Mile marker 262 of any stretch of highway is as good a place stop as any other.
On the eastbound trip along I-80 into NYC, one knows there’s only fifty more miles of Pennsylvania. Better start prepping your mind and your bladder for the descent into the City.
On the westbound journey, one pulls over to steel themselves in the face of the 262 miles of Pennsylvania that lies ahead.
“It’s sooooo long,” people you talk to always seem to know the exact mileage, “311 miles!” And it not just any 311 miles of Pennsylvania, it’s 311 miles of Pennsylvania laid out as to avoid major population centers. You’ll pass by such landmarks as State Game Lands Number 331 and State Game Lands Number 54. The cruel joke here is the original name of the highway was the Keystone Shortway. “You want the shortest way through Pennsylvania? Well, it’s 311 miles. Fuck you. Call it the Shortway, you rest stop fouling bitch!”
“Shortway…” you grovel.
“Good. That’s how Pennsylvania likes its motorists.”
So the eastbound mind has already began to wander when you start seeing the mileage signs for Hazleton. Yes, Hazleton gets a mileage sign. In what can only be a wish to erase the captive’s memory of the outside world, the mileage signs only contain information to other points along Pennsylvania’s section of I-80: DuBois, Clearfield, Bellefont, Williamsport… Hazleton is the fourteenth-largest city in the state of Pennsylvania. More importantly, it is the second to last “city” in Pennsylvania. Only Stroudsburg remains, and the less said about road conditions in Stroudsburg, the better.
The first thing one sees when entering the Wendy’s at the Hazleton exit is one of those Choose Your Own Adventure Coke machines –a welcome sight after 262 miles of Pepsi-saturated Pennsylvania. The entire state is like some rending of the space-time continuum where Pepsi is not the ptomaine-infused carbolic acid we right-thinking folks know it to be. Luckily, you’ve learned to pack a small cooler full of Diet Coke because some convenience stores don’t even have bottled Coke products, so complete is the Pepsi-faction of Pennsylvania.
But it’s nice to have ice in your drink. You deserve ice in your drink. You deserve ice in your Coke products.
Go to town on the Choose Your Own Adventure Coke Machine. Relive those heady days of concocting surreptitious suicides before the 7-11 clerk would shout, “No more than two flavors!” I personally suggest mixing together three flavors of Diet Coke: equal parts of orange and vanilla with a dash of lime. It’s like a Creamsicle with a limey after-zing. Still, I glance around before I make it.
The food here is prime Wendy’s. In all the times I have been here, I have never been served an inferior burger, no piece of meat destined for the chili vat. And the fries are somehow always fresh. What’s more, the folks behind the counter are pleasant and efficient. Once, there were even identical blonde twins manning the registers!
It all pleases me. I have Wendy’s in the blood. My dad was with Wendy’s for nearly thirty years. I spent a lot of time keeping out the way behind the counter at various suburban Wendy’s. I got to see the Little Creek Blvd. store in Norfolk a few hours after the car plowed thru the dining room, with the car still there. Still, to this day, our extra tables in the basement are old Wendy’s tables, the ones with the newsprint. Dave Thomas gave me a watch for my high school graduation.
It is very distressing for me to go into a Wendy’s that is poorly run. I just imagine how upset that would make my dad. It used to be a left-over fear that he would somehow rise from the grave, get out of the line, go bang on the door to the back, gain entrance, fire the manager, and all the while the other people in the line are looking at you. (Wendy’s, 4212 Karl Road, Columbus, Ohio, August 1980)
But mostly you think that a poorly run operation would make him sad. The man prized efficiency above all else. His stated goal about the drive-thrus was that by the time the customer is pulling up to the window, the food should already be dangling in a bag. And a smile. Always a smile. It’s a gift to know that somewhere in the world there exists a place that definitely would’ve made your father happy. So why not stop and play with their Coke machine?
Now you’re driving back from NYC. You were stuck in a traffic jam in Stroudsburg –over an hour to go three miles! Now all that stands between you and Glorious Ohio is 262 miles of Pennsylvania. Prepare to assume the position, but, first, fuel up…
Sitting at a center booth, you can’t help but notice the couple. You want to say 65, but it could be a rough 55. I’m sure they’re nice people, but the man’s head is entirely too small for his body, and the woman is wearing a ski jacket six notches of fluorescence above her capacity. You want to snuff and write them off as goons, but then you realize you’re the one in the white crocs and sweatpants of the open road. You might as well just go off and drive forever into the Pennsylvania Wilds (that’s a thing!), you judgey bastard. I mean come on… don’t you have anything better to do than drive thru Pennsylvania? Look at all your friends in NYC, how their lives and relationships were moving forward, and the only moving you’re doing is driving thru Pennsylvania, noticing everything that’s just not right? Who has the time to drive through Pennsylvania?
But then you see definitive proof of their non-goonness: Two fresh-ish cups of McDonald’s coffee. You snap back. Dad’s presence is strong in this Wendy’s today. The man hated Wendy’s coffee, too. When he first started working for them, he made a point to say how much he hated the coffee. “They lose a customer every two hours when they manage to sell a cup of that stuff.” Car was always full of McDonald’s coffee cups.
Just before he retired, you dragged him to a flea market to look for tchotchkes, and while he was marveling at astounding tube sock deals, a woman came up and said hi. They chatted enthusiastically for a minute or two, then she was on her way. I asked who that was. “That’s the woman from the McDonald’s where I get my coffee.”
The couple smiles. You smile. Everyone smiles.
Thanks to the Wendy’s at the Hazleton exit, you have the strength to get thru the next 262 miles.