Crowds of men and women attired in their usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
The parking lot of Our Lady of Fatima School was awash with an impatient, swaying crowd of six thousand people packed into a paved area half the size of a football field. On a Monday evening in early April, Ridley Township police had strung a wavering stream of yellow tape to mark the drive-through area—a narrow lane abutting the curb that separated the parking lot from South Avenue. There was no sidewalk.
By the time I had arrived an hour earlier, daylight was fading into dusky, purplish clouds that stuck like black lumps of cotton to the peaked church roof. I had been early enough, expectant and curious enough, to get a good spot. I had wangled my skinny way a step at a time, shoulders sideways, no bumping, sneaking through crevices until I wound up packed in—front, sides and back—a yard and a half from the yellow tape. Since then, the numbers grew and grew. Men, women, teenagers and children converged from every direction.
The sky above the crosstree poles was an inky expanse speckled with stars. The white streetlamps bleached the swaying press of people. I was jostled not so much by bodies impinging directly on me but by the accumulating wave-like force that shoved me with the pressured solidity of wind gusts: a pulsing push, a diastolic pause, and then another lurch, a bit stronger yet still restrained, my weight jerking me up on my toes before I leaned back, settling down, balancing flat on my heels.
With a zero to seventy Beatlemania blast, screams exploded from around the corner of the single-story school, whipping my way and rising toward a squealing crescendo that did not peak. Above the crowd, waving hands flapped like tendrils in the spasmodic cascade of flash bulbs. Six or seven cops directed a creeping black sedan into the parking lot. A raking staccato of camera lights battered the second car, an open red convertible. The lead car inched along the path, pulling forward and parking just before the exit. From out of the screaming crowd rose a barely decipherable three-syllable chant. The convertible inched close to the rear bumper and stopped. I saw two waving hands and the beaming, almost quizzical, face of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Wearing a dark suit and dark tie, he climbed on the trunk of the car. The instant Kennedy became fully visible, the crowd pitched forward with an oceanic surge. Thrust from behind, I was pinned to the backs of the people in front, squeezed on my right and left shoulders, and lifted by the heaving mass at least six inches off the macadam. My body tilted left, rotating, rising higher and drifting forward. I wiggled my toes, touching nothing—felt a momentary gasp of panic—and forced my way down, scraping the ground with the white rubber tip of my black Chuck Taylor All Stars. After landing, I slid between some bodies. After an elbow jabbed my back, I banged my knee on the car’s bumper.
Kennedy loomed above me, straight and tall. He brushed the hair from his forehead, bent down and reached, grabbing, patting, and squeezing a frenzied tangle of hands and fingers, brushing the top of my right hand. Behind him, a young man with black hair parted on the right stood in the middle of the back seat. Bracing his knees, he wrapped his right arm around Kennedy’s waist to keep him from tumbling forward. As Kennedy started to straighten, some fingers wrenched askew his right cuff link. It flipped and fell. Now standing up, Kennedy was waving back and forth with both hands. Still smiling, he patted his hands in downward strokes like a quarterback trying to quiet raucous home town fans.
Looking over the crowd, he smiled. He must have noticed that many of us were young.
“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?”
The full volume roar resumed. He laughed.
I was fifteen. Kennedy’s shocking plans to stop for a rally in my blue-collar burgh during his campaign swing through the Philadelphia area had made big news on the homebound bus. The evening before, in a nationally televised address, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your president.” Overnight, Kennedy had gone from an insurgent party troublemaker attempting to cut the legs from under an embattled incumbent president to a potential front runner, a charismatic savior riding a glory cloud. The next president of the United States was coming to fix Vietnam, end poverty, and eradicate racism.
When he could hear again, he asked, “Do you want someone like Richard Nixon to be your president?”
Boos and bedlam resonated in brash Philly style. Muffled blasts of “Noooo” collided with hoots and jeers.
When the ruckus subsided, Kennedy got serious and spoke loudly, intently, his right hand jabbing the air. His speech—whistle-stop quick—called for a negotiated settlement of the war.
“Everywhere, the American people seek not revenge but reconciliation. Peace is the only path for the U.S. home and abroad.”
As he continued, my eyes shifted to the back seat of the convertible. Mrs. Ethel Kennedy, sitting behind the driver, was alarmed. Her head jerked back and forth. She was talking to the driver, twisting to the left and pointing. Squished against the side of the car was
a crying boy, maybe four or five. He was being crushed from behind, struggling to keep his feet and not slide down. Above us, the speech was
ending. Applause and screams resonated. As Kennedy slipped into the middle of the back seat, Mrs. Kennedy reached over the side of the car and
lifted the boy into her lap. Out on the street, a cop car pulled up and the lead car nosed out of the lot. The convertible drifted forward. In
seconds, its front tires touched the street. The car sped forward. The taillights became two red dots that disappeared into the dark.
