I can sum up the most surreal ten seconds of my life in a single photograph captured for posterity:
I don’t even know where to begin. How often does one get the opportunity to meet a famous person whom they have admired their whole life? And after doing so, how does one find the proper words to sum up the experience? Damned if I know, and I’m a writer. But I’ll give it a shot.
I left the apartment at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning and decided to take mass transit in order to avoid traffic and the hassle of parking, based on my mom’s suggestion. This involved catching a bus in Vancouver and transferring to a light rail train at a transit center in Portland. It cost $5 and was worth every penny. I arrived at Powell’s Books about 8:15 and joined the throngs of excited fans lined up around the side of the building. There was a party-like vibe to this communal once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I wish Tara had been able to join me. I felt a little out of place showing up stag because nearly everybody in line was there with somebody else, a spouse or parent or friend, but I felt lucky enough just to have snagged one ticket, so I can’t really complain.
Powell’s opened their doors at 9:00, and it took another half hour to make it inside for the official registration. Once there we presented our tickets to a cashier, were issued wristbands and handed our signed copies of Bruce’s autobiography, then ushered to another line upstairs for more waiting. People were sharing their favorite Springsteen memories, talking about his music, etc. I learned that one person flew in from Australia for the chance to meet Bruce, and another had seen him in concert 60 times. There is no doubt these people were all hardcore fans, so in that sense I felt right at home. I killed a lot of that time reading from his book, which is quite entertaining and well-written (naturally).
Around 11:30 cheers went up from the crowd, and though we couldn’t see him from where we were waiting, we figured The Boss had made his grand entrance. The line started moving again, upstairs to the Red Room. Powell’s is cavernous; it takes up an entire city block and has nine color-coded rooms on three floors. I have long called it my favorite Portland hangout, and that is twice as true when The Boss happens to be there. The third floor was closed off to the general public and it took about half an hour for the line to wind around the shelves and through the aisles. Meanwhile, reporters from The Oregonian were taking photos and interviewing people, which only added to the surreality. When we got close we were liberated from our wristbands and our books were collected for safekeeping. Suddenly I was there, right behind the curtained-off area where Springsteen was meeting his fans. The woman in front of me looked like she was about to faint. “I see him through the curtain!” she squealed. Then she parted the curtain and surreptitiously took a photo, holding her phone up for all to see. “I got a picture of him hugging a stranger!” she declared excitedly. Which was kind of silly, because she was just a few seconds away from meeting him in person herself, but I appreciated the unbridled enthusiasm. We were all feeling it at that point.
A minute later I was led into the curtained area, and there he was, standing on a raised platform a mere ten feet away. Unbelievable. Bruce freakin’ Springsteen, The Boss himself, right there in person. He looked larger than life and completely ordinary at the same time, an everyman who just happens to be a world famous rock star adored by millions. There were three Powell’s employees taking photos, and they did a great job of keeping the line moving efficiently. I brought along my point and shoot camera – this was far too important an occasion to rely on my phone’s camera – and handed it to a staff member. The woman in front of me had an iPad and was having trouble figuring out how to make the camera work. I really hope she got it figured out (or not, because taking pics with an iPad is pretty lame).
“You’re up!” an employee said, and suddenly it was my turn to meet Bruce Springsteen. I stepped onto the stage and he turned to me with a friendly smile. This was the quintessential OH-SHIT-I-CAN’T-BELIEVE-THIS-IS-HAPPENING-TO-ME moment of my entire life. For a few brief seconds I had his complete and total attention. Trust me, that’s an awful lot of pressure! It felt like the whole world stopped spinning for those next ten seconds. I’d had a little speech rehearsed – I suspect most everybody who was there did, too – but there just wasn’t enough time. How can you convey to a man how much his music has shaped your life in a few brief words? How can you let him know that his lyrics inspired you to become a storyteller yourself? Bruce breathed life into a cast of characters whose tales have intrigued me since childhood. There’s Crazy Janey and her mission man; Rosalita, jumping a little higher; Gunner breathing deep, his ankles caked in mud. There’s Wendy and Mary and Spanish Johnny; Go-Cart Mozart and Wild Billy and Bad Scooter (searching for his groove) and dozens more, all whose stories are etched into my brain as if they are living, breathing people rather than names in songs. The answer is simple: you can’t. Not in ten seconds. So I gave him a warm handshake instead and told him it was a huge honor to meet him. He was equally gracious and said the same to me, and did not flinch when I put my arm around him for the photo. There wasn’t the slightest bit of pretension whatsoever. And just like that, it was over.
Afterwards, Tara asked me what he smelled like. I replied, “Like rock ‘n roll and liberalism and the working class.”
And now I can cross a very big item off my bucket list.