It was in the film “There’s Something About Mary,” but was this really a thing? In the 1997 film, Ben Stiller’s character is arrested at a rest stop when he stops to use the restroom but quickly finds himself in the middle of a sting operation targeting gay men cruising at rest stops.
Earlier in the film, his therapist mentions that “rest stops are the bathhouses of the 90s for many many gay men.”
But, was it?
For one Boca Raton area rest stop, it would certainly have seemed so. In fact, because cruising was such an issue, it is one of the reasons rest stops do not exist at all along South Florida’s I-95 corridor anymore.
If you were driving south on I-95 in the Boca Raton area about 40 years ago just before reaching the Broward County line you would have noticed just to the right a small exit. When I-95 was still in development, many stops like this were designed for truck drivers to rest. A work in progress still, there were no restrooms, no buildings, not even a picnic bench at the 23-acre site. It was just some asphalt, litter, and the sounds of roaring trucks.
If you had stopped here at night, it was a different story. You'd have seen rows of 10-15 cars either empty or with lone men sitting in them. Bernie Collins, a Boca Raton detective at the time, described the site to The Palm Beach Post as "the homosexual capital of Palm Beach and Broward counties.”
The palmetto scrub provided just enough underbrush to conceal a nightly encounter between two men. It was so dark in this space at night one Department of Transportation engineer said you couldn't even see your hands in front of you.
Meetings were arranged by eye contact, never any conversation. Sometimes one car would pull up and wait for a man to appear out of the bushes and just simply follow him in.
Between the cruising and hustling this kind of activity didn't come without its bigger social problems. The site quickly gained traction as a place for underage hustlers to make money by hooking up with men.
One such 16-year-old who called himself "Rudy" was interviewed by local media back then and described his chilling experiences. It didn't take much effort, he would simply walk into the wooded area, be approached, sometimes the men would make small talk such as asking him if he had seen any animals. It would quickly escalate into full blown sex. Sometimes finding the right spot would be difficult since there would be many couples scattered throughout. He claimed he and a group of his friends “hustled” almost daily in this spot. One hour’s worth was adequate to make decent enough money. “Rudy” would sometimes make upwards of $100 a night (roughly $612 with inflation today).
In May 1979, after roughly 2,000 calls to the Boca Raton Police Department throughout the 1970s, a man committing suicide in the middle of the rest stop, and a mysterious murder, the rest stop was formally closed down.
DOT officials claimed they were fearful a traveling family may stop here at night and find themselves in the midst the many nightly encounters.
Closing the site didn't necessarily eradicate the complaints right away. Sting operations continued to be performed on the spot well into the 1980s. By the late 1980s however the problem had mostly subsided and the site found itself home to a popular gathering for food trucks. Food truck owners did complain that the occasional cruiser could still be found be loitering around.
By the 1990s the entire site was closed off. It's still there, asphalt and all but from the highway it's almost unnoticeable. But, if you look close enough you can still see the remnants of the exit itself.