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This Is So Stupid

The Toni Morrison Rest Stop That Never Was

Split image. Left side: A map of New Jersey rest stops and Hall of Fame locations, showing the Frank Sinatra Service Area and the Toni Morrison Service Area. At right: The Ocean View Service Area, with a Sunoco and an A-Plus mini mart, and the Tourism Welcome Center.
Dan McQuade/Defector

Who is New Jersey naming a Garden State Parkway rest stop after? And which current N.J. Hall of Famer is getting bumped for this person?

My interest in the subject was piqued by Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s recent profile of Tammy Murphy in New York magazine. Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy and a current candidate for U.S. Senate, was one of the driving forces behind the 2021 renaming of Garden State Parkway rest stops after famous New Jersey residents. Brookdale North and South were out, Larry Doby and Connie Chung were in. And Murphy is still tinkering:

One Friday in January, I join Murphy in the back seat of a government Chevy Suburban. Her laptop is propped up on a portable desk, and she is mid-Zoom with her chief of staff and two lawyers, one of whom represents an A-list, Jersey-born star. Murphy wants to rename a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway in the star’s honor, part of a celebrity-tourism initiative, but the lawyer is inexplicably resistant. Murphy speaks calmly but impatiently: “Phil and I, I can tell you, are huge fans, as is our entire family, and we would wear it as a badge of honor if this did happen. Saying that—we are at the bottom of the ninth.”

She briefly pauses to take a call from one of her sons, then resumes. “Jon Bon Jovi, you know, Judy Blume—all of these celebrities have agreed to the terms that the state has put forward,” she says before delivering an ultimatum. “This is the last chance. If we get off this phone call and we do not have a deal, then, heartbreakingly, we’re going to have to move on.” Murphy closes her computer, and the Zoom continues without her. “I’ve been going back and forth with this lawyer for six months now,” she says. “Not happy with him.”

Yes, it was funny that Murphy has been angry for six months about her inability to get someone famous to put their name on the place where you buy gas and a Mountain Dew Amp. But while reporting on the Jon Bon Jovi rest stop last year, I learned something that Murphy seemingly did not: Every New Jersey rest stop owned by the state is already named for someone.

That’s right! The 2021 announcement renamed nine Turnpike Authority-owned rest stops after famous New Jersey residents. There are actually 11 rest stops on the Parkway—but Colonia North and South are privately owned, described by then-Turnpike Authority exec John O’Hern in a 2017 story as “a donut hole” along the GSP’s right of way. But the other stops all had names, or so I thought. The state released these new names in 2021:

  • Montvale: James Gandolfini Service Area
  • Brookdale North: Larry Doby Service Area
  • Brookdale South: Connie Chung Service Area
  • Vauxhall: Whitney Houston Service Area
  • Cheesequake: Jon Bon Jovi Service Area
  • Monmouth: Judy Blume Service Area
  • Forked River: Celia Cruz Service Area
  • Atlantic: Frank Sinatra Service Area
  • Ocean View: Toni Morrison Service Area

I trusted his story, but I contacted van Zuylen-Wood to confirm that Murphy was, indeed, talking about a Parkway rest stop. She was. That led me to believe that the state was considering, for some reason, stripping one of these names from a rest stop.

This raised the possibility of a pointless and completely justified uproar, which is my favorite kind of uproar. Basically any name on this list would have an audience that would be furious if the name were removed. Imagine if the state got rid of Frank Sinatra for Bruce Springsteen! (Van Zuylen-Wood would neither confirm nor deny that Springsteen was the A-lister Murphy was attempting to get for rest stop naming rights, but it would make sense she was making a run at him: The Hall of Fame said in 2021 he had declined the offer.) Connie Chung hasn’t had a TV show since her Weekends with Connie and Maury, hosted with husband Maury Povich, was canceled in 2006. But if the longtime Middletown resident had her name removed, I’m sure people would be furious. In the article, Murphy mentioned Blume and Bon Jovi agreeing to “the terms that the state has put forward.” So they’re staying. That means the options for removal are James Gandolfini, Frank Sinatra, or a person of color. Imagine the uproar if the state, say, took Toni Morrison’s name off a rest stop!

