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First Chapters

Front Row, Center
Malina Sarah Saval
spends nights with Bruce Springsteen

My white JERSEY CITY T-shirt was tight on me, the rust-colored satin letters stretched snugly across my ample chest. Bruce was looking straight at me, leaning seductively across his shiny guitar, strumming the soul-infused chords to "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," his bedraggled brown hair matted against his sweaty forehead as he strutted under the hot lights of the Staples Center stage. I was panting, bouncing energetically up and down to every beat, every groove, shouting the words to the song as my heart beat louder than an African bongo drum and thumped so wildly it was as if a bomb was exploding in my body. Steve, my friend from film school-slash-Bruce-Springsteen-concert buddy was standing alongside me, waving his hands wildly over his head and dancing around with breathless abandon. This was our first Bruce Springsteen concert, though we had been die-hard fans for several years, and we were seated front row center. There was nothing between Bruce and us. Nothing but for the pulsing electricity of his music as it echoed across the stadium and filled our spirituality-hungry ears.

Bruce Springsteen

We had bought the cheapest seats in the house, the only tickets that, as fledgling writers living in Los Angeles, we could afford. It was Monday, October 18, 1999 and there we were in the nosebleed section, as high up in the stands as one could possibly go without being in the actual stratosphere, a veritable mile from where Bruce would be grinding and thumping and sounding his raspy inner pipes. The situation seemed hopeless. Our heads spun with dizziness and our lungs constricted as we climbed the series of narrow steps to our seats. I felt as though I were Sir Edmund Hillary in a PBS documentary about climbing Mount Everest. The cement wall of the stadium felt cold as we leaned back in our chairs, and our neck hairs stood up on end.

We had gotten to the concert a good two hours early, hoping that perhaps we could finagle our way backstage, hoping that some guardian angel security guard would hear our plight, hoping that after listening to our tales of woe about all the long, lonely post-relationship fallout hours in college we’d spent listening to the Nebraska album and Darkness of the Edge of Town, he’d sneak us into Bruce’s dressing room. But no suck luck. Steve and I were stuck in section 337, row ZZ. For a few minutes we consoled ourselves with the thought that the concert would be taped and rebroadcast on HBO in a few months, and we could watch it from the comfort of our living rooms, with a far better view of Bruce than we could ever pray for now.

But then, suddenly, our prayers were answered. Our guardian angel came in the form of a thick-necked, burly security guard wearing a blue bandanna and a flimsy white T-shirt, a tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon covering the entirety of his bulging muscular left arm. He drew two white tickets from his pockets. "You guys want to sit front row?" he asked in a rich, husky voice.

Led by the security guard, Steve and I impatiently descended the several flights of the stairs of the Staples Center until we were planted front row, center. Floor section, row A. Movie stars were sitting behind us. We had better seats than Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Ed Norton was seated two rows back. We could hardly contain the rush of excitement rocketing through our bodies, not to mention our sheer shock and surprise. This had never happened to either of us before, sitting front row, center. Not for anything. Once at the Boston Garden when I was thirteen years-old I had rushed a crowd at a Billy Joel concert with my cousin Stacy, thrusting my way through throngs of middle-aged suburban Jewish housewives, but was promptly escorted by security back to my seats in the mezzanine. Another time I had been caller number twenty at a radio station and scored third row orchestra seats to see Les Miserables at the Wang Center in Boston, craning my neck for three straight hours to the point where I developed a pinched-nerve and had to walk around school wearing a neck brace for two weeks and suffer the psychological abuse that comes with being a designated high school freak. But never had I been seated front row. A guy named Sheldon was sitting next to us, along with his twin sister Beth. They’d been Bruce fans since the he first emerged on the music scene in the mid-70’s. Sheldon showed us pictures of his lovely, albeit zaftig, wife Aviva and their three year-old son, Ben, who already knows all the words to every song off the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Within minutes Steve and I were running to the payphone to call our parents, our friends, our shrinks, our ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends. "We’re seated front row at the Bruce Springsteen concert," we squealed over and over again.

I first became a Bruce Springsteen fan in the mid-Eighties, while I was still in high school and had curly feathered hair and wore leg warmers over my tapered jeans. I could lie and pretend to be über-cool and say that I discovered him all on my own, but I must give credit where credit is due, and the truth is, it was my cousin Stacy who first introduced me to the sultry, soul-laden sounds of Bruce Springsteen. Stacy was the original Bruce fan. She’d gone to a Bruce concert before, his Born in the USA tour, but her grandfather had made her leave two hours into the show, though it went on for a good four. Of course, she well compensated for that early departure, making a point to see Bruce umpteen times over. Today she works at a radio station in Boston, scoring free tickets whenever he’s in town.

