First published in The Record, August 31, 2017
A Night at The Vince
The Vince Lombardi Service Area is a vaguely triangular blob of parking lots, fast-food restaurants and a gas station, surrounded by tall swamp reeds and two elevated causeways of the New Jersey Turnpike.
It is not a famously lovely place.
Every time Lilly Kerner visits New Jersey, though, she pauses at The Vince to enjoy the view of New York City's skyscrapers popping over the Palisades. She prefers to visit in the middle of the night. That’s when the parking lot is littered with crushed Burger King cups, the asphalt is bathed in orange sodium light and this busy place, crammed into the southwest border of Ridgefield near the confluence of two great American highways and the economic hub of the world, settles in for a nap.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Kerner, 41, who stopped with her husband, Fritz, at 1 a.m. on a recent Sunday on their trip home to Cambridge, New York, after visiting family in Perth Amboy. “We live out in the country. Like, way out in the country. It’s so boring! So we like to stop here and watch all the people, and look at the city, before we drive back home.”
Every year 1.6 million people stop at the service area’s 14-acre campus, according to the New Jersey Department of Transportation. This Labor Day weekend, when the summer travel season reaches its apex, will be especially busy; 28,000 visitors are expected between Friday and Monday, said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the department.
Daytime at The Vince is hustle and noise. Semi trucks line the travel plaza’s serpentine service roads. Jets on final approach into Newark Liberty International Airport roar overhead. Families, truckers and solo drivers jog into the low brick building for a quick burger, a quick Starbucks latte, a quick restroom stop, before quickly jogging back to their vehicles.
A night at The Vince is something else entirely. Even on a recent weekend, as the nation’s highways neared their crazed summer busiest, this place known up and down the Eastern Seaboard for its frenetic hum attained a hush.
It was Cassie Johnson and her husband, Kevin, of Pittsfield, Maine, sleeping in the front seats of their Hyundai Sonata with the windows down and doors unlocked, their socked feet on the dashboard and their mouths wide open.
And it was Eddie Davis of Meridian, Mississippi, taking a few hours to calm his nerves after driving an 18-wheel Freightliner truck through midtown Manhattan, the first trip of his life to New York City.
“I hated it! It’s too many cars,” said Davis, 39, who graduated from truck driving school two months ago. “The lanes in New York are too tight for this 73-foot truck!”
From sunset Saturday to sunrise Sunday, The Vince became a little community of people all heading someplace else. As their lives overlapped, they offered what they could: money, chicken nuggets, prayer, privacy, directions, and the peace everybody needs to catch a little sleep.
“This place is essential,” said Sadik Mohamud, 41, a trucker from Rochester, Minnesota. “If you’re driving around New York City, this is the only place you can stop and rest.”
Prayers and chicken nuggets
Sometimes when it’s late and windless and the phragmites reeds that hug The Vince stand perfectly still, time seems to roll backward. At a few minutes past midnight on this August night, Ron Dunphy’s 1971 Ford LTD chugged into the parking lot. The lime-green boat of a car pulled a trailer loaded with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Dunphy and his friends John O’Connell and Bill Seifert were driving from Vero Beach, Florida, north to New Hampshire, where they hoped to sell the motorcycle and the car.
They stopped at The Vince because they could afford to travel no farther. Crossing the George Washington Bridge with a two-axle trailer would cost $84. They were three men driving a 46-year-old car with no ATM card, no E-ZPass, and no smartphone to help plan a route with cheaper tolls.
And they were plumb out of cash.
“We are what you might call stuck,” said Seifert, 53. “The tolls just broke us.”
Thirty feet away, Fritz Kerner stood beside his modern Nissan SUV drinking a can of grapefruit-flavored Red Bull. Informed of the three men’s plight, he trotted over to the old green car. He chatted for a while, walked into the travel plaza, and emerged a few minutes later carrying four Burger King bags filled with french fries and chicken nuggets.
Kerner distributed the food to the men. Then he dropped his knees to the asphalt, wrapped both hands around the driver’s-side mirror, and prayed.
“Father, I ask that you watch over these men as they travel,” Kerner said. “Give them peace, give them understanding, give them guidance.”
Kerner paused, took half a breath, and began advising Dunphy on ways to avoid the George Washington Bridge.
