So if you’ll recall from last time, I had driven from Chicago to New York as a terrified 19-year old in my girlfriend Lisa’s 1974 Ford Country Squire Station wagon – all 14 glorious feet of it. Having run out of gas several times in Ohio, and experienced the thrill of driving the speed limit in the passing lane through New Jersey, I was less enthusiastic about the drive back, but I couldn’t abandon the car, and nobody wanted to drive back with me, so at the appointed hour, I took a bus across town to my parking space and headed west across the George Washington Bridge.
My plan was to stay on I-80 all the way through New Jersey and Pennsylvania and then take the Ohio and Indiana turnpikes to Illinois.
I thought the plan was going pretty well until I saw a sign that telling me that the next exit was for Philadelphia. While I wasn’t so great at driving, I was pretty good at geography and knew that the city of brotherly love was nowhere near my itinerary. After a brief consultation with the Rand-McNally US Road Atlas book, I realized with some chagrin that I had in fact been traveling south on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving I-80 far behind me in the pre-dawn mist.
Pulling into the toll plaza and pleading my case, the grouchy attendant informed me that I would have to pay the full toll price, despite the fact that I was turning around. I told him that was fine, and as if he didn’t hear me, he repeated more angrily and even louder that I would have to pay the full price, which I promptly did and headed back north to my long-lost I-80.
By that time the August sun had risen and I was cruising merrily along I-80 through Pennsylvania when I decided to pull into a rest stop. After doing what I needed to do, I noticed an older, slightly disheveled man skulking around. I’ll state again that although a naïf when it came to driving, I grew up in Manhattan and could spot trouble pretty far away. While I was spotting that trouble, it spotted me right back and came up and started to make conversation which started innocuously enough, but pretty quickly segued into questions about my propensity to stay out late and go to bars.
Apparently my answers weren’t compelling enough, so he came right out with it and suggested that we head off into an adjacent patch of foliage, where we would apparently get to know each other better. I declined somewhat forcefully and got into my car, preparing to make the dramatic gesture of turning the key, the engine roaring into life and zooming away.
The car didn’t spring to life, but instead uttered a pathetic, quiet but audible click. “Your car’s not working,” said the observant and leering Mr. Perv who was now leaning his head into the open driver’s window. “I can give you a ride to the nearest gas station…” I cut him short by thanking him and asking him if he wanted to wait while I called the police. For some reason, he rapidly declined and quickly disappeared.
Several payphone calls later (remember, this was 1982) I was seated in the flyspecked waiting room of a rural Pennsylvania service station while the 1974 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon was looked over. It turned out that the battery terminals were in an advanced state of decrepitude and needed to be replaced. Not having any kind of credit card, I paid the $200 bill in cash and got back on the road.
The remainder of the passage through Pennsylvania and Ohio was fairly unremarkable, but by the time I got to Indiana, I realized that I was running low on gas and money. I calculated how much I would need to pay for the pleasure of driving on the lovely Indiana Toll Road, and then pulled into a gas station where I asked for $4.27 worth of gas as I reached the positively panicked conclusion that I was going to run out of gas before making it back to Hyde Park. Despite the attendant’s irritation at being given such an exact gas order, he filled it up with exactly $4.27 of gas and I was on my way, nervously checking the gas gauge every few seconds, and driving with the hyper-awareness that at any second, the engine would make that weak, coughing sound which preceded the nauseating deceleration of a car which was out of gas.
After bidding a fond farewell to the state of Indiana and its toll barrier, I was officially penniless. But as I drove through Gary, Indiana (which resembled Mordor more than the Midwestern steel town it was) approaching Chicago with a crimson and burnt orange sunset splashing across the western sky, I reached the happy conclusion that I would in fact have enough gas to make it home. Relief and happiness washed over me and I felt the giddiness which comes with elation and relief of intense stress. I smiled and congratulated myself on so capably managing my pennies.
It was at that precise moment of course that I spotted the “Pay Toll Ahead” sign, announcing the Chicago Skyway, which I had completely forgotten about.
I pulled up to the attendant in the tollbooth and near-tearfully recounted my sad story (leaving out the more salacious bits) as a way of explaining why I couldn’t pay the $1.25 toll for the Chicago Skyway. His face remained expressionless as he listed to my tale of woe at the end of which he wordlessly handed me an envelope addressed to the Chicago Skyway Toll Authority and waved me through.
Half an hour later I pulled up to my apartment in Hyde Park, feeling like I had been through the wars and joyfully and with a tremendous sigh of relief turned the car off and handed the keys to Lisa, who was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, asking innocently how the trip was and unaware that she was about to hear the epic tale of my first and quite possibly last solo cross-country trip.