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White lines, fast cars, and the blur of highway service areas and centers: Touring the Washington, DC to New York City highway corridor during the pandemic

As a partial solution to deal with the boredom and cabin fever brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I periodically went on short haul mini vacations out of town.

We primarily drove the Washington, DC to New York City highway system and points beyond.

As part of this journey, whether for gas, coffee, or bathroom breaks, we frequently stopped at the numerous service areas strategically located, on this wasteland, mainly beside the I-95 and New Jersey Turnpike. If forced, I could probably recall in my sleep the distances between each of these places.

Over time, just like the pavement in front of us, the areas, the structures that are built on them, and the people who visit and work there blur together.

Sure some of the mostly concrete and rebar structures where restrooms and fast food restaurants are located, are better than others, but there is a certain sameness amongst all of them.

In terms of architecture, there are no Gehry’s or Corbusier’s. I would not be surprised if the architects and engineers who designed these places, secretly conspired to develop an unofficial template that had its origins in the suburban mall food court.

Let’s start with access. You need to leave the highway to visit a service area. Approximately ten miles before you arrive, there are signs alerting the somnambulant drivers that a new service area is soon approaching. The name of the area is pretty generic and uncontroversial. Some are named after a person from the state history (e.g., Clara Barton, Joyce Willmer, etc.) or a geographical namesake (e.g., Chesapeake, Northern, etc.). Then there is the off ramp to the service area, that the driver must negotiate. These stretches of road seem similar in length to airport runways that are accompanied with a litany of signs, mostly instructing drivers to reduce their speed, and directions to gas and the main building.

Inside the service center, restrooms are located on the sides of the food court. They are often big, deep, with lots of white subway tiles, and at least during the pandemic, have these big fans, placed on the floors, generating a deafening sound.

And who’s in there? Other fellow travelers; adults, kids, and probably serial killers. I’ve seen people not just washing their hands, like you are supposed to do in these COVID times, but I’ve seen grown men, often disheveled, rocking a down on their luck vibe, washing their entire bodies from the waste up in front of a sink basin.

Then there’s almost always a guy, an essential worker, wearing a uniform, who is mopping up, even at midnight. Finally, at least in the men’s bathrooms, there’s often large nostalgic looking scale, that you did not notice when you walked in, but you might on your way out, tucked in a corner, that almost no one I’ve seen use.

No self-respecting person visits service centers thinking they’re going to get a gourmet meal. The goal is subsistence. What we mostly find instead are the same fast food chain establishments throughout the service area system like Arby’s Cinnabon, Jersey Mikes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nathan’s, Pizza Hut, Roy Rogers, Wendy’s, and almost always an Auntie Anne’s (pretzel place), and hell I even saw an Arthur Treacher’s (the fish and chips food chain that seems to have survived despite its almost total demise in the 1980s). Just for nostalgia sake I was going to order from this dining establishment, but reason grabbed a hold of me.

During the height of the pandemic many of the fast food establishments were closed, or at least gated when we passed through. There may even be some vending machines for travelers that will suffice.

Otherwise there is often a no name convenience mart with overpriced bottled and canned drinks and snacks. Then there is the disappointment of hoping that the Starbucks you want to put some caffeine in your body is open.

Fellow travelers have their own reasons for being on the road and visiting the service centers. Notwithstanding our reasons, it might be that the driver needs to take their dog for a walk or to relieve themselves, they many need or want to stretch their legs, or to throw up. Some of the visitors use the service centers, more specifically items that can be purchased from the food court, as ways to bribe their bored or misbehaving children, if they temporarily shut up until they get to the next service area.

Travelers are a cross section of America. They are immigrant families, couples, single mothers with their kids in tow, girlfriends on a road trip… There is no racial or ethnic stereotype of who visits the service areas and centers.

Now that America is slowly emerging from the pandemic, the service centers, at least during the Memorial day weekend, are becoming more crowded. Most people are wearing masks and that’s a good thing. But there is an element of somnambulism similar to what we see in the suburban shopping malls creeping in.

I believe that this sense of monotony, homogeneity, and failure of differentiation present in the service areas adds to the sense of disconnection that many American travelers, at least the ones that frequent the service centers may feel.

Instead, what if service centers were not simply places where drivers could get gas for their vehicles, relieve themselves, or put some food in their belly, but they were also places that weary travelers could find relaxation like a departure lounge in major Japanese airport or European train station?

What if service areas were destinations rather that places you want to get into and out of as quick as possible? Would more people visit? Take time to relax? What about a destination for food trucks selling interesting food, or a daily farmers market where visitors could purchase fresh produce? (Clearly the parking lots of most of these places are large enough to support this kind of commerce). What if service centers had health clinics or urgent care capabilities; places where you can quickly get vaccinated? What if the service areas had playgrounds that were state of the art, challenging and interesting that children could play at? Implementing these suggestions are not easy, but they can be done with minimum expenditure of resources.

