Springsteen: A fan?s man - They?ll travel for miles, wait hours to see Bruce

The State, 2002-12-10, by: Jeffrey Day
The guy eating the hash brown, bacon and onion omelet at the Assembly Street IHOP in Columbia looked a lot like the rest of the customers. But he had a big number 125 written on the back of his left hand in black marker. A glance around the booths this gray Monday afternoon showed several others with numbered hands. They were among the few hundred people who showed up as early as 1 a.m. at the Carolina Center, where Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would perform that night. The numbers on their hands meant they were one of the first 300 to show up--and guaranteed a spot in the pit in front of the stage.

No. 125, Barry Lerner, ate his omelet and read the newspaper. He had seen Springsteen on Sunday night in Charlotte, would check back at the Carolina Center every two hours Monday afternoon, see the show and drive home to Charlotte after the gig. "This is my third show in the last three weeks, and I got about three hours of sleep last night," said Lerner, 35. Two hours before the concert was to start at 7:30, those with numbered hands lined up once again in the dark--as they had about 20 hours earlier. Meanwhile at the front of the brightly lighted Carolina Center, which opened Nov. 23, the crowd was sparse. On the mezzanine above the small lobby where a couple dozen concertgoers mingled quietly, a group of events staff worker, all dressed in bright yellow windbreakers, gathered to go over last-minute details.

Springsteen's show was the venue's inaugural concert. Some of the employees in the lobby were peppered with questions from fans, most wanting to know when they could get in to use the bathrooms. But when the gates finally opened, everyone filed in slowly and orderly. Just below the lobby people picked up tickets--or tried to. Sissy Parkerson, 29, of Rock Hill, ordered eight tickets at $75 each, but they'd been lost in mail. Also waiting for tickets were two of the younger attendees at a show where gray hair and a few wrinkles, and even a cane or two, were the norm. Still, Michael Losapio, 21, and Caitlin Petschauer, 18, were vets of The Boss' concerts: They're from Jersey, Springsteen's home state. "I went with my parents when I was really little," said Petschauer, a USC student who was wearing a Jersey Girl T-shirt. "My dad just called me--he's really jealous I get to see him tonight," said Losapio, a student at Coker College.

Outside, construction workers were still putting the center's sidewalks and medians in order. The long line of concertgoers snaked past a long trench with iron bars sticking out of it, while nearby a man in a hard hat smoothed a large walkway of wet concrete. A local radio station blasted appropriate Springsteen songs: first "10th Avenue Freeze Out" (as the temperature dropped into the upper 30s and the wind picked up), then his rockin' version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." It would be a long day for all the early-arriving fans, but they said it would be worth it.

Those arriving early Friday were part of an concert-access program run for and by Springsteen's biggest fans. About 300 general-admission tickets were sold; those fans would stand for on the Carolina Center floor for the whole concert. But those several hours would be spent in front of the stage. Stacy Strickland of Varnville was holding the checklist Friday afternoon. Dressed in a Harley Davidson jacket and wraparound shades, he was all business--except when he talked about the concerts. "Last night in Charlotte, he didn't look 53," said Strickland, who has been to five concerts on this tour. "It was one of the best shows I've seen."

Phil Dennis of Richmond, Va., was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of him and Bruce taken after a '99 concert in Boston. "I got interested in him when I was in high school," said Dennis, 41. "This girl in one of my classes had the lyrics to 'Born to Run' written on one of her book covers. I thought it was pretty cool." Bill Reiser had seen 19 shows on the current tour. "You have to be creative and flexible," said Reiser, who lives outside Detroit. "You also have to be very strategic to make it work." He said it's worth it: "The band's playing better than ever."

Pam Cain was one of the few Columbians outside the auditorium early Friday afternoon, but one with a history as a Springsteen fan, having first seen him in 1976. She was waiting to meet a friend she's met at other concerts--a hard-core devotee. He came along looking a little tired. "I need to find a shoe store," said Todd Draper of South Bend, Ind., looking down at his pointy and too-new black shoes. "These things are killing me." You'd think a guy who has seen Springsteen 150 times could deal with sore feet. "I drive, fly, whatever it takes to get to the shows," he said. He is among the fans who takes charge of the waiting list and hand numbering. "Doing that makes it a lot easier on everyone--except us," he said. Then he hobbled off with Cain to find new shoes.