East Rutherford, New Jersey - There isn't much to recommend in this part of New Jersey but a great view of the Manhattan skyline. The main attractions - Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands Arena - sit in the middle of a few square miles of forlorn and desolate land that wheezes under the dense pressure of the New Jersey Turnpike's infinite supply of car exhaust. Aside from a couple of radio towers and an expressway, there's nothing here but the hotels that feed the sportsplex. And like in much of corporate North America, there's a decided anti-community feel to the zoning. But tonight is different. The cabbies out of nearby Secaucus are so busy they've had no time for the box scores in the New York Post. CNN is reporting live. And the packed lobby of my hotel is crackling with energy. By 3 pm the next day, Friday, the acre upon acre of parking at Giants Stadium has been transformed by tailgaters arriving early for night two of a 10-night sold-out stadium run - 400,000 tickets - for hometown boy Bruce Springsteen.
Toronto may have tapped the Rolling Stones to juice post-SARS commerce, but in Jersey community economic development comes via Bruce Springsteen. From the toll booths on the Interstate to the parking lot ticket takers at the stadium, these shows have created a mini-boom in an area where the tourist industry still hasn't recovered from 9/11. The emotional fallout of the attacks and the widespread unemployment (both the Wall Street Journal and Newark's Star Ledger ran front-page features recently on New Jersey's continued industrial decline) mean these are people who really need a boost.
"Bruce doesn't need to do this," says one woman - a comment I hear often. "He doesn't need the money. He could just stay home and relax. But we need this, we need this to help us heal, and he knows it." Even the half-dozen homeless guys who work the bottle bins think the Boss rocks. "I don't know his music, but I like him," says one, pointing to his overflowing garbage bag of aluminum and glass loot. "Look at all this. With Bruce everyone wins."
In the parking lot everyone has a personal Bruce story. "He has never been afraid to say where he comes from," says Stephen Pullen, a member of the fire department in Freehold, Springsteen's hometown. Twenty-five of the department's 110-person squad have been here since 2:30 am, and I think I have been told 20 different times that Springsteen gave the department $100,000 to buy a rescue truck 10 years ago. "It doesn't matter that he's sold a half-million tickets for these shows," says Pullen, "because next week he'll be back eating at the same places he's always been to."
A teenager who went to the same school Springsteen did tells me reverently that one day he took a book out of the library and discovered on the inside flap that Springsteen had years ago checked out the same book. Four girlfriends who estimate that they've been to about 100 Springsteen shows say they first met him years ago as teenagers outside the now infamous Asbury Park bar where he first started - the Stone Pony. "Yeah, we'd sit at a corner table when we were finally of age, and he'd just walk in on his own," says one of the women. "Unlike most of the other musicians who thought they were too cool, he'd get right out on the dance floor and dance to the bands. He liked to dance."
I've never met him, although I've been been a big fan ever since my brother won tickets from CHUM to see him play in Buffalo in 1980 and inexplicably invited me to come along. Tonight, however, I'm feeling as close to Springsteen as I ever will, like he's going to walk right out of the porto-let I'm standing in line for.
Then I realize that I have it wrong. What I'm feeling is an immediate familiarity with these people - like I've known them for years. And I have, because they're the blue-collar, tough-talking romantic dreamers who people just about every Springsteen song - or at least his greatest ones. He didn't make all those characters up. Here they are in the parking lot. Springsteen has spent a lifetime trying to write about them and get their stories right. In Jersey, they think he has. Me, too.