Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

January 21, 2001:
Born to Schlepp
Or how Bruce Springsteen, auditor, reaches into the ranks of commuters

by Hugh O'Bleary

I stood stone-like at . . . well, okay, not at midnight, as in the opening line of Bruce Springsteen's Growing Up. It was more like four o'clock in the afternoon. And actually, I didn't stand, I sat at my desk in my office in New York. But I was transfixed, I mean really stone-like. For there, in my on-line Daily Princetonian was the news that Bruce Springsteen - yes, the very same Bruce Springsteen who had written Growing Up and had then indeed grown up to become a rock 'n' roll god and poet of the working man and all-around cool dude, the Boss, himself - had audited a class at Princeton.

According to the Prince, Springsteen had sat in on a session of AMS 308, "Prophecy and the American Voice," an American Studies seminar taught by visiting professor Greil Marcus. Springsteen, who, the paper said, had arrived dressed in jeans, a thermal undershirt and work boots and "kept a surprisingly low profile on campus," discussed Allen Ginsberg with the class and seemed, in the words of one student, "really, really smart." Oh, yeah, he also bought a Powerbar and a bottle of water at the Frist convenience store.

I read the report through twice, experiencing a serious case of - as one student in the class, Sara Isani '01, had put it - "extra-flabbergasted-ness." Bruce was on campus, walking around munching a Powerbar and discussing Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra, and where the hell was I? Schlepping to the Dinky? Buying (for shame!) a doughnut and coffee at the WaWa? Working in the city? Home cleaning out the gutters?

I mused for about a second on the fact that here I am, living in Princeton, with one of the world's great universities at my doorstep, a cornucopia of intellectual riches at hand, a veritable academic smorgasbord there for the consumption, and I don't take advantage of it as I should. Then I switched to just thinking how cool it would have been if I had run into the Boss! Say, on the Dinky.

I could have made some joke about how the train clearly wasn't born to run ... on time. Har! Har! Well, maybe not. I would have played it cool. Really. We might have discussed Beat poetry and populism and ecstatic imagery.

Professor Sean Wilentz, director of the Program in American Studies, was quoted in the Prince as saying that Springsteen doesn't shy away from serious intellectual work. "I get the impression he's a very serious reader, especially on things American," Wilentz said. "Springsteen takes the life of the mind very seriously."

Well, duh-uh, so do I.

The news of Springsteen's visit inspired me. If a mega rock star fresh off a year-long sold-out international concert tour could take time to read and discuss poetry with ordinary - well, okay, Princeton - students, couldn't I step out of the mold a little myself? The next day I left my overcoat at home and broke out my old leather jacket instead. It looked a little funny over my sportcoat and tie, true, but I felt a sense of freedom I hadn't felt in a while. I curled my lip at the other commuters, locked into their wing-tip world. When they said "Sit down," I stood up. I had a Powerbar for lunch. The following morning I went with jeans and an old flannel shirt.

By the third morning, I was starting to get funny looks. "Did you switch jobs, O'Bleary?" said Dan Shrake, as I slouched in my seat on the train, reading Howl instead of my usual copy of the Times and sucking on a bottle of Poland Spring.

"It's a town full of losers," I muttered. "I'm pullin' outta here to win."

"Yeah? Well, what's with your sideburns?" he added.

Okay, maybe I was taking it a bit far. After all, Springsteen's drop-in jeans-and-Ginsberg session was a one-shot deal. Even super-famous, ultra-rich rock legends have to work for a living. Face it, only students get to live like, well, students all the time. Bruce, it was clear, had found a way to maintain his intellectual engagement amid the quotidian responsibilities of his life. Surely I could try to do the same - without feeling as though I had to look like an album cover.

The next day I trimmed my sideburns, and went back to a jacket and tie. But I was still reading Ginsberg. And singing a little Springsteen.

This train

Carries saints and sinners

This train

Carries losers and winners

This train...


Hugh O'Bleary commutes to New York City from Princeton. He revels in his daily sojourn across campus to catch the Dinky. You can reach Hugh O'Bleary by writing him c/o paw@princeton.edu