The Garden State Parkway’s Jon Bon Jovi Rest Stop Is Playing Fast And Loose With Famous Quotes
12:02 PM EST on February 23, 2023
CHEESEQUAKE, N.J. — Have you ever scored a touchdown? I never played real football, so my own experiences have been pretty low-key, but man, did they feel great. I think I remember almost all of them—in two-hand touch on the street, gym class as a kid, flag football games. I even had a standard celebration: I impersonate Fred Barnett’s backwards, falling-down spike when he caught his famous 95-yard touchdown from Randall Cunningham. This was harder when playing in the street, but I was usually so excited that I did it anyway.
Even in a pick-up game, scoring a touchdown is incredible. Still, I can only imagine what it’s like in a real game, with the pads and helmet on, taking the ball over the goal line to give your team six points. It must feel great. It must feel like acting. At least, that’s what I learned from Ed Harris at the Jon Bon Jovi Service Area on the Garden State Parkway.
Harris was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in a virtual ceremony in 2020. He grew up in Tenafly and played football there, then at Columbia. He was the Bergen Record athlete of the week in 1968. But while he knows what scoring a touchdown is like, Harris wasn't inducted for his gridiron career. Harris has been an intense and instantly recognizable presence onscreen and on stage since the 1970s, and entering his home state’s Hall of Fame is just one of many honors he's won for his acting.
According to a quote that the New Jersey Hall of Fame attributed to Harris, which is printed on a pillar at the rest stop now named after Jon Bon Jovi, Harris says that acting is just like scoring a touchdown. I am not paraphrasing. The quote reads: “Acting is like scoring a touchdown.” The Parkway rest stop, formerly known as the Cheesequake Rest Area, is now one giant ad for the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and its members are celebrated on its walls. All of them have some sort of quote attributed to them. Harris’s is as simple as it is confounding.
I wasn’t going to argue with Harris on this; he's done more acting and scored more touchdowns than I have. But I still struggled to figure out what it meant. Did Harris mean that acting is such a fun job that every day was like scoring a touchdown? Was he noting that Fred “The Hammer” Williamson has done both? Those were the best guesses I could come up with, but it still didn't make sense to me. So I decided to investigate.
I will spoil it: Ed Harris did not actually say, “Acting is like scoring a touchdown.” His publicist was incredibly helpful with my silly inquiry, and while Harris had been out of town, she got in touch with him. He confirmed that the quote was a mangling of his words.
“I said at one point, when I was deciding what to do with my life, having realized my athletic career was over with,” Harris told Defector via email, “and having seen a wonderful actor at the [Oklahoma University] summer theater and the people applauding and cheering for his performance, I thought to myself: ‘Maybe I could do that… acting—and have people applaud like when I scored touchdowns.’”
Someone is probably going to get in trouble for this. This kind of thing has happened to institutions more powerful than the New Jersey Hall of Fame. The U.S. government once shortened Martin Luther King Jr.'s powerful “Drum-Major Instinct” speech into this quote: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” It was quickly corrected.
Anyway, if you were in a theater for Apollo 13 in 1995, you know that Ed Harris did eventually get applauded by more people for his acting than his football career. The New Jersey Hall of Fame, in what must have been an attempt to shorten a thoughtful quote into something that would fit onto a pillar in a Parkway service area, ended up truncating it into nonsense.
What is stranger still is that the Jon Bon Jovi Service Area is full of weird shit like this. Let me show you around.
I first stopped at the Bon Jovi rest stop in September 2022, not because I felt compelled to do important journalism but for the same reason anyone stops at these places: I needed to pee. I did not realize that I was entering what seems to be, for now, the flagship enterprise of the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
The Jon Bon Jovi Service Area is a great idea, both because of its spacious and clean bathrooms and because of its name. Parkway rest stops were formerly named just after areas, which left the New Jersey Turnpike to name all its rest stops after famous New Jerseyans. Frank S. Farley Plaza, the Atlantic City Expressway’s lone rest stop, is named after the longtime power broker who secured funding for the highway—also very New Jersey, in a way.
The Parkway’s rest stops seem to be functioning as pop-up advertisements for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. A 2021 review of the renovation on NJ.com says the place wasn’t really changed too much in terms of amenities, but what they did change seemed to be for the better. I have been there a few times now myself, and every time people seem to be thrilled by the theme. People take photos of the Bon Jovi gold record and guitar mounted on the wall. They learn about New Jersey’s famous people, and read inspirational quotes from them. Or … well, they read quotes.
The first one that I noticed was from the actor John Amos, a Newark native. “Being from Jersey gives you a good basis for life,” his quote reads. “You’ve got a Ph.D. in reality if you come out of Jersey.” This is what I figured the quotes would be like: short sayings about how incredible the state is, straight from the mouths of famous Jerseyans. Despite being from across the river, I have plenty of nice things to say about New Jersey. For example, you’ll notice that I just praised one of its rest stops. But I have met many fine people from the state who do seem to have a Ph.D. in reality.