Between seventh and eighth periods, Cardinal O’Hara High School boys crowd the stairwell. They all wear ties and jackets. It’s a warm day and most of them are sweating. The stairwell smells like dirty gym socks. Half the boys want to go up; the other half want to go down. No one is going anywhere. Outside the window, Mr. King is setting up hurdles on the track. The boys have five minutes to change classes. Anyone who is late will be subject to disciplinary action. The two-minute warning bell rips the stifling air. Some boys laugh. No one is going anywhere.
One boy yells, “Prison break!”
Another boy answers, “Chinese fire drill!”
Amid the spate of laughter and a steady conversational murmur comes a competing upsurge of sound ascending from the lower floors, a steadily
increasing muffled groan of an elongating short “o” sound. Ooooo becomes louder until it turns into mooooo. Everyone hears and approves.
Moooooooo. For two seconds, the late bell drowns out all other sounds. No one cares about disciplinary action. They have stopped being boys
trying to get to typing class, biology class, or religion class. Instead, they are cows and their herd is stuck within a vertical chute.
They like being cows so much that they continue to mooooo and mooooo and mooooo. The rising groans echo among the arched open spaces lined
with beige wall tiles.
Squashed inside a convention-laden elevator that has been stuffed since the twentieth floor, we feel the car swoosh softly to a stop on the fourteenth floor and watch the door scuttle open. Nine or ten expectant professional types—convention badges strung dangling around necks, shoulder bags bulging—step forward in unison and then stop, letting loose a moaning spatter. One balding man with a gray goatee shakes his head and hurries toward the stairs. Wearing a pained, twisty smile, a rotund man blurts, “I got a paper to give. Always room for one more.”
As the door slithers to the right, he clutches his black leather bag to his chest and propels himself into our midst as if throwing himself off a roof. He bodies into the crowd, standing on tippy toes, compressing, squeezing in. Gasps and groans rattle the close air and mix with the wafting reek of sweat and egg farts. When we stop at the twelfth floor, a woman jammed beneath the man’s armpit lurches out the open door and into the waiting crowd.
“That’s it!” she huffs. “I’m walking.”
What does it mean to be crowded, compressed and squeezed into a constricted space, to be trapped, confined, contained, and engulfed, to be enveloped by the unrelenting materiality of other crowded people?
Crowding assumes many forms. It can be episodic, merely perceptual, nothing more than an unkind trick of the mind.
I am in the middle of an empty supermarket aisle, looking up, taking stock of the problem, my right hand leaning on the cart’s germ-laden push bar, my left hand reaching toward the top shelf to bring down the last 128-ounce box of store-brand baking soda. My fingers nudge the box toward the edge until the box teeters, tilts and tumbles. With both hands, I catch the box and lay it atop a ten-pound bag of Idaho potatoes. I look up. The empty aisle is jammed. Blocking my path are four loaded carts and six children. A morbidly obese man with folds of red-streaked flesh sagging below gray cut-off sweat pants maneuvers his motorized cart perpendicular to the shelves. He presses the reverse button, but the cart doesn’t move. I turn and look the other way. There are five carts spread about and cluttering the aisle. No exit. One four-year old boy is break-dancing on the dirty linoleum. A finger pokes me in the side. A smiling, elderly woman with oxygen tubes in her nostrils drove the basket of her motorized cart into my thigh.
“Sir, could you please reach up and get me two of the mid-sized baking sodas? I love baking soda. I use it to clean and disinfect all my surfaces.”
My chest tightens. I want to ditch my cart, escape and shake this low dose shot of claustrophobia. No one is going anywhere. I fake a smile, reach for the baking soda, and put two boxes into her basket. I wait for the jam to disperse. Nobody moves.
He is flying London to Philadelphia. There are eleven seats across and he is in Row 28, seat F, in the middle of the middle of the middle. On both sides, he is pinned by the jutting elbows of two hulking men. They both wear heavy black suits of the sort he associates with sweating Mormon missionaries. Three infants scream in the back, getting louder as they feed off one another. The jack for his earbuds lies buried under a mountainous arm. Maybe the airbus will land in only six hours.