We were fourteen, fifteen at the time when I first heard Bruce. Stacy and I would hang out in her suburban Boston house memorizing the liner notes to Born to Run and Greetings from Asbury Park. Stacy knew the words before I did, and whenever she’d pop in a song, she’d say, "Bruce just speaks to me." Before too long he was speaking to me, too. While all the other kids were listening to Cindy Lauper and Bon Jovi (for whom, I must admit, I later developed a kitschy appreciation), I was sitting in my darkened basement bedroom, the curtains drawn, singing the lyrics to Hungry Heart, thinking about the boyfriends with the bowl-cuts who crushed me and the so-called friends who had failed me, convinced that only Bruce understood how misunderstood I actually was. "Everybody’s got a hungry heart/Everybody’s got a hungry heart/They take your money and they break your heart…"By senior year of high school, as I headed off to college, Bruce Springsteen had become a necessary component of my post-adolescent angst.

In college, Bruce was pretty much all I listened to. Oh, I had the quintessential other trendy collegiate CDs in my collection—some Van Morrison, some Cowboy Junkies, a bunch of old Billy Joels. And I have always been a huge Motown fan, feeling closely akin to the lugubrious lyrics of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. But there was definitely a semester—or two, or three, or four—when I was stuck in the bone-cold snow belt of Ithaca, New York, doing time at Cornell University, when it was Bruce and only Bruce with whose music I seemed to identify. "You’re born with nothing/and better off that way/Soon as you’ve got something they send/Someone to try and take it all away/You can ride this road ‘til dawn/Without another human being in sight/Just kids wasted on/Something in the night…" Bruce’s raw, oiled-up, blue-collar lyrics, appealed to the white trash Jersey mall chick hiding within the Boston born-and-raised nice, Jewish girl. Bruce understood being young and slightly messed up, with no concrete direction in life.
Bruce understood me.

I was two inches from Bruce. He crossed the stage, his black T-shirt hugging his still-firm pectorals, belting out from the bottom of his lungs the words to Badlands. "Badlands, you gotta live it everyday/Let the broken hearts stands/As the price you’ve gotta pay…" A beefy security guard looked my way and nodded. I moved forward. Bruce leaned down. I grabbed hold of his sweaty-soaked black Levi’s jeans, rubbing them vigorously against my slightly shaking hands and screaming like a teenage girl in 1963 who’s just kissed Paul McCartney. He leaned forward, kneeling suggestively down on his knees, and let me strum a few chords on his guitar. He was smoldering, his brow furrowed and glistening, and suddenly I had an MTV fantasy. I would follow Bruce on tour—from Los Angeles to New York to Tokyo. I would be the girl to hand him his guitar picks in-between sets. I’d become his sidekick, his roadie, the girl after whom he would lust, driving Patti absolutely mad with jealousy.

The guard pulled me back. Then Bruce looked down. He tilted his head just slightly so as he stared curiously at the lettering on my baby-doll T. "I like your shirt," he mouthed to me. Then he smiled and my heart lurched upwards like a slingshot into the back of my throat. I gulped. Suddenly, without warning, my image was plastered up on a huge, larger-than-life-size video monitor looming above the Staples Center, the words JERSEY CITY standing twenty-feet tall. The stadium erupted in a thunderous round of applause and I was suddenly rocketed shirt-first into the inner-sanctum of celebrity. This was my fifteen minutes of fame. I was just like Courtney Cox in the Dancing in the Dark video. It was one of those Things to Do Before You Die moments, when your stomach turns summersaults and the adrenaline takes hold of your body like a bolt of lightening striking a lone tree in the center of an empty field. I was so overcome with exhilaration I nearly peed in my pants. I crossed my legs tight and bounced up and down. Steve was laughing hysterically. I darted through the crush of concert-goers and made a beeline for the closest bathroom.
In line for the bathroom, women were coming up to me left and right. "You’re the Jersey City girl!" they exclaimed with girlish excitement. "That’s so cool." I ran from the bathroom to make it back in time for Bruce’s next song, but people were stopping me in my tracks. "Look, it’s the Jersey City girl!" they all shouted.

