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MAY 21, 2013




In 1994 I heard a rumor that if you picked a specific tollbooth on the Jersey turnpike—if you knew someone who knew someone—there was a certain booth worker, an italian grandmother, who could pack the most delicious box lunch. Savory meatballs in a marinara sauce with thick slabs of freshly baked bread, a thermos of hot coffee, and chocolate almond biscotti.

I heard other stories about calzones and a sandwich with beef tongue, and we all agreed that it is weird to acquire beef tongue on the road from an anonymous source, whereas the meatballs, arguably just as mysterious, did not flag the same alarm. So after hearing the story for the third time, I made inquires.

Finding the whereabouts was a yearlong project, and then I promised not to reveal the identity of this mysterious culinary tollbooth worker under penalty of unspecified penalty. Running a catering service out of a tollboth is the kind of thing that makes the Department of Transportation gnash their teeth and shake their fists and howl at their unforgiving god.

For scads of legal reasons, I cannot tell you where this happened specifically, and I can’t tell you who to call, but if we were ever to meet, face to face, and you were to offer me a drink, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with Minnie. Where was I?

Living in the city, I don't drive often, but I used to, up until the age of twenty-two, when my tape deck was blaring Telemann and my copy of Roland Barthe's Mythologies was fading in the sunlight of the backseat. My “Latin and Greek are Not Dead — They Are Immortal!” bumper sticker was freshly applied.

I sold my chariot, the Bachmobile, in 1996 for some magic beans and a security deposit in the East Village. I was uncertain that I would even remember what a steering wheel does, much less be able to find the NJ Turnpike. But by some miracle I rented the same Ford Taurus that I learned to drive so many years ago.

The transmission—still a contradiction in terms. The air conditioner—still smelling like mummified fried chicken. The brakes—still needing a more hearty stomp than one would think. The mysterious presence of a tape deck, which was fine, because guess who still has their Baroque’ing The Law mixtape?

And so, with a funny air conditioner smell and bassoons blaring, I set out for a tollbooth whose location I cannot mention. What I can tell you is that thinking that you have found the wrong tollbooth is an expensive process, because you have to circle around and pay all over again. Thinking you have found the wrong tollbooth three times in a row is even worse, until finally the heavyset fellow in the booth gives you a funny look and you wonder if you're about to be shot into swiss cheese like Sonny in The Godfather.

“I thought you were an italian grandmother,” I said, because it did not occur to me to say anything else.

“She’s . . . ” he pointed upward, while in the process of chewing something massive and unspecified.

“Oh my god. I'm so sorry . . .”

“Sorry. I meant she moved to Westchester,” he quickly clarified, after swallowing.

He then handed me one of those stainless-steel lunch containers that you usually see in dollar stores, there are three containers stacked on top of each other. “That's thirty. Make sure you eat it in the next ten minutes. Goes well with a sangiovese. What am I saying? Forget I said that.” Because having a glass of wine with a sandwich while driving is frowned upon in this country.

I paid him first for the meal and then for the toll, all the while thinking that this was a hefty fee for an anonymous meal, and that ten minutes was not enough time to get to the Joseph Conrad rest stop. That one is my favorite because they have pinball. Or at least they did in 1996.

It was clear that I was going to have to settle for the Grahame Greene stop, which does not have pinball or sangiovese. What they do have is picnic benches, and lots of them. Also, the music in the little gift shop area plays the theme from The Third Man.

For the king’s ransom that I paid, I don't know that it's the best meatball that I’ve ever had, I don't know that the bread is all that amazing, and I don’t really care for biscotti without espresso, but what I do know is that rest stops have a way of redefining eating. At this rest stop, these were the only meatballs I've ever eaten, the only bread that I would ever know, and they were perfect in that moment.

But even more perfect is the certainty of knowing that at the next party you attend, you can be the one who tells someone else about the tollbooth restaurant. That in itself is worth three or four tolls in a row.

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