The other quotes are stranger. The message of the New Jersey Hall of Fame seems to be that there are lots of famous people from New Jersey, and all of them want you to follow your dreams. The quotes are arranged in no particular order or pattern that I can detect. Albert Einstein sits next to Gloria Gaynor. Dick Vitale is next to Walt Whitman. Bobbi Brown and Paul Robeson are on the same pillar. Brown’s quote is about how great Jersey is. Next to hers is a Robeson quote: “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.” That one’s real enough, as it comes from A Paul Robeson Research Guide, though it is listed as “in essence” as what he said.
Walt Whitman does not fare as well: “Be curious,” the poet's quote reads, “not judgmental.” Those who have read Whitman's work will struggle to place it, but viewers of the Apple TV show Ted Lasso will recognize it as an inspirational quote Lasso uses while winning a game of darts; it is my favorite scene in the entire series. Whitman absolutely did not say it. Ed Folsom, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, told Snopes that it is “one of ten or fifteen ‘quotes’ often falsely attributed to Whitman” that are in some cases much more famous than his actual writing. The original source of the phrase is amusing, too: a 1986 advice column from Marguerite and Marshall Shearer that answered a question from a mother who found birth control pills in her daughter’s bedroom.
Einstein’s quote is real. Steve Van Zandt also gets a real one: “Write, Act, Paint, Play, Perform, Work, Think, Speak, Live With Purpose.” (They left out the next line, which I also like: “Or hide under the bed until checkout time.”) Bon Jovi is quoted accurately, too. “Life is a long, bumpy road, but that makes for an exciting ride. It’s OK to map out your future—but do it in pencil.” He said this while accepting an honorary degree from Rutgers-Camden in 2015. So not only did he say it, he said it in New Jersey. Great!
Gov. Phil Murphy announced the rest stop makeover in 2021 in a press release full of real (?) quotes from various government bigwigs. “This is about putting New Jersey greatness on full display,” Murphy said in the release. “This is the first part of an extended statewide exhibition of New Jersey heroes throughout our state. From military heroes on the Battleship New Jersey to historical figures on the New Jersey Turnpike to science and technology trailblazers at Newark Penn Station, New Jerseyans will find pride in our contributions to society and the world.”
The key word for the New Jersey Hall of Fame is arête, a concept from… well, let me just show you a sign from the Celia Cruz rest stop, further down the Parkway.
Obviously there are some obvious issues with this plaque, and not just that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are not in the proper “SPA” order. None of the three lived in 2500 BC, either, with Socrates’s birth usually placed around 470 BC. Given the shaky genesis of some of the other quotes, I wasn’t sure about this one. So I talked with Keith Pluymers, an environmental historian and professor at Illinois State. The New Jersey native was nice enough to play along, even if it might hurt his own chances for the NJHOF.
“In terms of arête, despite teaching a Western Civ course in which I teach Plato and Aristotle and having spent time with both of them for other reasons, I had to go and look up the term,” Pluymers told Defector. “It is a real thing that shows up across multiple Ancient Greek philosophers, including all of those listed, but it is a concept rather than a quotation.”
Turning the three greatest philosophers of ancient Greece into a pithy quote machine is a little odd, but the concept itself is fine by me. Even better, Pluymers says it makes sense to attribute the concept to all three, as it is developed throughout all their work. The state has gone all in, even giving an arête scholarship to deserving New Jerseyans. But as you might have guessed from the rest of the quotes at this rest stop, the execution is a bit off.
“This is where it gets weird,” Pluymers said. “Where did the quotation come from? I tried some quick searching and found that putting the definition in Google will lead you to the NJ Hall of Fame. So why put it in quotes as though all three of them said that definition?”
All in all, though, Pluymers liked it. “What the NJ HOF is up to here is a kind of careless borrowing from an oversimplified and imagined Classical past that feels and seems particularly weird because they take a definition that someone—I didn’t figure out who—wrote and try to make it feel more special and serious by putting it into quotations and throwing a bunch of big-name Greek philosophers on the attribution line,” he said. “For a state full of tacky gimmicks and concocted traditions—two things I love about it—it really is fitting in a certain way.”
This proud tradition will continue. The state's press release called each rest stop a “satellite exhibit” of the New Jersey Hall of Fame. The venue’s primary physical location broke ground just last year at the preposterously accursed American Dream mall in East Rutherford—the half-empty, heavily indebted ghost ship where a decorative helicopter hanging over an indoor waterpark fell from the ceiling last weekend, injuring four. The New Jersey Hall of Fame is scheduled to open there in the spring, although deadlines at American Dream are not necessarily hard and fast.
One thing that won’t be in the Hall of Fame, or the Jon Bon Jovi Service Area, for much longer, is “Acting is like scoring a touchdown.” Harris has asked the Hall of Fame to remove the quote. Those who were inspired by it to pursue acting or football, or both, will never forget it.