TINTON FALLS, N.J. At the Tides Cafe, the decor was all Springsteen.
Framed photographs of him adorned the walls, a pennant embossed with his face hung from a window sash. Album covers ''Born to Run,'' ''Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.'' sat on window sills near the stage, a big-screen TV behind it playing concert videos of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Springsteen T-shirts hung from easels.
Soon, the real stars began filing in some in wheelchairs, some with walkers, some walking slowly to their seats.
It was Bruce Springsteen Day, and the air was full of excitement. The wooden upholstered chairs were filling up quickly.
Springsteen himself was nowhere to be found, but it didn't matter on that autumn day at Seabrook Village, a retirement community that toasted New Jersey's famous native son with a party tied to the release of ''The Essential Bruce Springsteen,'' a new three-CD set.
Assembled in the dining room, aka the Tides Cafe, about 80 residents skipped the afternoon bridge game to participate in what was billed as a series of contests but evolved instead into swapping tales about brushes with The Boss, however distant.
In these parts, everybody has a story.
There was one about his generosity: Seventy-year-old Ruth Hayes told about Springsteen kicking in $25,000 for the rehabilitation of an Asbury Park house once lived in by Stephen Crane, author of ''The Red Badge of Courage.'' He made the donation during a tour after asking city officials for the names of some community-based charities and nonprofits.
''I think he's a great guy,'' said Mrs. Hayes, whose son bought the house in 1995 to save it from demolition.
In a room with such a voluminous past, it wasn't long before there was reminiscing about the good old days. The youngster, 52-year-old Barbara Dinkins, was just the one to do it. A Seabrook Village employee who grew up singing gospel, Dinkins said she and a friend once answered an ad in the Asbury Park Press. Two gospel singers wanted.
''Who should open the door, but Brucie?'' she said. ''Muttonchop sideburns, long hair and all.''
It was 1971, and she went on to sing backup with Springsteen for about 18 months before bowing out, not knowing how famous he would become.
When Mary Anne Grogg took center stage, it was to tell about her daughter seeing Springsteen perform at Kean College in the 1970s. She won a ticket lottery for a third-row seat so close, she could see him sweat.
But the star of the show on this day was 89-year-old Ruth Bruer, who had a brush with Springsteen's laundry. It was 1971 or 1972, and her son, Ron, was working as a stagehand on a Springsteen tour. On a weekend stop at home, he tossed her a bag of laundry and asked if she could have it cleaned by Monday.
''You know how it is, with blue jeans, you have to go through the pockets,'' she said, a smile creeping to her face. ''I found these guitar picks and I put them aside. The clothes got washed and dried and folded. I said, 'Ron, these clothes aren't all yours.' He said, 'No, some of them are Bruce's. On the road, I take care of Bruce's clothes.'''
Then, holding it up in front of her face, she said: ''I still have one pick that belongs to Bruce Springsteen.''
No one seemed to mind that the 54-year-old rocker had passed up the invitation.
''You just wait about 10 years, when that generation starts moving in,'' said Mary Mackin. ''He'll be here.''
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