I pull off to pee at the Walt Whitman Wayside on the Jersey Turnpike.
Through the woods from Camden where the poet lived his last,
where he mused and predicted, dictated and preened,
gazed with dimming eyes out his doorway past the fragrant lilac vines,
lost in memories of war and men torn and ruined in battle,
wistful thoughts of furtive loves, and the epiphany he knew and had somehow wrought into a book.
He saw what we did to each other. He dreamed what we could be.
He said he would wait for us here.
Along this divided highway, pressed gravel and tar made macadam smooth
at these exit ramps fingering to Philly and Trenton and Asbury Park,
home to superhero athletes, devious politicians, poets with guitars, and all of us who drive.
Stop with me here before the row of drink machines, five bulky rectangles, side-by-side.
Their clear plastic windows and cans stacked tight: Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, Red Bull, and 7-Up. All shiny, all sugared, all bubbly.
All promising some subtle rush, a little rapture, that impalpable sustenance available to all with a dollar.
Turn to the double doors, swinging open and shut, and the glass ante room they frame.
Funneled through them in then out and on down the turnpike every kind of person.
Pause with me here by the drink machines, loiter and look, and try to see what he saw.
That little old lady was a teacher, her son is her driver now, a broker who loves his mom.
That man at the door wears a turban. Is he a Hindu, a Sikh, a suburban father from Rahway? He looks at his watch. He nods to us. His father, the immigrant, always so long in the Men’s Room.
Ah, the Men’s Room, how this would have stirred the old bawd! The phalanx of identical porcelain urinals, no dividers between them, all down the wall. The men side by side at their business, none looking left or right, so serious, so private, so mindful to follow that rule.
The rhythmic flushing, almost a beat, the stench of blended vapors from their voiding, and the jet plane roar of the drying machines. Eyes askance, hands at zippers, feet testing the slippery floor.
And the Women’s Room, never enough stalls, the long line out the door and their mincing needy dance, the fretful glances and nods of commiseration. I mean, this is the most democratic place, don’t you think?
Are you a casino owner climbing out of your limo in leather gloves?
Are you a cheerleader off the bus flipping your hair and stretching?
A trucker en route to Miami?
Do you use a wheelchair?
Do you identify as he or her or them?
Do you make this trip every day, or is this your first rubber-necking sojourn along the edge of America, straight off the plane at Newark?
Is your language a jibberish to others?
Are you rushing to work, to the game, or are you rushing because that is what you do?
No, wait, hold up, stand back and groove with me.
Admire the wall of fast food joints staffed with counter persons and the workers at the back.
Where do they live? Where do they park their cars?
Must they pay to use the Turnpike, subtracting that fee from their working wage?
How strange it must be to have no regulars.
Everyone a stranger, none to be seen again, all sliding their cards in the slot, capping their cups of joe, all day every day.
I see you chubby fry cook and the splatter burns on your arms.
I see you sallow-faced manager, flat-footed, spinning in place, dreading another breakdown of the ice machine.
You children in your winter coats, like bubbles with faces, your tiny hands lost in your mothers’ mittened grips.
All the coming and going, the thousands streaming, no one bumping, no one cursing, cats that herd themselves.
And the same in the parking lot, cars backing, waiting, accelerating out past the gas pumps, past the 18-wheelers lined up on the side, past the dog walkers and the scraggly pines and the skittering of trash, one empty can rolling with a tuneful clatter across the greasy asphalt as rain begins to fall.
Yo, Wayside named for our Bard with a Capital-B, you too are the poem he scrawled, and each of us a line.
The hum of our valved hearts, the stink of what dumps from our innards, our greasy lips, the common urgent fatigue.
We rub our glasses clean on our shirts, briefly flashing our bellies.
We are Southerners headed home where people drawl, we are IT specialists who surf on weekends, we are combat veterans and judges and students with depression diagnoses. We pour water from bottles for our dogs.
The arterial flow of the nation is what the Teamsters said, this turnpike linked to every other and our zooming lives from here to there down this road more a web than a runway.
The Walt Whitman Wayside as America singing whether we know it or not.
He wrote: You may read the President’s message and read nothing about it there. I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness, that thing the Founders urged on us, pursuit pursuit pursuit and an asphalt grid to do it on. Never the getting there, not for us, the going is the thing.
He asked, What is it then between us? Could this wayside offer a clue? Well, what if you took me up on this? What if we paused, stepped out of the way, and peered around for one minute?
Would we see what the poet promised, would we understand what he meant, would we take that moment to marvel, and would that be enough?