When I finally did make it back to my seat, Bruce was lunging into Born to Run. Throngs of Bruce fans were waving their arms wildly over their heads, banging their fists into the smoke-scented air during the chorus. " ‘Cuz tramps like us/Baby we were born to run…" Bruce’s throaty, soul-coated voice reverberated throughout the Staples Center soul. He was a priest, a religious icon. There was more soul in the Staples Center that night than in a Black Baptist church in South Central Los Angeles. Bruce was bringing the entire stadium to life. His face tightened and his gut retracted into his lower ribs. Bruce was on fire, and he smiled at me and it was clear—I was his Jersey City girl.

The second night it happened again. At the very last minute Steve and I couldn’t resist. I pulled on my unwashed, smelly JERSEY GIRL T-shirt, circular sweat stains underneath the armpits, and disguised it under a baggy sweatshirt and a beaten-up baseball cap from college. Steve was incognito in a pair of thick, dark sunglasses and his father’s old oversized Hawaiian button-down. We arrived at the Staples Center a good four hours early and scalped last row, twenty-five dollar tickets from a scrappy-looking black kid in a mesh L.A. Kings starter jersey. We made our way to our last row seats and waited. And waited.

And finally our wish came true. Again. Again one of Bruce’s beefy security guards handed us two tickets for the front row. Minutes later we’re seated front row, center, our same seats as the night before. It’s a miracle. It’s a sign from God. We look for Sheldon and his sister Beth, but they are nowhere to be found. With the help of a pair of binoculars Steve borrows from a woman sitting next to us, we eventually spot Sheldon but no Beth, sitting behind the stage, a good dozen rows up. Steve and I are overcome with how lucky we are. We feel special. We are Bruce’s chosen fans. It’s mid-way through Sherry Darling that Bruce notices me. "The Jersey City girl is back," he booms over the microphone. Again I’m on the monitor. Again people are stopping me as I wait in line for the bathroom. Again I’m Bruce’s Jersey City girl.

By the third night, our luck was still running deep as the Ganges River during monsoon season. This time we’re front row, left of center. My Jersey City T-shirt reeks of sweat and stale weed from the pre-concert parking lot tailgate parties. It’s sticking uncomfortably to my back. There’s mustard and relish stains on the front. It’s just about walking on its own by now. Sheldon and Beth are nowhere, but the woman who lent us her binoculars the night before is seated way up in the stands. She spots us through her binoculars and waves, and Steve and I are almost embarrassed by how fortuitous we are. Even Courtney Cox and her husband David Arquette are seated five rows behind, off to the side. I start to think that perhaps Bruce is my destiny, that we are bound to meet and fall madly in love. As I’m entertaining marital fantasies, the lights dim. The concert begins. This time when Bruce looks at me, he does a double-take. He looks at my JERSEY CITY shirt and he cuts me a nervous glance. His eyes roll back into his head. He fumbles on stage. He thinks I’m a stalker. He thinks I’m a freak. He thinks I’m totally crazy. And I am.
I’m crazy about him.

I bought the T-shirt one night the summer before the Bruce Springsteen concert during a drunken shopping spree with friends. It was one of those rare sticky Los Angeles nights. I was stumbling along Main Street in my ‘hood of Santa Monica, California where I live, kicking it back with my close friends, Doug, Kira, Stephanie and Vivien. We had all just spent three hours getting sloshed on margaritas and stuffing our faces with chicken tacos at Baja Cantina, the kind of Mexican bar-slash-restaurant with sawdust on the floor and a help-yourself tortilla chip stand. We were singing theme songs to old 80’s television shows when I spotted the shirt in the window of a small gift shop, its pale-orange letters complimenting the blue denim of the jeans hanging from the same mannequin. "I need that T-shirt," I said to the clerk behind the counter. He took it down for me and I bought it on the spot. I wasn’t from New Jersey and I had no idea that in a few months time I’d be going to a Bruce Springsteen concert, but it seemed somehow like a justified impulse purchase. And yet it remained folded in my dresser drawer until that wish-fulfilling fateful night.

Today, that JERSEY CITY T-shirt is nailed above my bed, the smell of stale sweat still faint in the air. I look at it and it reminds me that I’ll always have a special place in Bruce’s heart.
I will always be the Jersey City girl.*

© Malina Sarah Saval

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