I am shivering on a frigid February Super Bowl Friday in a compressed queue of six or eight across, wind chill down to eight, waiting forty yards back for the doors to open for tonight’s Sixers’ game at the Wells Fargo Center. They are playing the Miami Heat. My daughter, son and I are part of a jubilant, upbeat crowd. We are all pressed tightly, but no one pushes, no one cuts in. It is a gentle, benign, and companionate crowd. Two days from now, the Eagles will play the Patriots in the Super Bowl. No one can believe it. The town is filled with joyful foam and upbeat juju. The crime rate is down. Every now and then, a group of people starts singing the Eagles’ fight song amid much laughter and cheer.
At exactly seven p.m., there is movement up by the glass doors. The freezing crowd remains calm and patient. We slow-step forward and wait for our passage through the doors, where we will empty our pockets and step through a metal detector. Weaving through the crowded corridor, the three of us find our way up the steep incline to our upper-row seats. From the aisle at row five, I turn and look down the steep incline. I wonder why more drunks don’t tip over the clear plastic balcony guard and tumble into the crowd below. By the time we reach our seats, I not only can feel my toes, but I feel at home amid this sold-out crowd of strangers. It’s not simply a matter of being with two of my children. It goes beyond individualities to a tacit sense of tribal belonging.
Shortly before tip-off, a celebrity I never heard of bangs a corny Liberty Bell mock-up three times with a hammer. The crowd roars. The pre-game video on the overhead, four-sided screen presents a rap-a-delic montage of Sixers’ action scenes trading off with Eagles’ playoff highlights. The crowd screams and screams.
At half-time, we walk the swarming concourse and I am reminded that crowd immersion is seldom complete. Even when I find myself singing the Eagles’ fight song with a scruffy band of eight or nine male drunks, I remain wary. Just in case. One of the scruffy drunks eyes my oblivious, wine-sipping, beaming twenty-six-year old daughter. I know that a balanced crowd with upbeat juju can suddenly turn into an unbalanced crowd with bad mojo. All it takes is one punch. Even with the outrageous price of beer, there are more and more drunks as the game goes on. End of the game bad calls can make a crowd with too many drunks turn ugly. Philadelphia crowds are notorious for uncouth crowd behavior. Some of us have thrown snow balls at Santa Claus. Many of us have poured overpriced beer on the heads of Dallas Cowboy fans. If the calls get bad enough, some of us even lose it and start throwing stuff on the floor. When sports crowds leave their seats en masse and take to the aisles, things have gone beyond edgy. Even a euphoric college crowd rushing the court after the winning buzzer-beater can trample a child or a nice old lady. When a crowd goes into frantic motion, it usually morphs into something most of us will regret. At some point, we are no longer part of a crowd. We have become a mob, a loose-screw band of situational anarchists. We are well on the way to acting like British soccer hooligans. We are ready to fight and sometimes kill. Our explosive rage and violence are often indiscriminate. We are primed to throw rocks at the cops, set cars on fire, smash storefront glass, and start looting.
It is no wonder that minds so disposed have come up with something called Crowd Theory, Contagion Theory, and Convergence Theory. Even though as high school boys, we found ourselves mooing in crowded stairways, we are certainly not cows. We are not herded beasts. As mammals gifted with higher-order cognition, we claim to be more complicated than beasts and may well need such illumination as “emergent norm theory” might provide. We are less confident that a term like “deindividuation” makes any sense at all. We worry that Gustave Le Bon’s concepts regarding “submergence” and “suggestion” may be too deep for us to dive.
We’d rather remain close to shore, contending with everyday things. Wherever we look, we find crowds and more crowds. There are crowded classrooms, crowded prisons, crowded refugee caravans, crowded airports, crowded malls, crowded parking lots, crowded subway platforms, and crowded MVA offices. Some crowds have even become necessary elements of celebrated cultural rituals. Boozehound screamers converge on Times Square on New Year’s Eve and experience a rush of contagion as the Big Ball drops. Every four years in the January cold, partisan patriots come together on the National Mall for Presidential Inauguration festivities. Issue-focused crowds find their way on to the evening news. Crowds are marching because Black Lives Matter and crowds are marching for Neo-Nazi white supremacy. Crowds are marching for gun control and crowds are marching in opposition to gun control.
There are historical crowds that excite time travel fantasies worthy of Jack Finney or Stephen King. What if we could get into a time machine and go back and study a crowd screaming—thumbs down—in the Roman Colosseum? From an inconspicuous position, we would watch the crowd watch gladiators slaughter one another, or we would watch the crowd watch hungry lions or crazed dogs maul Christian zealots. As we watched, we would experience a stifled mix of horror and wonder. Were these privileged spectators actually people in the way that we are people? What does Crowd Theory have to say about them? Does cheering the hideous deaths of misunderstood outsiders have anything to do with “deindividuation?” While watching the crowd disperse, we would listen closely and not be surprised to hear, “Quod esset bonum. Eamus manducare.” (“That was good. Let’s go eat.”)