Well, I have some bad news. It turns out the Murphys jumped the gun in announcing the renaming of the Toni Morrison rest stop. A source in state government tells Defector that N.J. was never able to come to an agreement with Morrison’s family for the renaming. And so, despite what it says on search engines and maps, that rest stop is still called Ocean View. New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney confirmed the rest stop’s name for me earlier this week.

“I’ve contacted Google 20, 30 times and it keeps getting changed back,” he said. “I guess I keep getting outvoted.” Feeney told Defector the NJTA, which runs the Parkway and the Turnpike, was not involved in previous rest stop renaming efforts and did not know about one to rename them this year. He also confirmed that the state has no power to rename the two privately owned rest stops.

The Not Toni Morrison rest stop, the southernmost on the Parkway, is the most meager of the state-owned stops. It is just a gas station, a gas station mini mart, and a little tourism desk with an attendant and some pamphlets. “The A-Plus is more like a C-minus,” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tommy Rowan wrote last summer. Later in the summer, The Press of Atlantic City’s Bill Barlow was baffled that Morrison’s name was not on the site. “While the name of the celebrated novelist appears on maps and plans, it does not appear on the building or the exit signs at what remains the Ocean View rest stop,” he wrote.

So what gives? Neither the governor’s office nor the Hall of Fame responded to requests for comment. I must only report that it is even funnier, then, that Tammy Murphy was angry that the A-lister couldn’t agree to the same terms that Bon Jovi and Judy Blume did when Toni Morrison’s estate couldn’t.

So Ocean View is still without a name. Let’s assume that is the rest stop Murphy is looking to rename. If not Bruce, what A-list star could it be? My first thought was the Millville Meteor, of course; the state senate has already designated a portion of South Jersey’s Route 55 as the Mike Trout Interchange. But New York describes the whole thing as a “celebrity-tourism initiative.” Would Trout really reel ’em in?

So who else? I thought the Murphys might be aiming really high and were attempting to create a Taylor Swift rest stop, as her family had a shore house in nearby Stone Harbor. But she isn’t “Jersey-born.” A few other people with South Jersey connections—Michael Landon, Bruce Willis, Carl Lewis—also weren’t born in N.J. At one point I had convinced myself we were getting the King Kong Bundy rest stop. In the end, I think I’ve settled on Kelly Ripa as the most likely candidate. She’s hosted a daily talk show for more than 20 years, and they could put up photos of her with Regis Philbin, her with Michael Strahan, her with Ryan Seacrest, her with current cohost and husband Mark Consuelos. Put some vague quotes about doing your best and never giving up on those images and you’re pretty much set. The quotes don’t even have to be real. It’s like Toni Morrison said: “Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”

The Jon Bon Jovi rest stop, previously the flagship of the Hall, closed for renovations on Nov. 28 and is expected to reopen mid-year. About a year ago, I wrote about bizarre quotes attributed to many New Jersey Hall of Fame members plastered around the building, including “acting is like scoring a touchdown,” which was attributed to Ed Harris. Harris told Defector that he didn’t say that, and it was quickly scrubbed from the rest stop. But in just a few months, the New Jersey Hall of Fame will become something more than a rest stop affair.

The New Jersey Hall of Fame had “groundbreaking” events in 2018 and 2022 for its main location, but nothing ever came of it. The HOF now says it will open this spring, promising several hologram-based exhibits where you can do karaoke (alongside Wyclef Jean, Gloria Gaynor, and other HOF members) or pretend to be a talk show host (and interview HOF inductees Danny DeVito, Jason Alexander, and so on). “Soon New Jersey will be one of the only states in America that has a Hall of Fame, showcasing our state’s best from all walks of life,” a release from the HOF says. “Because everyone needs a hero.”

The funding and location for this are particularly New Jersey: Gov. Murphy got $12 million of federal COVID funding to build it at the American Dream Mall. Wow. Now that’s like scoring a touchdown.

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