5:45 p.m.: Springer is already mobbed by fans when we meet him at the float sponsored by WMOR-Ch. 32, the local home of his syndicated show. On the way here, he passed a bride and groom getting their wedding portraits in Ybor City. He couldn't resist hopping out to surprise them. Just what every girl dreams of seeing on her wedding day, right?
5:51: Everyone wants to meet Jerry. A pirate wench asks him to sign a red Solo cup. Miss Tampa is waiting in the wings for a photo op. A fireman offers Springer a blue shot in a test tube, which he declines. Everyone is wearing "I partied with Jerry" medallions.
5:56: Nursing a Diet Coke during a quick breather, Springer seems laid-back and unfazed by the barely controlled chaos. "You forget, I do my show," he says. "This is like timeout." Springer, a former mayor of Cincinnati, needs very little mental preparation for massive public appearances like this. "It'd be different if you were going to a business meeting or at home with your family. This is just a zoo, and you come here, and everyone's in good spirits." Besides, it's good publicity. "This is fun stuff. If I'm making my living in the entertainment business, you do things like this. It's part of it. Why not?"
6:20: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn drops by to say hello. "A fellow former mayor!" he says. Buckhorn and Springer talk shop about overseeing huge public events like this and St. Patrick's Day. "It's the best job I ever had," Springer says.
6:26: Jerry is on autopilot. When a little girl walks up to say hello, he reflexively poses for a photo, before he realizes: Oh, there's no camera. Moving on!
6:32: "We need to get him on the float," says WMOR president and general manager Ken Lucas. But it's slow going. The crowds around Springer are relentless. He's moving a few feet per minute.
6:37: Finally, we reach the ship. Springer untangles the beads and medallions around his neck. In the crow's nest of WMOR's float: Springer, Lucas, me, two photographers and former Buccaneer-turned-lawyer Brad Culpepper and his wife, Monica, a contestant on the new season of Survivor.
7: The parade starts. And we wait.
7:15: The conversation in the crow's nest revolves around the topics you'd expect with such an unlikely crew: reality TV, sports, Jerry's life in Sarasota, Culpepper Kurland ads. Springer shares some life lessons on fame. "When you're on television, it's different than being a movie star. If I were famous for being in movies, there'd be a distance: 'That's Brad Pitt!' But when you're on television, you're in their homes three times a day for 21 years. People believe they know you." Still, he handles it with amazing zen, smiling and flashing the same peace sign in every photo. "It's not anything different from what your own mother taught you, which is, when someone says hello to you, you look at them, and pay attention only to that person for that moment. They're going to know in that second that you respect them, and that's important. If you're shaking hands and looking at who's next, you've lost them forever."
7:30: The Unsinkable Krewe of Molly Brown drifts by on its Titanic-themed float. Springer waves. In the business, we call this foreshadowing.
8:05: "Oh, my god, we're moving!" Springer says. The chants of Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry! begin, and do not end until the parade is over. Springer gets it everywhere he goes. "I have it attached to my alarm clock," he jokes. "It gets me up in the morning."
8:10: As we cross 13th Street, something on the ground rocks the float. My first thought is: Oh, no; we've hit someone. Then it all dawns on us: The float has a flat tire. Springer cackles with laughter. "Oh, my gosh!" he shouts. "Story of my life!"
8:13: The boat is rocking perilously, and there are beads strewn across the deck, making it difficult to stand. Springer is trying to steady himself, but it's tough when one hand is full of beads, and the other is tossing them. The beads knot up, making them difficult to toss. "You would think the one thing I'd know is how to give out beads!" he shouts. "I'm such a failure!"
8:15: It's getting rockier. We might have a second flat. I've given up standing, and am now straddling a giant speaker blaring the theme song to The Big Bang Theory. It tickles.
8:18: The screams get louder as we near Centro Ybor. Springer is creamed with beads from a balcony.
8:26: An eight-length gap has opened up between us and the float up ahead. Folks are starting to worry how Springer is holding up. "I think I just tasted my liver," he says.
8:35: We're at the Columbia, at Seventh and 22nd, and it honestly feels like we might capsize. Springer steps to the stern of the ship and lifts his arms. "I'm king of the world!" he shouts.
8:38: We're officially out of beads and exhausted from trying to maintain balance. "Honestly," Springer says, "my hips are just ..."
8:44: We finally stop outside Club Manilla, where the marquee promises "SISSY RICH LIVE AND DRAG SHOWS TONITE." Springer disembarks, and it all starts anew — fans swarm from all directions. He smiles for photos, does a TV interview. And every time it looks like he might get away, it comes again: "Mr. Springer, sir — picture real quick?" The answer's always yes.
9:10: I hitch a ride back to Springer's starting point, the Hilton Garden Inn, in a limo that just last week was hauling Rick Santorum. As Springer unwinds in the lobby, I ask if he has a final thought. "It lived up to the hype, that is true," he says. "You really had the feeling that people were excited to be there. They were jumping up and down, yelling, screaming. I mean, it was full-blown excitement."
9:16: Before Springer leaves to grab a burger at Tampa Bay Brewing Company, we all reminisce about the flat tire. "It's like being in a speedboat," he said. "I'm 68. I don't want to kill myself over a parade." Yeah, I say, but it would be a fitting way to go out. Springer laughs. "Wouldn't it?"