The possibilities are endless.

Why graffiti and street art hunting is important & what should you be mindful of if you engage in this activity

In order to understand the different types and growth of contemporary graffiti and street art, the people who engage in this activity, and to contribute to a social science of graffiti and street art, I frequently and actively search for this work not only where I live, but in places I travel to.

These locations include, but are not limited to, the “hip” parts of town, back allies, and the more derelict parts of a city, such as current or abandoned warehouse districts.

Just like learning about famous works of art (e.g., paintings, sculptures, installations, etc.) from coffee table books, one can get a sense of graffiti and street art by reviewing photographs, either in books or websites devoted to this work, or social media accounts on Instagram.

But it’s tough to truly understand many elements of graffiti and street art, no less street culture, and urban space, unless you observe it up close, in its natural setting. The surfaces; the walls, dumpsters, utility poles, etc. where graffiti and street art is found, are the modern day equivalent of museums and galleries.

Over time you will learn where graffiti and street art is located in a neighborhood, on a structure, and where and how it is juxtaposed with the built environment or other pieces of graffiti and street art, including the different shapes and vibrancy of the colors contained within. Not only do I look for trends, as in the styles, but how long a piece is up for before it is removed or added on by others.

That being said, it does not hurt to be or know one or more practitioners who may be able to point out elements of graffiti and street art that you may miss, keeping in mind that not all writers and artists can adequately explain what they see, have the patience to do so, or want to do it for outsiders.

It also helps to know a likeminded individual, a person who shares a similar interest in graffiti and street art who can show you the spots and provide their interpretation. Again, this is helpful, but not necessary. The important thing is to ask questions, to compare and contrast what you see, and to consult a variety of expert sources about graffiti and street art. This process is akin to developing a graffiti and street literacy.

Like a good detective or archeologist, you should document what you see, and list where it is located. You can do this by taking photographs with your iPhone of street numbers or cross streets to enable you to remember where exactly you saw. There may be a time date stamp on your camera to enable you in this process. Notes can either be taken on your phone or a smallish note book.

More importantly I try to both infer and deduce different aspects of the graffiti and street art. I ask myself what are the component parts? Why was it done? Why was it done there? And perhaps when was it done, including how long ago and what time of the day? Other questions you might ask is what elements did the writers or artist do first, second and third. I also try to figure out how the access points to the surfaces, and the types of materials they used. I try to understand the amount of work, planning and dedication that many graffiti writers and street artists put into their craft.

Yes there is a bit of a distinction between appreciating and studying graffiti and street art. You can be amazed at the skill it takes to do a piece, how it is actualized, and presented, knowing full well that this is vandalism, pure and simple.

photo Parque Balmadeda, Providencia
photo credit: Jeffrey Ian Ross

Have a good time but remember…Some friendly advice for university students who are about to take a break from their studies this summer

If you are a university student, and want to have a more enjoyable and productive experience when you return to classes this fall, I have some friendly advice.

In roughly three months classes resume. Regardless if they will be in person, hybrid, or on-line, during the summer you will have numerous distractions, but you will also have some down time. Although you can spend your free time away from your studies, catching up on your sleep, doubling down on social media, or watching more Netflix or Hulu, but you might also use this time to better prepare yourself for the fall semester.

How should you go about doing this? First, don’t be so quick to get rid of the textbooks that you were assigned for your class.

Second, go to the books that you did not finish, or read in their entirety, read the chapters that were not assigned, or that you skipped (like the foreword or preface), and if you have time, read the complete text from the beginning to the end.

Take notes like you are supposed to, and ask yourself some basic questions like the who, what, where, how, and why of the content. Keep these notes in a handy location, not the scraps of paper that you probably threw out.

Third, once you have completed this task, turn to the remaining books that were assigned, but you didn’t use. Similar to the ones that you partially read, start reading the ones you never touched. Again, ask yourself questions like why did the author/s write the book, what was their main intent and message?

Fourth, use your free time to consider subjects that you think might interest you, but have never had time to explore in the form of elective university courses you might take in the fall.

One way to approach this task is find out which instructors will be teaching classes on subjects that might interest you this fall, and to ask them for a copy of the syllabus. They may not have the final version, but should be happy to send you an old version. This request will accomplish a number of goals including demonstrating to your potential instructor that you are interested in the subject matter, allow you to get a head start on purchasing the required books, or lending them from a library and once secured, start reading them.

As a result of this process, you may discover that the subject does not interest you. If this is a required class then at least you know what you are getting into. But if it is an elective, then you have some time to switch out of the class and into one that might interest you.

Finally, if your instructor told you that you should improve your writing, then it might make sense to make some in roads in this direction. There are numerous websites where you can access free content and lessons that will help you step up your game.

All in all these suggestions should enable you to better succeed in the fall with your classes and studies, and hopefully assist you in enjoying your time in those courses.

Missouri State University
Students sell back textbooks
(Photo by Kevin White)