Lock Down, Quarantine, Shelter in Place: I have never been so aware of the strange enchantment of being in a crowd.
As it turns out we’re actually pretty good as a species at improvised community.
For instance: Lollapalooza 2008 let out late at night onto a closed and emptied Michigan Avenue. The streets of downtown Chicago instantly filled with ecstatic persons walking and running up the center of streets like a jailbreak making for subway trains and hotel rooms.
You don’t know the person next to you or anyone for miles around. All you know is that they are like enough to you to buy the ticket and be there too. Maybe you see a pair of eyes across the way that freeze you in place, blue and exhausted asking a question of her friend. They stay with you even as they’ve been swept away in the rush of bodies and beings.
We’re mostly calloused to the magic. People are everywhere in greater or lesser numbers depending on where you live or work. They’re loud and inconsiderate and only familiar enough to be infuriating. But as modern humans, crowds are part of our make up, how we think and function.
Tim Flannery, in his book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, accounting the case for human society and the Earth in general as an interconnected super organism, quotes Physician Lewis Thomas. ‘We do not have solitary isolated creatures. Every creature is, in some sense, connected to and dependent upon the rest.’ ‘One way to put it is that the Earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”
Flannery highlights examples of animal societies acting like loosely organized mass organisms. He separates the levels of organization coming to the term “commonwealth of virtue.” Though Flannery uses these images and terms to ultimately interrogate the role of humans as a disrupting presence, imperiling life on earth, reading his book on a sort of soft lock-down in the era of Covid-19 my thoughts turned to the nature of human society. The way I had let the great gatherings of my life pass about me without really acknowledging their strange elemental importance.
Imagine it, complex creatures pushed into close proximity, strangers before and strangers after. Temporary communities. I don’t get into large crowds as a part of normal life. I don’t live in a large city. I don’t ride mass transit or go to a lot of large events. But I shop, I wait in lines, and eat at restaurants. And even if I had no plans to do any of that today or tomorrow the fact that it’s not currently an option makes it remote and compelling, something to be investigated.
With concerts cancelled, museums closed, sporting events thoroughly undone and the idea of a crowd for the time being relegated to the status of myth, I start to wonder. I look back at pictures and mental images and what’s the most striking is also the most mundane…the people.
In 2010 I was in Washington D.C. for John Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Reports had attendance at over two hundred thousand as I recall. I’ve been to the Bonnaroo Music Festival twice and Lollapalooza three times. These were massive transient communities of strangers that at worst were treated as an inconvenience by locals and at best as a central peg of the local tourist economy. Tens, hundreds, thousands of bodies with being as complex and continuous as my own, tripping past and peacefully contributing in tiny ways to a thing that became an experience, an event, or just a trip somewhere else as we sat quietly and were people, together.
There is an undeniable magic in it, in the cohesion and instinctive ability to function in such complex ways until it seems simple, second nature.
I wonder what others remember.
Does our current reality cast old memories in a new light for anyone else?