America the ugly

What you don’t see in brochures

This is the fourth of five posts about my recent Jersey-to-California road trip.

By Mark Voger, author
‘Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture’


There are bound to be certain things one sees on a journey like this which never make it into tourism TV spots, magazines or brochures.

One night at 1 or 2 a.m., we found ourselves driving aimlessly through a rough section of a well-known city. (On this particular night, it proved impossible to arrange accommodations without knowing exactly where we would be and when. We were stuck.) There were signs of homelessness and drug-dealing — characters getting in and out of cars — wherever we looked.

We felt safe-ish for the moment parked in front of a name-brand travel stop, a sprawling gas station/convenience store, around which more than 100 giant trucks were parked for a snooze, and we mulled our options. A 30-something woman with wiry blond hair fidgeted out front, pushing what looked like all of her worldly possessions affixed to a small luggage-rack-on-wheels. God help her, but this woman appeared to be somehow mentally impaired. A 20-something man approached her; they spoke briefly; and the two disappeared around the corner, presumably into his truck.

I’d known Newark and Asbury during those cities’ respective nadirs, but this was still a surprise, to see the deal go down in plain view of a familiar, trusted establishment.

This stayed with me to the point where, once back in Jersey, I Googled “(CITY NAME) HOMELESS OUTREACH.” There is a robust program in place, thankfully.

Another thing you couldn’t help but notice during this journey is the glut of opportunities to sit and gamble at noisy slot machines installed at so many of these countless travel stops. I never thought about it much before, but with no Federal law against online betting, isn’t gambling kinda legal everywhere now?

Audacious display

There’s one more inconvenient truth, something that is out there, like it or not, and should be acknowledged: the saddening, worrying, ongoing political division you encounter along the way. Currently, the rhetoric seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and house signage is increasingly provocative and ominous, with the implication of violence growing more commonplace. It wasn’t always this way.

I saw an audacious display on a private residence along a highway in Ohio. The owner had a gigantic — I mean gigantic — sign taking up most of his house that said, simply, F*** BIDEN. (This person didn’t use asterisks.)

Decorum is dead. My World War II Marine dad, a lifelong Republican who kept his politics to himself and valued civility, would not be happy about all this. Me, I feel sorry for anyone trying to go for a nice drive with their grandchildren and passing by that house of hatin’.

Gas station gift shops sold all kinds of delightful decals, like a machine gun with the slogan “Come and Take it” and the old standby “We Don’t Call 911” with a gun pointed at the viewer; among other charming sentiments.

At our hotel in Sidney, Nebraska, a guest’s car was covered in such decals. One showed the U.S. flag with the slogan “If this flag offends you, I’ll help you pack.” Funny thing is, we were packing at the time, and while we have no problem with the flag, could have used some help.

Post script

This cracked me up. We have here, in some remote Midwestern corner, an establishment calling itself The Newsstand. I’m sure they sell magazines, just not Time or Newsweek. The “Adult Videos” sign, not to mention the gold tinsel curtains, are the giveaways. What caught my eye is the sign that says “Truckers Welcome.” Um, what if truckers weren’t welcome? Wouldn’t The Newsstand be turning away most of its customer base? This also begs the question: Where’s the sign that says “Respectable Businessmen Welcome”?

More about the trek

Read about the journey west HERE.
Read about the San Francisco Bay Area HERE.
Read about a Black Panthers landmark HERE.
Read about America the beautiful HERE.