The Roman Colosseum in the era of Emperor Nero would be no place for the time machine to break down. We have other places to go, other crowds to see—the fed-up crowd of Frenchmen storming the Bastille on July 14, 1789; the jubilant crowd of freed slaves rushing on April 4, 1865 to swarm President Lincoln and son Tad as they toured the smoldering ruins of Richmond, the vanquished capitol of the Confederacy.
We don’t need a time machine to observe more recent historical crowds. YouTube qualifies as a virtual time machine. Any time we want, we can observe raucous street crowds celebrating VE Day on May 8, 1945; we can witness the multitudes gathered in Washington on August 28, 1963 for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; we can examine footage of one hundred thousand demonstrators marching on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War; we can study the traumatized New York crowd assembled in Central Park after John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980; we can observe the grieving London crowd gathered on September 6, 1997 for Princess Diana’s funeral.
Fortunately, literature provides a veritable time machine. Once we read a book, we are free to go back and drop in anywhere, skipping here, pausing there, re-reading all the good parts.
In one great crowd scene, Huck Finn arrives in the no-count, crumbling river town of Bricksville. He watches a man named Boggs roar in from the sticks for his ritualized “monthly drunk.” For twenty years, he has threatened a host of men with violent balderdash. He never hurt anyone. This time, he stops his horse, glares down, and asks Huck if he is “prepared to die?” Now, however, Boggs trashes the wrong man. After humorless, proud Colonel Sherburn decides he’s heard enough, he shoots Boggs in the middle of the street. The transfixed crowd wants a better view: “The crowd closed up around them, and shouldered and jammed one another, with their necks stretched, trying to see . . .. the crowd pressing around just the same and the whole town following.” Everyone in the crowd wants to watch the dying man die and the hysterical daughter wail: “Well, pretty soon the whole town was there, squirming and scrounging and pushing and shoving to get at the window and have a look, but people that had the places wouldn’t give them up.” At the moment, the issue is not justice but spectacle. In depicting the jubilant, horrific energies of spectatorship, Mark Twain mounts a ferocious critique of indecent crowd behavior, especially the appetite for narrative replay: “Everybody that seen the shooting was telling how it happened, and there was a big crowd packed around each one of these fellows, stretching their necks and listening.” Boggs’ death even becomes the stuff of pantomime as an impromptu performance artist with a stove-pipe hat and cane marks out the spots where each man stood. His cane becomes Sherburn’s pistol. He shoots. He then plays Boggs. As the bullet hits, he falls: “The people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect; said it was just exactly the way it all happened.” Once tragedy has been converted into theater, the successful artist receives his reward: “Then as much as a dozen people got out their bottles and treated him.”
Huck Finn’s disturbing on-shore experience in Bricksville is not climatic, but merely episodic. It is one of many sordid encounters Huck has with a slaveholding, violent, depraved, and grifter-ridden society. Another great crowd scene is climactic and panoramic. In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s classic Hollywood novel of the 1930s, the narrator describes Midwestern crowds that flock to Los Angeles seeking palm trees and utopic bliss, only to be deceived and angered by packaged illusions. West’s diagnostic fiction skewers false idyllic promises peddled by the movie industry. The disenchanted fantasists embrace the compensatory thrill of violence: “They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.”
Near the end of the novel, an impatient, unruly crowd at a Hollywood movie premiere waits for celebrities to arrive and preen on the red carpet. A bored, obnoxious child actor named Adore throws a stone and hits the bullied “automaton” named Homer Simpson in the head. Homer snaps and viciously assaults the child. The vengeful crowd attacks, thrashes and probably kills Homer. Protagonist Tod Hackett, a set designer and painter, tries to rescue his friend but finds himself engulfed as crowd chaos morphs into mob rule: “There was another dizzy rush. Tod closed his eyes and fought to keep upright. He was jostled about in a hacking cross surf of shoulders and backs, carried rapidly in one direction and then in the opposite.” Spasmodic crowd fury flings him about: “He was the spearhead of a flying wedge when it collided with a mass going in the opposite direction. The impact turned him around. As the two forces ground against each other, he was turned again and again, like a grain between millstones.” Bruised, battered, leg throbbing, a plaything of runaway human energies, he saves himself by clinging to a railing and thinking about his magnum opus. In his prophetic, apocalyptic painting entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” he tries to encapsulate the failure of America. On a large canvas, he illustrates the city overwhelmed by an inferno, “a great bonfire of architectural styles.” In the center, a deranged, exultant “mob carrying baseball bats and torches” chases Tod Hackett and his friends as they flee into the foreground. With anarchy proliferating, the artist can do little more than seek a wavering point of refuge in the therapeutic representations of his work.
