“Elizabeth, I’ve screwed up in the past. I’m very sorry, but I love you more than I can tell you. I’m talking to my friend, a reporter, who I don’t really know, but I’m almost crying because I love you so much. I’ve prepared a sign for you. I’ve got an important seat at the Bruce concert, and I’ve prepared a gigantic poster to ask you to marry me. Please marry me. Please.”
Warren is right — we don’t know each other. Ten minutes after I took my seat at the BB&T Center, he came wandering by, wielding a posterboard the size of a decent flat-screen TV. He’s a handsome middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back to his ears and a gray goatee. The collar on his red polo is in the popped position, though it's hard to tell if it's intentional or just a frantic oversight.
He’s from New York, one of the thousands of Northerners in attendance who have followed their salmon-like instinct to migrate to South Florida. If "Thunder Road" were five minutes longer, Bruce Springsteen would be cruising through West Palm Beach in the eighth verse, wailing about how a pelican just took a dump on poor Mary's head.
After a brief search, Warren locates his seat, right next to me. His sign has two lines of red text separated by a picture of a wedding ring. The top line reads, “Lizabeth — My 'Little Girl'" and the bottom says, “I want to marry you.” Then there’s a small “Love, Warren” in the bottom-right corner.
He asks me to babysit it while he uses the restroom. Attendees inching their way past glance down at it and wish me luck.
When Warren returns, our neighbors inquire about the context behind his sign, and he happily fills them in. The plan: He is going to hold it up when Springsteen plays “I Wanna Marry You,” the fifth track on side two of his album The River, which he is about to play in its entirety for the sold-out South Florida crowd.
The plan ends there.
Is she in the crowd? She is not. Where is she? Back in New York. Well, how will she see it? “YouTube?” Warren shrugs. He’s hoping maybe he gets on the big screen, or perhaps Bruce pulls him up onstage. Then maybe someone films it, it goes viral, and the next thing you know, Elizabeth’s watching the Today Show with her morning coffee when — bam — there he is, on the big stage asking for her hand in marriage. Who could say no to that?
Elizabeth, apparently. He actually already asked her to marry him. She gave him back the ring, an $8,500 Cartier that he still has and can’t return due to the engraving inside that reads, “Little girl, I want to marry you.” So this long-distance proposal is a matter of both great emotional and financial importance.
Asked what went wrong, Warren is initially reluctant, then opens up. “I’ll tell you what it was. She thinks we’re ‘codependent.’ She got the feeling I was clinging on to her, but I’m not clingy. I just love being with her.” I’ve been there, I assure him.
He’s known Elizabeth for four years and cries when he describes her. She was his real estate broker. That’s how they met. “She’s dark-haired. She’s gorgeous. But she’s the funniest person I know. I don’t love her because of the sex.”
Our neighbors kindly offer to film Warren while he performs his stunt, and he thanks them about a dozen times before they can finish their sentence. The neighbors inform Warren that his sign is technically illegal, as the BB&T Center allows posters only 12-by-12 inches or under and his is 24-by-36. He says he snuck it in on his hip, though it seems more likely that there is an unconscious security guard somewhere tucked neatly behind a trash can.
Warren’s cousin is here too, just a few sections over. She’s holding a sign that allegedly says, “Elizabeth, just take the ring and hawk it on eBay.” I chuckle, but Warren is serious. He gets up and bolts toward the exit, returning two minutes later, tugging at my sleeve. He points to the south, waves his arms, and a white sign emerges from the crowd in response.
The lights go dark, and out comes the E-Street Band.
Is there a specific song Warren would like to dedicate to his unrequited love? I ask. This is before I get home and Google the lyrics to “I Wanna Marry You” (which include the phrase engraved on Warren’s fingerless wedding ring, “Little girl, I wanna marry you").