“You guys are getting killed on tolls!” Kerner said. “You can go up to the Bear Mountain Bridge and cut over to the Taconic Parkway. The Taconic is beautiful, and there are no tolls.”
Many travelers, of course, are not so enamored of The Vince, one of more than a dozen turnpike and Garden State Parkway rest areas that will be upgraded or replaced over the next several years at a cost of $250 million. Nor are many visitors so helpful to their transitory neighbors. As she left the service plaza building at 2 a.m., Darcy Calise stopped and shook her head.
“Whoowee! You can always tell when you’re in New Jersey,” said Calise, 56, who was traveling from her home in Agawam, Massachusetts, to vacation in South Carolina. “It smells like manufacturing. Like garbage.”
Doug Billa works nights at The Vince’s Sunoco station, switching shifts between the gasoline pumps for cars and diesel for trucks. On this night everything was quiet.
Other nights are hard. Tired, bleary-eyed motorists regularly accuse him of overcharging them, he said. Sometimes they are drunk. Sometimes the drunks get angry. They open their car doors and flail around, fists swinging.
“They tell me, ‘Fill it up, regular,’ and then claim they only wanted $15,” said Billa, 23, who has pumped gas here for 16 months. “Whenever there’s a fight, we call the state troopers. It takes five minutes for them to get here. In the meantime you try to distance yourself. We absolutely cannot put our hands on a customer.”
Roy King lives at The Vince, and he survives by avoiding drunks and troopers in equal measure. King visited this place often as a trucker for 16 years. He lost his commercial driver’s license in January after racking up too many citations, he said. Evicted from his apartment in Paterson in May, he started driving his Honda Civic to The Vince and sleeping in the parking lot. He did that until July, when the car was repossessed.
Now King spends his nights tucked away in the truckers’ lounge. On Sunday morning the leather chair was too small to hold his curled-up body, and the television above his head bleated out an infomercial for would-be real estate flippers.
Sleep was a battle King lost and won in five-minute increments.
Still, he said, a week at The Vince is better than a night in a homeless shelter in Paterson.
“The shelters in Paterson aren’t so good,” said King, 61. “They’re dangerous.”
Eventually he left the lounge, walked outside, sat on a bench in front of the travel plaza and watched the trucks blast down the turnpike.
“I feel real bad about it,” King said of his slide into homelessness. “This ain’t all I want out of life.”
For others on this warm night, The Vince was just a quick stop in a new and exciting adventure. On Saturday morning, Larry Boyer drove from his home in South Orange to Patchogue, on Long Island, where he bought a used catamaran sailboat for $500, sight unseen.
He spent most of the day making small repairs. In the afternoon he took his 15-year-old son, Aidan, sailing on Long Island Sound.
They pulled into The Vince at 11:30 p.m. They were only 20 miles from home, but Boyer couldn’t drive any farther.
“We spent all day in the sun and out on the water,” he said, exiting his SUV with the boat in tow. “I’m dying of thirst.”
Chuck Walston and his wife, Eileen, also left home early Saturday morning, driving from a suburb near Baltimore to Rhode Island, where they bought a 9-week-old German shepherd named Sake. For three hours the puppy slept with his black fuzzy face on the minivan’s back seat.
When his new family stopped at The Vince, little Sake scrambled into the front seat and nuzzled into Chuck Walston’s lap.
“He’s pretty lovable,” said Walson, 62. “This is the first chance I’ve had to hold him since we got him.”
Dawn broke at 6:11 a.m., but the sun took a few minutes longer to scale the Palisades and cover The Vince’s parking lot in streaks of yellow light. Two seagulls appeared in the air, then 20. They darted to the ground to strut and peck at discarded french fries.
The first person to enter The Vince on this new day was Terry Banning, driving a turquoise Chevy pickup. The rear end sagged with furniture and a loaded U-Haul trailer, which together formed the first of three loads in Banning’s move from Connecticut to his new home in North Carolina.
The move has been stressful, Banning said. A few days before, his wife had suffered a panic attack. But here he was at 6:30 a.m. Sunday at the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike, and traffic was clear all the way to Baltimore.
“I’m exhausted. Moving is tough,” Banning said. “But I’m excited to finally be on the road.”