Across from the busy cannoli shop, facing the boardwalk crowd flowing in both directions, with the setting sun half an hour high, Walt Whitman leans and loafs on the two-way memorial bench, his back to the tumble and roar of the fierce old mother, the sea incessantly breathing broad and convulsive breaths.
Unnoticed, just another bearded bum on a bench, Walt wears a Stetson hat tilted left at a jaunty angle and an open collar white shirt with sleeves rolled over his forearms. His loose pantaloons billow on his outstretched legs. His dusty, scuffed brown boots lay crossed on his ankles. Walt’s hands spread along the top of the bench as if to embrace, enfold and contain the multitudes passing before him. He feels elated that they are here, his folks, this powerful, pulsing convergence of common people. His America is always changing, always the same. The long ago ferry crowds departing Brooklyn for the tangled streets of lower Manhattan reassemble in this parade of congregated individuals streaming north and south on this planked seaside promenade. Within the moving mass, Walt sees the young blond-haired mother pushing a stroller. A two-year old boy with jingling blond curls leans forward, both hands clutching the cross bar, his curious, bulging eyes consuming the dispersed and reforming crowd. Amazed by the flaring lights, he absorbs gleeful shouts and pelting laughs. Next to the stroller, the blond eight-year-old daughter walks with proud, serious steps, her right hand holding a bouncing yellow balloon. Rushing past her and jostling the balloon is a barefoot young woman in a blue two-piece swim suit. Bright red sunburn sears her back. Her thumping feet bang the boards, while flecks of sand cling to pale white ankles. A young husband wearing a Phillies cap pulls a red Radio Flyer wagon carrying two young brothers. The dark-haired six-year-old carefully licks and sculpts the top edges of the melting strawberry ice cream cone. Behind him rides his impatient four-year-old towhead brother, his full moon face smeared with chocolate ice cream, his teeth crunching the crumbling remnants of a brown waffle cone. Walt sees a gaggle of black teenage boys laughing, pushing and slapping as they follow close behind a clutch of stalwartly marching, giggling black teenage girls. Walt sees the old married couple trudging slowing on the outermost edge of the crowd nearest him, sees them hand in hand, undeterred by sagging, wrinkled flesh, in no hurry, the good race almost done. Walt sees the Mexican husband wrapping his arm around the shoulder of his Asian wife, he wearing a blue tee-shirt and pink flowery shorts, she wearing a bright orange linen dress. Walt sees the black family of four—mother, father and twin boys—cut through the crowd on their way to the Water Ice stand, weaving without touching, a perfect passage, deft and lively, ignored and unremarked. They are divinely ordinary, no longer beset by the vicious blood hate that brought the Great War and unforgotten deeds of fraternal carnage.
As he rolls back his eyes, Walt finds himself pleased to see America passing in a vast discordant march, the crowd moving north and the crowd moving south. A crowd huddles in a slow-motion line before the serving window of Thrasher’s French Fries. A crowd forms around a blind man playing guitar and singing love songs, the open black case a repository for crumpled dollars and scattered silver coins. A crowd forms a fluctuating sphere around discount racks selling Ocean City tee-shirts, scuttling sand crabs, piles of beach blankets and stacks of boogie boards.
Seated on the bench, inconspicuous—peering and absorbing—Walt feels at peace with the heft of present things—the things of the dying day, the sun descending, those lengthening streaks of fading light, the seagulls aloft, oscillating and diving deep. Amid flux and reflux, with the tumbling surf grumbling behind him, he tallies all who pass and all who linger. The spectacle remains and the players remain, showering prolific, splendid extravagance on the refulgent earth.
Walt removes his arms from the back of the bench and withdraws his booted feet. Standing, he stretches lax, workman’s muscles. With a full deep breath, he saunters forth—healthy, free, the world before him, going where he lists, his own master total and absolute. Taking his bearings, he picks up his pace, now in step with the others around him. With the sun fully set, Walt Whitman turns off the boards. His boots slap and echo on the descending wooden ramp. After reaching the street, he takes one backwards parting glance and disappears for now into the crowded dark.
John Wenke's books include The Critical List: Stories, Melville’s Muse, and J. D. Salinger. He teaches literature and writing at Salisbury University, Maryland.