Skip to main content.

The Joyce Kilmer Service Area by Jeff Brooks
published in Volume 2, Issue 2 on April 3rd, 1995

Greenest in the system. That's what a highway guide said. The New Jersey Turnpike Service Area 46E had chestnuts, oaks, elms, maples -- 72 of them, growing like canopies over the lawn, shading the corners of the parking lot, bending down to scrape the roof of the concession building.

The trouble started when 31W became "Walt Whitman." Suddenly "46E" just didn't work anymore. They asked around for other New Jersey Poets: "William Carlos Williams Service Area" sounded too New York; no one had heard of any of the others. So they committed to Joyce Kilmer.

At the rededication ceremony one bright spring morning, the Service Area Director stood on a picnic table, one hand in his pocket, and said, "Her love for trees is the quintessential spirit of our New Jersey Turnpike."

"Joyce was a man," his assistant whispered.

"His," the Director said. It was official.

The 72 trees of the Joyce Kilmer Service Area seemed to like the attention. They sprayed out leaves like bouquets to the life of the Nation. That fall, the leaves turned yellow, red, brown, then dropped off, as usual. But the following spring, they didn't return.

The best tree surgeons in New Jersey were called in. They stood around one of the trees in a semi-circle, hats off, looking up. Trucks roared past on the Turnpike.

One of the tree doctors spat into the lawn. "Shit," he observed. "These trees are dead."

The others agreed. They advised the Director to have the dead trees removed. "Mosta that's good hardwood," they said. "You could sell it. For money."

The Director pounded his desk with his fist, making about as much sound as a robin's heartbeat. "Goddamnit," he said, "I can't cut down those trees. This is the goddamn Joyce Kilmer Service Area."

He hired an artist from Camden to design and install artificial leaves. The artist was poor and desperate, but he had his pride. He made metallic purple lightning-bolt-shaped leaves and started wiring them to the branches of the dead trees. He'd covered about a third of one tree with his pulsing neon vision when Service Area customers complained and word got back to the Director in his office.

The Director stormed out to the grounds, called the artist down from his ladder, and screamed at him before an appreciative audience. Then he canceled the artist's contract and had the leaves torn from the trees. "Goddamnit," he said. "It's almost summer. I need leaves on those trees."

He tried everything. When he grafted live branches onto the dead trees, they wilted and gave off a sour odor. He injected the root systems with doses of vitamins, but the grass under the trees turned black and damp like seaweed. He even hired a shaman from the Indian Reservation out on Long Island who did a shuffling dance around each tree, moaning and smearing rust-colored pigment on himself and the trunks. Nothing worked.

That left the Director with one option. He could take out the dead trees and transplant new ones in their places. "Not saplings," the Director said. "Adult trees. No shitty little saplings at the goddamn Joyce Kilmer Service Area."

Of course, buying, transporting, and planting 72 live, full-grown quality hardwood trees would have far exceeded his Grounds budget, but the Director was a resourceful man: he siphoned his union's pension fund. It was that important--and this was, after all, New Jersey.

The new trees looked even taller and grander than the originals; they smelled of lemon, basil, and mint. All summer, the butterflies chased one another through their leaves, and children leaped to touch the lower branches. In the fall, the trees flared out like torches. "It's just like Vermont," people remarked. The guys at Walt Whitman were jealous.

Fall and then winter passed. In the spring the new trees of the goddamn Joyce Kilmer Service Area remained as gray and still as statues.

The poor Director was beside himself, but he didn't waste any time: he embezzled money from both political parties and had 72 new trees trucked in.

Well, you can imagine the rest: every year, after a fine summer and a lovely fall, the trees of the Joyce Kilmer Service Area would refuse to come back to life in the spring, and every year new ones were brought in to replace them, all financed by the Director's illegal activities at great cost to the economy and moral fiber of the State of New Jersey. Which raises a question: Would Turnpike travelers find the irony of a treeless Joyce Kilmer Service Area too great to bear?

"You bet your goddamn life," the Director would probably answer while 72 healthy trees growing out of canvas bags were driven into the grounds of the Joyce Kilmer Service Area like an extended clan of summer people.

go to this issue