Killing Me Softly at Molly Pitcher Station

SADLY, BUYER BEWARE FULL SERVICE IN NEW JERSEY

To understand a recent experience at the New Jersey Turnpike’s Molly Pitcher station near Exit 8, start singing in a low whisper (not your shower voice) a few lines of Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth:

There’s something happening here.

But what it is ain’t exactly clear…

Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza in East Windsor, New Jersey, at milepost 71.7 on the New Jersey Turnpike is, in a phrase, not for the faint of heart. It was Monday afternoon on a cool Spring day. My companion and I were making our way from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. We had visited her parents for the weekend.

My friend, we’ll call her Betty, has a new car–a spiffy 2020 Hyundai Sonata. It is a hyper-vigilant little beast that beeps, whistles, buzzes and hums at your every move– probably a little too much for my taste, but, to say the least, it is a safe vehicle. 

We needed gas. The car was empty, and telling us as much as we plodded our way through lower Manhattan and into the Holland Tunnel. We were confident that it would be easy enough to fill the tank at the start of our three-plus-hour drive home, and so we arrived at  Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza to fortify.

Molly Pitcher station, a mix of food stops, gas pumps and a set of bathrooms, stands at Exit 8A, which is fairly down the Turnpike and well out of New York. It is hard for me to forget where we were. I dated a man—a wonderful man — who lived off of Exit 8. He was from Hightstown.  I’ve come to discover that all the men I’ve loved in my life were born within a 95-mile radius of Exit 8. For a Californian, this has become an official coincidence.

We look around. It is not beautiful, and it is hard to believe that 20 miles west of us there is lush, verdant land. There are rolling hills; there is Princeton University; there are grand homes in bucolic towns; and, there is even a bit of noteworthy horse country just yonder.  But not here.

At Molly Pitcher, there are trucks—a city block’s worth of trucks. The place sits high and the sun casts a stark shroud over us, while the wind suggests a sort-of indifference as to our needs. We are nothing more than the ephemeral commuters.  No one looks.

You hear the hum of all that is manmade, engines revving, tires on the asphalt, the snort of a refrigerator truck pulling in, and the shrill horn of a heavy tractor trailer that goes by the name of “Lady,” sounding off three long times as she leaves the station. The atmosphere at Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza is hard, sober, foreboding—and busy. You feel so far away from the stranger in the distance—your world is as foreign to them as theirs is to you, and neither of us cares one lick about the other. The bathrooms are clean, but otherwise, the only reassuring thing about Exit 8’s Molly Pitcher station is an array of well-maintained massage chairs.

At this point, it is important to remember that New Jersey is among the last states in the country, along with Oregon, to require gas to be pumped by a service station attendant. In New Jersey, the law has been in place since 1949. This is a long-gone paradigm that conjured fond memories for me, a Southern California native who grew up with many-a-neighborly staff at the full service stations across West Los Angeles. At Molly Pitcher’s on a cold Spring afternoon, I assume he is the affable, reassuring gas station attendant —a local, of course—who shuffles up to the car with a smile and asks: “How are yuz?”

He looks at both of us and introduces himself. 

“My name is Eugene and I’ll be taking care of you today. By the way, beautiful car. Oh, I see you’re almost completely empty. And, look at your windshield. Tell you what I’m gonna do. While the gas is pumping —and this beauty gets regular or premium?— I’ll wash all of your windows and get your mirrors. I would offer to check the oil, but I am guessing she is just fine in that department. But, tell me, is there anything else you want me to check before I let you go? 

“I see those Maryland plates and gather you lovely ladies are heading home? And the next 70-mile stretch is, as we like to say, a Badlands Baptism. Remember Ladies, it’s the worst of the worst, this road. It’s bleak, it’s cold, it’s got no soul, no sense of charity, not a trace of goodwill, and it wears its treachery proudly. I don’t want you to feel alone, or scared, or unprepared, Lord forbid, and so I’ll take good care of the car so’s that you don’t even notice you’re on America’s most dangerous highway, route 95, the New Jersey Turnpike! Now just sit back, and relax.”

Read:  None of that happened at the Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza. Instead, from what we could make out, a man-child, a stumblebum in a hoodie, bellied up to the driver’s window. All we saw was the filthy waistline of a sweatshirt that hadn’t been washed since St. Patrick’s day. He said nothing except: “How d’you wanna pay?”

I think it’s time we stop

Children, what’s that sound?

Everybody look, what’s going down?

From this point, what happened to us is a mystery. Not a good mystery. Rather, a drab mystery, for we were not exactly hijacked, nor robbed at the gas tank at Molly Pitcher’s—and, no, there was most definitely not a peace protest gone-wrong. No, no. 

