Essay: Born to wonder

Michael Muckian takes readers on a night when he had a famous celebrity in the back of his cab.
Bruce Springteen in the back seat with Clarence Clemons and Steve Van Zandt and michael muckian driving in the front of the taxi
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

Cab driving isn’t what it used to be, especially now that Uber and Lyft have taken to the streets. But occasionally something special happens, giving drivers a tale to share with friends and colleagues. My bragging rights as a former cabbie came on a June evening in 1978, and I still wonder how I drew the lucky straw.

I had returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to get my teaching certificate while driving part time for the old Checker Cab company. Coming off a dinner break, I got a call at the Sheraton Hotel. Someone named “Willie Cicci” needed a ride to Hilldale Shopping Center. It was a good fare, so I took it.

But Mr. Cicci appeared to be in no hurry and kept me cooling my heels in the lobby. I started to grumble audibly when a towering man came up and playfully socked me in the arm.

“You better wait for him,” he said.

“Well, he might want to hurry his ass up,” I replied.

Suddenly, two more guys appeared, one smiling broadly and standing directly in front of the other, who stayed quiet. They were contrite and polite, so off we went to Hilldale — specifically to the movie theater that once stood where the Target store is now — where they planned to see the rerelease of “American Graffiti” with added scenes.

I kept my mouth shut during the ride while my passengers in the back seat talked about the music business.

“This is the Midwest,” said the grinner, and I began to mentally refer to him as Smiley. “You’ve got to expect not to sell as many tickets as REO Speedwagon.”

It was an unusual conversation, and I began wondering just who was riding with me. I dropped them off, gave them a cab company business card with my name on it and asked them to request me when they were ready to be picked up. Sure, they said, we’ll do that.

The night went on as usual, but at about 11:30 p.m. the dispatcher said there was a fare waiting for me at Hilldale. “They asked for you by name,” he added.

I showed up and we headed back to the Sheraton, stopping at a convenience store to stock up on junk food at their request. It was my first chance to really get a look at the quiet guy, who stood by the register with a grocery bag of snacks while Smiley paid. Dark hair, clean-shaven, short and kind of scrawny, he was dressed in a drab, oversized, olive-colored jacket and pants. He reminded me a little bit of the comic strip character Dondi.

When we arrived back at the hotel, I broke the ice: “Hey, are you guys with the band?” “Yeah,” Smiley said, “we’re with the band.” “And are you Bruce Springsteen?” I asked the quiet guy. “Yeah,” he said with a sly smile.

“Any chance I can get some backstage passes for tomorrow night’s show?” My question seemed to take “The Boss” by surprise. No, he said, but you can have some complimentary seats. Those tickets, along with a fistful of cash and an autograph, proved to be the best tip I had ever received. Plus, I had just met the legendary rock and roller who was beginning to dominate the airwaves; his Smiley sideman, Steve Van Zandt, aka “Miami Steve”; and, via that friendly earlier punch, the “Big Man” himself, Clarence Clemons.

When I got home with my prized autograph, my wife, Jean, refused to believe I had met The Boss. Even the next evening as we pulled into the Coliseum parking lot, she was skeptical.

“If we actually pay for parking and ‘he’ hasn’t left the supposed tickets he promised, I’m going to be really mad,” she warned me. Jean stopped complaining when I was handed tickets for two fourth-row-center seats. That night, we saw the concert of a lifetime. It was the first of many performances I would later see featuring the scrawny guy from the back seat of my cab who would become one of the most famous musicians of all time.

After that night we bought “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s most recent album, and every so often I’d catch Jean, Koss headphones on, singing along to her favorite tunes. I, too, became a fan for life.

This winter, just before Christmas, word reached us that Springsteen had sold his entire catalogue of songs to Sony Music for $550 million, roughly the equivalent of Tonga’s gross domestic product. I wondered about that, but you know what else I wonder? Just how much REO Speedwagon would get for its catalogue of songs.

Michael Muckian is a contributing writer and guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

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