We finally found the marker on the way to The Saint – on this rainy Saturday in September when summer finally gave up its grip on
Park and we had to dress for the occasion, the limp
edge of my dollar store umbrella dripping with the steady heavy drizzle.
This was the second week in which we had encountered rain, but last week, it was a squall that came and went, this rain drenched the world and cleared the boardwalk except for the heartiest few like us.
We had looked for Clarence’s marker on each visit, the tribute left on the back of the boardwalk benches to loved one and musicians, but we were unable to find it for the few half dozen trips. Benches moved mysteriously, gathering in groups like flocks of geese, and sometimes, we could not read them all or could not see them in the dark.
This time, we had eaten at first arrival at a burger and sports bar on Cookman, before taking the ritual stroll down along the lake and onto the boardwalk.
As with all the previous weeks, we encountered the remainders of wedding ceremonies, even in the downpour, a bride and groom taking photos near the old arcade, a whole line of wedding goers inside the abandoned casino cavern at the south end, and a bridge holding in court in one of the boardwalk bars.
We took refuge at the northern end, and then walked back slowly in the rain, pausing to look at the benches on the off chance we might find it this time, and in the rain, we did.
Drops of water dripped off the metal plate like tears, and as we should have guessed, his was located near where the boardwalk came closest to the Stone Pony, though legend had Bruce and Clarence meeting at one of those in-between dives that the nasty corporate developers had already demolished.
We had thought to come south this week to see a Springsteen tribute band called “Tramps like us,” at the Pony, but decided to go to The Saint instead – partly because of our hunger for less famous music, partly because we had come to love the people at The Saint, owner and bar maid, the varying and wonderful souls who drifted in with each new band from places far and wide.
But being near the marker felt as if we had come to pay homage at Clarence’s grave, an overdue tribute that we were willing to get soaked in the downpour to make. And then we heard strains of Springsteen music drifted across the boardwalk at us, like a ghost strolling along the mist as if waiting for us, or serving to guard his marker. It was an hour or more too early for the show at the Stone Pony, but as we wandered in that direction, we realized the music was coming from there, a sound check filled with breaks in the songs, and repeated passages, and yet we stood with sagging umbrellas on the sidewalk taking in every note, every rise and fall of the Springsteen-like voice, and the wailing, wonderful tones of a Clarence-like horn, until it stopped, and we were left with only the rain, and the lights rising up on top of the pavilion a block and a half away.
We did not go in. We had received a gift from the gods, and so made our way to The Saint where the barmaid greeted us like old friends, and the music stirred up feelings of what
must have felt like before “the boss” made it, when Thunder
Road was still Thunder
I watched the barmaid move up and down the inside of the bar, her grand gestures like that of an actress, sometimes donning the army helmet kept behind the bar for some ungodly reason, sometimes, she came out from behind the bar and juggled. The owner moved around the place, although it was the sound man and the woman at the door that seemed furiously busy, as bands mounted the stage and patrons came and went, the music, the scene, the people filling me with something that the rain could not wash away, this place, this moment, almost a tribute to a way of life that no tribute band could duplicate. I felt warm and wanted, and perhaps just a little drunk, waiting just long enough into the early morning for the safe drive north, to home from home, going between a new family in The Saint to the routine of the north, knowing that I would feel the aches and pains of it this morning, but also the afterglow.