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He turns to our Northern neighbors. “You fucking kidding me? A song, he asks.” He turns back to me, saying sarcastically, “Yeah, 'Thunder Road.'” For a moment, I think about alerting security to the illegal poster in row 14, but I realize his anger is merely the very common byproduct of intense heartbreak.
Out comes Bruce, wailing away, grabbing at the neck of his guitar like it’s trying to fly away. Each lyric out of his mouth seems custom-written for poor Warren. He screams at the microphone rather than into it as Steven Van Zandt sashays across the stage dressed like the stunt double for the grandmother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Warren’s loving it, dancing and pointing toward Springsteen. A few songs in, during “Independence Day,” he turns to me and asks if I’d like anything to drink. I kindly decline, and off he goes.
“Hungry Heart” starts and still no Warren. The crowd passes Springsteen from the center stage to the main stage like a rock 'n' roll Christ, but still no Warren. Halfway through the next song, I set out to find him on the smoker’s deck chatting up three women. Once again, I acknowledge this as an unfortunate byproduct of intense heartbreak. He almost sees me peeking around a concession stand, and I speed-walk back to my seat.
Warren returns just in time for his big moment.
The keyboard for “I Wanna Marry You” cranks out of the speakers, and he taps my shoulder. “This is the song!”
He grabs his poster, hands his phone to the couple behind us, and walks a few steps down the aisle. He turns back to pose for the camera, holding his sign high above his head, clipping a man’s ear in the process.
Springsteen is doing a little pre-song speech, holding two maracas in each hand. These, he says, are his lucky maracas. “Every time I shake them, someone gets pregnant.”
The crowd goes wild. Love is in the air, Springsteen says. Then he starts talking about marriage, and Warren begins descending the stairs, walking closer to the stage with the sign above his head.
Springsteen is going on about marriage. In fact, there’s someone here who wants to get married, he says. Warren begins taking two steps at a time until he’s at the railing. Springsteen could see him if only he was looking in his direction. Instead, he’s staring up to the left, at the balcony, where some asshole named Karl is proposing to his girlfriend, spotlight and all.
The crowd cheers. Springsteen smiles. And security tells Warren he needs to go back to his seat now.
The crowd at the BB&T Center is older. Warren himself looks to be in his late 40s or early 50s. Heartbreak has no age limit. And that’s terrifying. We often think these things fix themselves with age, but Warren is just as deep in the quicksand of love as any 16-year-old I’ve met. His is the hungriest heart in attendance.
I’m 25, and when I blink another 20 years into the future, I see a wife and three kids and two dogs, or a wife and three dogs and two kids — any three/two combination to fill out the minivan nicely.
But Warren dragging his sign up the stairs as all hope slowly disappears? I cannot see that. Or maybe I just do not want to see it.
All these years later, Bruce Springsteen is still singing these songs about pain and longing. And there’s an arena full of so-called adults singing along. The man next to me who looks like a middle-school science teacher has tears streaming down his cheek during "Wrecking Ball."
Warren spends the rest of the show in his seat. Sitting, standing, sitting, standing. He disappears with the sign for a bit, and when he comes back, it’s no longer with him. I ask him where it went, and he points behind him. “You want it?”
I do not.
At one point, right before the encore, he sits down and begins punching out a long email on his phone. To who? I have a hunch. His spirits brighten during the encore. We sing “Born to Run" together.”
“I want to know if love is wild/Babe, I want to know if love is real.”
I was sick, and it was midnight, and I had to get home to write a review, so I didn’t stick around for the final chord. I’m sad to say that I don’t exactly know how Warren’s story ended. But wherever he is, I hope he’s happy. I hope he and Elizabeth figure things out. Or I hope they don’t and he finds someone else who makes him just as happy as he imagines himself when he thinks of his ring taking its rightful spot on her finger.
I hope Bruce is happy too. Because he wrote these songs, after all. And it’s been more than 30 years since The River was released, but you wouldn't know it when you hear him sing them now. You don’t write songs like that without having been in Warren’s shoes once or twice.