But there was a violation, physically and, worse, spiritually. As to the latter, it was the forbidding mood at Molly’s that hurt so much. It was the brazen absence of care on the part of our gas pumper, where, from that dreary base, he, faceless in a grey hoodie, sent my companion and I off from this last outpost for miles (or in Turnpike parlance, for many, many exits) like sorry, luckless, clueless prey without a thought as to the care of our vehicle.  Cue Buffalo Springfield:

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware…

Seems our guy didn’t have a gun. He had a pump. And he could have cared less about whether we needed to beware. Sigh. His behavior was very un-Molly Pitcher. 

Molly Pitcher, a patriot in spirit — and on paper. She was Mary Hayes, the wife of a gunner in the Continental Army who took over a canon for her heat-stricken husband at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 in Freehold, NJ.  Molly Pitcher got her name for bringing water to hot, thirsty soldiers in the field, and, likewise, pouring water over canons. Molly Pitcher, the first woman to receive a pension, or annual commission, for wartime service. It was $40 a year for the rest of her life. 

Molly Pitcher had her petticoat blown off by a canon shot that rolled between her feet. A record of the event tells us:

“While in the act of reaching a cartridge . . . a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat . . . She observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher . . . and continued her occupation.”

Our guy most likely did not know who Molly Pitcher was, unless there is some sort of quiz you have to take to get the job of ‘Indifferent, Callous Gas station Attendant at Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza’.  Still, he would pass most of the requirement with flying colors.  Molly Pitcher rolled over in her grave that Monday afternoon as we left the gas station that bears her name. 

Which brings me to the physical violation—the part about the lousy service by the punk in the hoodie — and the fact that our tank was never filled. Our man took our credit card for what was presumably the duration of time it would take to fill the sedan, and when he returned with card in hand, he asked if we wanted a receipt — to which my companion, the driver, Betty, consciously said in the name of saving paper, “No thanks.” She even smiled and threw her hair back. (We know. Bad answer. We are humbled. We get it.) 

And, from there, without as much as looking at our gas station attendant (which was certainly fine with him) we set out on our drive. At that very moment, Betty received an alert from her bank on her phone. She deleted it, this time in the name of efficiency. (We know. We know.) 

From Molly Pitcher, there is a fairly long stretch of road before the next station. Add to that the fact that we were talking, debriefing about New York, what have you, and it took us ten-minutes to observe the fuel gauge, which now hovered below the empty signal. (Yes, go ahead. Call us absurdly unaware. We get it. Be observant. Be vigilant. Be awake, for God’s sake!)

Cut to: Camera on two women staring, bug-eyed, through the windshield, voices rising, hysterics almost setting in, as we realized we were truly driving on fumes.  To break down on the very stretch we were on— known as one of the most dangerous roads in America—was now possible, plausible, imminent! And what if we lost control of the car when the gas runs out, and cause a horrific pileup? Well, frightening as it sounded to us, we would merely be another New Jersey Turnpike statistic.  

Our tank should have been full. But what did we know? We had no receipt. It was just supposed to be full. This is a full service state, dammit! We didn’t check the gas gauge. We trusted our gas man, (who has since been demoted to gas boy). We felt powerless, soft. Were I platoon sergeant, an infantry captain, I felt like the one whose people would be the first to get massacred, and forgotten even faster. That is how moronic we felt.

So much in this world has changed. And Molly Pitcher dealt my companion and I a blow so demoralizing, so gut wrenching, so hard and real that all we could reason was that, yes, the curtain might well be coming down on the world, on civilization, on our unique human species. And we absolutely will not receive a standing ovation.  

Furthermore, at Molly Pitcher station, we learned that people suck. What happened to the Continental Army? Where is Eugene? The event triggered an existential upheaval from which we are still reeling.

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

Molly Pitcher, a figure who symbolizes bravery, who is selfless and fearless, makes us wonder: Is the world a place of inherently good people, or not? Has humanity become the galaxy’s morbid joke? Are we a running gag amid the cosmos? The only life-supporting planet populated by half-wits—called homo sapiens—living in societies of their own device that are falling apart under their own poorly-conceived rules, their own arbitrary acts of “herd selfishness” and, subsequently,  their own desperate, self-inflicted game of survival that, for the moment, is an obscure rat race that starts and ends at Exit 8?  

To think, we were looking forward to a pleasant drive home. But, like Molly Pitcher, we need to shake it off and be grateful it wasn’t any more complicated than it turned out to be. And, then, we move on, and stay strong, knowing that is our only option.