Bartender Vickie Banks suspected something soon after the stranger strode into the Gator Hole Tavern at J&S Fish Camp, an 80-year-old ‘Glades landmark perched among the water lilies and alligators on the banks of the Lake Okeechobee rim canal.
“He’s either famous or hiding from the law,” she decided.
He dressed like any of the dozens of weekend bikers who stop at this isolated spot midway between Pahokee and Okeechobee, in jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt and a red bandanna around his neck. The 138-mile drive around the Big Lake is a favorite Florida biker cruise.
Still, there was something about him.
“We all wear bandannas around here,” said Vickie, who rides to work on her own 883 Sportster Harley, “so that wasn’t the thing.”
The stranger’s clothes were better-looking than usual. Certainly, the friendly, wiry man wearing them was.
“I’m a woman, I notice things like that,” said Banks, who sports multiple silver rings and bracelets to match the day’s tank top.
On this afternoon, it’s green turquoise.
When he introduced himself to her as “Billy” and “Bruce” to someone else, she took a moment to size him up.
“I thought he was someone trying to be incognito,” she said.
He took funny selfies near the alligator warning signs on the floating dock and bought five women’s T-shirts with the J&S Fish Camp logo.
She served him a Corona. Just one.
It’s not as if Banks, 59, hadn’t had other celebrity encounters out here on the lip of Florida’s vast, shallow water bowl.
“Paul Sr. from ‘Orange County Choppers’ was here once, but I recognized him right away,” she said.
This guy she couldn’t place. Nor could anyone else in the Gator Hole on that Saturday two weeks ago.
Oh well, she thought. People out here don’t stir themselves into a stranger’s business.
Three days later, a friend called to say her photo was on the website of the world’s biggest rock star.
There was Banks featured prominently in Bruce Springsteen’s Instagram tour of the western fringes of Palm Beach and Martin counties.
“Greetings from where the alligators run free,” he wrote next to a photo of himself on a Harley. “I’m in the No Helmet Law — Splatter Your Brains Cross the Highway (should you choose) Stand Your Ground State of Florida! … Let’s ride.”
Heading west on Southern Boulevard, past the just-planted cane fields with soil blacker than midnight, Springsteen wrote, “Flying solo to Lake Okeechobee on a sunny Saturday.”
Here’s where you imagine this story has a soundtrack.
Think of the best Springsteen road trip songs.
The thrumming, fist-in-the air intro to “Born to Run.”
The steel-rimmed poetry of “Thunder Road.”
Badlands. Backstreets. Darkness at the edge of the … county.
Did he take a wrong turn and just kept going?
It seems rock’s blue-collar poet laureate was just keeping it real on a sunny Saturday.
He must have stopped at Pahokee’s scenic overlook on top of the Lake Okeechobee dike, one of the few places motorists have a view of the vast blue-gray lake. He posted a shot of a nearby sign advertising nine of the tiny town’s churches.
A few photos later, there was the “kind and lovely, Miss Vicki (sic), the barkeep” with “rings on her fingers.”
She wore red and orange stones that day.
Within days, websites elsewhere, including this newspaper’s, ran excited stories about Springsteen’s visit to “Okeechobee.”
It must have been big local news, right?
“Not to us,” said Tammi Kelly, 23, an Okeechobee News reporter, columnist and photographer. “We didn’t run a story about it. Right now, people are excited about getting a new Sears store.”
Okeechobee folks’ priorities don’t include fawning over a rock star on the down low. They might be more interested if he was riding in the Cowtown rodeo or sharing a bill with Bush Hawg at next weekend’s Black Gold Jubilee.
Besides, the J&S Fish Camp isn’t really in the neighborhood, even if it does have an Okeechobee address. Getting there means a pokey 18-mile drive down the lake into Martin County.
Cattle and Catfish
If this spot, midway between Okeechobee and Pahokee, isn’t the middle of nowhere, it’s within shouting distance.
That’s the point and the attraction of a place where no one knows your name, unless you tell them.
It’s worlds away from aggressively-groomed Wellington, where Springsteen and his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, keep a home so their equestrienne daughter, Jessica, can compete in the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Can anyone imagine a Springsteen song about Wellington’s polo-and-ponies culture?
Or about Palm Beach, where Max Weinberg, the E-Street Band’s drummer, just bought a house on the north end?
Or even Singer Island, where the Boss’ late sax player, Clarence Clemons, kept a waterfront condo?
But a bittersweet lament inspired by the cattle-and-catfish life at a remote Lake Okeechobee fish camp, where gators far outnumber humans and a no-nonsense barkeep named Vickie wears a dream catcher tattoo “because I’m part Seminole from the Okefenokee swamp in south Georgia?”
Banks’ customers tend to be bikers or fishermen coming through the nearby locks after coaxing specks, bass or “cats” (catfish) onto their lines.
People call up all the time to ask “what’s bitin’?,” she said.
Inside, a chalkboard welcomes you to “Beeradise.”
Banks got the job after she moved to Okeechobee from Cocoa to take care of her mother. She rode her bike down to J&S one day to try to meet some local bikers. She ended up with friends and a part-time job.
A few other famous people have dropped in, looking for anonymity in this colorful, low-slung concoction of cabins, bar and boat ramp.
The late Monkee, Davy Jones, used to drive over from his home in Indiantown, said owner Kathy Keck. She and her husband, Jay, are proud of having “the cleanest bathrooms on the lake.” They keep the place tidy and cute, with Margaritaville accents and bright paint. The Gator Hole is a family-friendly biker bar.
“We never have any trouble out here,” said Keck.
She thought this was the second time Springsteen had been in.
“The first was three or four years ago,” she said.
On this visit, he was clean-shaven, with not even a soul patch, which confused bar regular Betsy Pinney.
As Banks set another beer in front of her, Pinney said, “I had seen him in concert at Madison Square Gardens 11 years ago, but I didn’t recognize him.”
Nor did Kathy Keck’s husband, Jay.
When Springsteen asked Pinney to take a snapshot of him and “Miss Vicki” behind the bar, Banks looked over at owner Jay Keck, who silently mouthed, “Who is this guy?”
Before he roared away, Springsteen crouched low to snap a photo of a sign on the wall, jostling the water bowl kept on the floor for Shady, the Keck’s blue heeler cattle dog.
If Pinney ever considered what she’d say if she met a internationally famous rock star, with a 40-year career and sales of 120 million albums, it probably wasn’t this:
“Hey dude, don’t drink out of that bowl, it’s got dog slobber in it.”
There was no Springsteen love at the jukebox, either, where Banks remembered him perusing the choices.
Dwight Yoakam. Hank Williams. Patsy Cline. Ernest Tubb. Cher. Cher? But not a single tune from The Boss.
“Uh, we’ll have to change that,” said Kathy Keck.
Maybe she should add “The Rising,” which includes the line, “A dream of life comes to me, like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line.”
That’s a Lake ‘Chobee kind of song.
RIDIN’ ON THE HIGHWAY
Check out Bruce Springsteen’s Instagram photos and comments of his ride from “Southern Highway” (that’s,uh, Boulevard, Boss) to Lake Okeechobee at brucespringsteen.net.
Want to recreate The Boss’ tour to J&S Fish Camp and the Gator Hole Tavern?
Head west on Southern Boulevard/State Road 80 to Belle Glade and turn right/north on State Road 15/715, also called Bacom Point Road. You’ll be following the road that runs along the dike, which becomes Conners Highway. J&S Fish Camp is 19 miles north of Pahokee, on the left side.