Finally, someone risked trying one of the automated massage chairs near Burger King and the 22-foot brass replica of the Battleship New Jersey.
Joe Lasheski, a tattoo artist traveling with his wife and son from Pottstown to Ocean City, sat and fed the black, leathery chair a dollar for a three-minute massage.
“Yeah, it’s not that great,” he said as the machine went to work on his road-weary body. “Now it’s squeezing my legs uncomfortably hard.”
I gave one of the chairs a go, too. It was like being pummeled in the head and back by the fists of a dozen 3-year-olds.
Joe and I were just two among the 16.5 million people who each year drive by the Frank S. Farley Travel Plaza, the Atlantic City Expressway’s only rest stop.
I’m fascinated by rest stops, these islands in the stream of America’s traffic, integral yet forgettable staples of American travel. So I lingered on an August Friday in a place everyone else was in a rush to leave.
About 1,830 service plazas pepper U.S. highways, according to the travel app AllStays. They are the children of America’s love affair with cars dating to the 1950s, when the interstate highway system removed cross-country drivers from shops, gas stations, and eateries on local roads. The expressway’s Milepost 21.3, almost halfway along the 44-mile road, has had a stop since 1965, when a snack stand, and later a restaurant, opened. The existing building went up in 1998.
The modern rest stop is a homogeneous limbo, a place people seek on the way to somewhere else, so disconnected from any semblance of place or community that even the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) spokesperson had to think for a moment before he could say what town the Farley Plaza is in. It’s Hammonton, though locals call it Elmwood.
Yet jabs at individuality break through.
That 22-foot battleship model was used by the Navy to test radio waves four decades ago. The actual ship is 37 miles away, in Camden. The Farley Plaza grounds include a warped piece of metal from the floor of a World Trade Center tower, an outdoor farmers market, and a tombstone-like memorial for public workers killed on the expressway. There are four names on it, the most recent added in 1987.
A sundial from 1978 honors the plaza’s namesake, State Sen. Frank “Hap” Farley, who inherited the Atlantic County political machine from racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and apparently stood just to one side of corruption himself, though he was never convicted. His 1977 Inquirer obituary noted that the U.S. Senate investigated allegations that his organization “protected gangsters, maced patronage employees, and took shakedown money from local businesses.” He gifted the state the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway, helped bring gambling to Atlantic City, and was “one of the most feared and influential politicians in the state.”
Like the ocean’s tidal surges and retreats, the rest stop suddenly fills with people who swell the lines at the Starbucks and Burger King and occupy the dining area. Their murmur, with an occasional loud laugh, rises to the high ceilings where bare rafters evoke a ski lodge. Then the crowds dissipate, leaving the place nearly empty for a while but for the workers for HMSHosts, a concession company that operates the restaurants and market there and in about 80 other rest stops in 10 states. One man wiped tables over and over as they became vacated.
Workers declined to be interviewed, with one assistant manager nervously saying all questions should be directed to the corporation. About 75 people work there, HMSHosts reported, though staffing varies by time of year. No surprise, June through August are the busiest months, SJTA reported.
Of the visitors, many sat alone, eating burgers and glancing around as if unsure where to let their eyes rest. Families bickered. One woman yelled at her daughter for spilling water on the Starbucks counter.
Linda Nelson of Wilmington offered applesauce and chicken nuggets to granddaughter Arya. They were visiting a niece in Atlantic City, but Arya needed a break from the road. With lunch in front of her, the 16-month-old seemed placid.
“When she realizes the nuggets have run out, we may see a different Arya,” Nelson joked.
Many visitors hail from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and they hint at the nervous energy that precedes a break from work, responsibilities, and familiar surroundings: Men who hadn’t yet removed their ties; a middle-aged couple, the man covered in body art and his partner who couldn’t stop smiling as she anticipated seeing Aerosmith at the Borgata; a twentysomething couple, both in medical scrubs.
“I’m going to let loose,” Ryan Steinmetz, 27, a respiratory therapist at Jefferson Hospital, said of his weekend in Wildwood.
Three college students in high heels, two wearing slinky, sequined dresses, fizzed with anticipation for a Trenton dance party as they waited in line at Starbucks.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Sophia LaValley, 18, “a banger.”
The plaza has indoor seating, picnic tables, and outdoor benches, yet two women with feet still dusted with beach sand chose a secluded curb behind the Sunoco gas station to furtively smoke.
“I’m a smoker who tried to stop smoking today, and I had to stop to buy a pack of cigarettes,” said Jill Mulderig, 30, of Mantua, who seemed not too guilty about breaking her abstinence. “I did give myself to the end of August to quit.”
A few yards away, the sun seared asphalt around gas pumps where men in yellow vests collected credit cards from cars, which included a few BMWs, Mercedes, and a gorgeous charcoal gray Porsche Turbo.
“Some is tough,” said Maurice Cherry, 48, in his eighth year of part-time work. “Some is real polite."
He’s had people curse at him after being told they were pulling up to the pump in the wrong direction. Two folks once got into a fist fight over who reached a pump first.
“It depends on the weather,” he said on what affects people’s moods. "It might be the people who lost all their money in the casino.”
The job pays about $9 an hour, Cherry said, but with tips, it can be lucrative. Another attendant, Warren Hill, 45, said it’s better than working in a casino, which he’s done, too.
“Out here to me, it’s much better because you don’t got people constantly yelling,” he said. “Too many problems with the casino.”
Not much screams beach vacation here. Seagulls bicker in the parking lot, but the quarter-mile nature walk is Pine Barrens lite, with the added buzz of highway traffic. Stuffed, sequinned dolphins are sold in the service plaza alongside, inexplicably, stuffed, sequinned giraffes.
But outside, fresh peaches, plums, and Jersey tomatoes at Ron’s Gardens resurrect faint memories of burning sand, beach-chair dozing, and your mom yelling to not swim too soon after eating.
Ron’s Gardens, supplied by farms around Hammonton, is open from June to October, said Kim Vitolo of Deptford, who is a first-grade teacher the rest of the year. She has regulars who stock up there for their beach house weekends.
Now, as the longest days of summer begin to feel distant, business is slowing. Amy Wolk Mallenbaum of Ambler was on her way to Cape May to celebrate the anniversary of her wedding, which was more than 30 years ago.
She still feels a hint of the excitement she remembers from traveling to the Shore as a child. Those trips used to include stops at roadside farmers’ stands that are mostly gone. Now she goes to Ron’s and savors the “outstanding” plums.