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My Brief History of Crowds

October 26, 2010

by Lisken Van Pelt Dus

My first impressions of crowds were the hems of overcoats, hands reaching down, dark trousers, and skies jigsaw blue or else filled with umbrellas. The sidewalk was punctuated by black shoes like a thousand unsynchronized metronomes.

Later, packed waiting rooms. At train stations, at airports. Hospitals. Long stretches of contiguous but discrete waiting.  Today we’re in a kitchen sounds from infomercial TV suspended above us, which some people are watching with an abstracted air. Others try to read, or flip idly through magazines. Many sit at a slight angle, trying to avoid shoulder contact with those next to them.

Sometimes the crowds are part of the point. Sporting events, for example, or concerts.

Loud. LOUD. Rahhhhhhh. GO. Roar of the pack animals, roar of the arms lifted. I’m bewildered for hours afterward. In the parking lot, mounting panic. Eventually I learned to pay attention, make a note of the car’s location, physically if necessary. Carry a pen.

Where have the tightest crowds been? I have a memory of being crushed in a crowd surge — but no memory of where or when… Clamped by the shoulders, I was lifted along by collective will, pushed and pressed into whatever shape the crowd commanded. Surrender was my only option, but it was also sweet, a release, a melding of my ego into the whole. Gradually the sense of compression, of mutual pressure, changed to discomfort. My memory stops somewhere during that transition. A bellow builds, and then goes silent.

Aloud, aloud, crowd. Nowadays I like to be alone, quiet in my home.  Even the highway traffic below in the valley annoys me now. And yet I still like to go to cities. I like to enter them by train, tunnel further by subway, burrow into the city’s heart. There’s a thrill to rush-hour travel underground, everyone going somewhere, this man with his chest to your back, this woman clutching her small son’s hand as he squirms against your leg. Cities with subways dig deep, rise high, live three-dimensionally, crowds swarming across levels, between levels.  My favorites are London and New York, but almost any one will do.

It’s a homing, for one thing, but it’s also a kind of protection. No one makes eye contact or says hello, and though they don’t do that much in rural New England, either, in the city it’s different. There’s no awkwardness in staring through someone, even at them. Come to think of it, sometimes you do actually make eye contact in crowds, but it’s a detached version, as if through one-way glass. That’s why I feel least exposed in a city, in a crowd, even though that’s where it’s most likely that someone is observing me.

I’m stuck in the age-old quandary: I want to be part of the crowd and I want to stand out from it. I want to push my wheelbarrow along with the rest of the foot traffic, and I want to crow like a cock above their heads.

Fortunately, crowds judge not. They take you in whenever you show up — always room for one more — and let you go without a murmur whenever you leave, closing seamlessly behind you. I step in less and less.

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Lisken Van Pelt Dus is a poet, teacher, and martial artist living in western Massachusetts. Her poems can be found in numerous journals, including Conduit, The Comstock Review, and Main Street Rag, and her first poetry collection, Everywhere at Once, was published this year by Pudding House Press.

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  1. Judith Bernal
    October 26, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Very engaging, Lisken, and that last paragraph is beautiful. Many thanks!

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