't say a word. A man in traditional Orthodox Jewish garb is changing his son's diaper on the plastic foldout changing station.
Sometimes Nowhere is place enough.
The panoramic quality of all this humanity sometimes, briefly, transfixes Vern Bingham. "I never get tired of them," he says. Even after he gets home, late at night, he'll close his eyes and still see people walking through Maryland House.
At a ribbon-cutting for the stretch of freshly laid and richly possible interstate between Baltimore and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, in 1963, John F. Kennedy doled out the standard, upbeat narrative of the many places that progress and ingenuity would take us. (He couldn't have known how far we'd stray from his physical fitness initiatives. He never lived in a world where a slice of pizza was the size of an open dictionary.) Interstates, rockets to the moon, world peace; he was off to Dallas a few days later.
Maryland House was built at the same time -- a bricky, grand thing of conceptualized convenience, an enormous and Colonialesque monster plunked down between northbound and southbound I-95. It was deemed from the beginning as a "travel plaza," bigger than a rest area or a scenic soda pop stand. Almost immediately people started weighing themselves on novelty scales in the restrooms, or having a sit-down dinner upstairs with silverware and linen, or otherwise killing time.
That was back when people still killed time.
Maryland House became too much and too loud in the blessed, cornucopian way Americans have changed. On the day before Thanksgiving -- over a constant background din of Mariah Carey Christmas carols and the bleats of a Galaga-Meets-Ms. Pac-Man video game so well-used that the joystick knob feels like a polished river stone, and over the sound of the Weather Channel's dire, holiday-travel timbre -- there are people speaking Spanish, English, Hindi, Korean, and gesturing animatedly in sign language. Also there is a little girl dancing around the line at Sbarro singing the refrain of the new Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott rap song, which would never be played on Maryland House's sanitized music feed: "If you gotta big (elephant trumpeting) / Let me search ya / To find out how hard I gotta work ya." Steps away from her, an Amish couple fret over their toddler's fever and contemplate the purchase of a phone card.
Wednesday is the second-busiest day of the year. (The Sunday after Thanksgiving, in fact, outranks it, according to everyone who works here; and there is unfathomable human glut here during Maryland House's long summer.)
On television news, Maryland House almost always plays a crucial and metaphorical role in the story of holiday traffic. Along with the airport, it is a visual backdrop of transit woe. Two television crews in satellite trucks arrive in the morning and afternoon to set up live traffic reports, adhering to the strictest narrative of holiday journalism, the gist of which is almost always thus:
1. Life is an enormous hassle. 2. An inch of snow could come, and we'll all die. 3. Therefore, you need to get out there and throw some elbows. Above all else, you have to start shopping right away, or the nation's economy will collapse.
Family of Man
Hovering in and out of this movement of the masses is Dave Watson, a Havre de Grace resident who has worked at Maryland House for 10 years.
"You learn a lot about people," he says. "Like if they're going to make a mess, you have to learn to step back and let them make it before you try to clean it up." (This is harder than it sounds. Watson points out that a single stray ice cube on the floor could spell doom for a traveler.) Maryland House workers seem locked in a constant effort to clean, obsessed with an intimate involvement with the eating and digestive processes.
A man, his wife and his mother find a table and eat pizza slices. The mother is an old lady who looks as if she's been drawn from a sheaf of comic strips about old ladies: Pink beret, jewel-studded cat's-eye glasses, hunched over and voraciously devouring her pizza. She gets up and announces she is getting dessert. Five minutes later she is lost, and the wife goes to find her. "This place is too big," the mother says upon her triumphant return, and then opens her Cinnabon container.
"These things are too big. I can't eat all this," she says, but she eats every last bite, scrapes all of the remaining frosting off the container with a fork, with such a robust hunger for life that by now her family is peering at her, wordlessly, with some combination of love and despair. As she tilts her coffee cup slowly up, up, schlorp, schlurp, schlurp, they have a look on their faces of wanting to either hug her or strap her to the roof of the car. It's hard to tell. "Back to the bathroom and then let's go," the man says. "We've been here too long."
People get left behind here, particularly by buses, and run about frantically with sudden panic, realizing that they may spend the rest of their lives at Maryland House.
"It's funny to see," Watson says, but he immediately sets in to help them. "We go upstairs, get the phone book, try to figure out what they should do." (If it's a child, he or she is plied with snacks, and a movie in the conference room, until the parents figure it out and come back, Bingham says, or the police find the parents and pull them over.)
By 4 p.m., Maryland House is crowded with all sorts of family banter and drama, the loud kind, and also the deadly silent kind. One detects, in the bathroom, a hole in the Lysolosphere; a stench is starting to linger.
The Thanksgiving jitters are starting, too: People are getting nervous about the holiday, about the miles left to go, about the unresolved relationships they're headed for, about the nagging idea that the oven has been left on, or something has been forgotten.
Here is the thing to know about Maryland House on the day before Thanksgiving:
This place is Thanksgiving dinner. The journey is the event, no matter what destinations or dinners wait down the road. The day before Thanksgiving is the national communion, the movement is the message and the story. It's our present-day Canterbury Tale. Fast food is something we forget to be thankful for, and Advil, and People magazine, and machines where you try to win a stuffed animal.
We break Cinnabons together, and a kind of blessing sets in, if you let it.
The problem is letting it.
"I want out of here," a woman tells her husband.
A Jesuit priest has lost his car keys. Vern Bingham tells Dave Watson to keep an eye out for keys; he already has employees digging through the trash bins, in case the man threw out his keys with his lunch plate.
Maybe he flushed them down the toilet, Watson says: "That's happened. We had a woman flush her keys down the toilet. We tried to get them back but we couldn't. But the story gets kind of strange, because the keys showed up three days later. I can't figure out how that happened, but a few days later we were putting a [plumber's] snake down the toilet -- we're not even looking for her keys anymore -- and there came the keys."
He pauses to talk about what a divine kind of grace this was. "The plumbing in these toilets is this wide," Watson says, making a circle with his hands as big around as a dessert plate. "Those keys should have been long gone."
He shrugs. Something powerful bubbled up right here in Maryland House. The woman was called and told that her keys had been found. Thanks were given.