The second time I was absorbed into a mass of humanity, I was living in Ankara, Turkey, circa 1973. A friend had invited me to a concert where some obscure Dutch rock band was performing. When we arrived, a throng had formed in front of the arena doors, and we took our stand in the growing, close-knit crowd. Over the next half hour or so, the crowd multiplied to thousands behind us and pressed forward so that I was encased like a twig in a logjam of Turkish men who desperately needed showers.
When the doors finally opened, the mass of us heaved forward and ebbed backwards so that no one of us had any control over whether he moved hither or yon. There was a current to that crowd, and miraculously, no one drowned or was trampled in the undertow. And like toothpaste, I somehow became squeezed upwards and as this enormous organism slowly was consumed through the entrance doors, my feet never touched the ground.
The object of this hysteria, I came to see, was not so much the blaring rock band itself, but the band’s sexy, prancing, taunting, peroxided lead singer in her skin-tight jeans and platform heels. I was much taken by how the audience was much taken by her. The all-male, all-wide-eyed spectators seemed to experience a simultaneous hard-on. They frothed, leaned in, spellbound—pacing he-wolves smelling heat. And a half hour into the set, the singer seemed to retreat from provocative and sassy, to back on her heels, to very ready to board the next Orient Express and get the hell outta Dodge.
This is the memory that jogs when I see reports of the human swarms that storm and stomp through stores in the wee hours of Black Friday. Theirs is a similar frenzy where the promise of a rockin’ sex fix is the equivalent of a rockin’ shoppin’ fix. But while that band from the Netherlands, and especially their diva out front, took a scary look into the abyss, the purveyors of Black Friday bring it, and bring it again, and bring it to the max. Those customers who are trampled to death and those who miss out on deeply discounted supplies of digital machines are portrayed as tragic casualties of so much friendly fire.
The first time I was swallowed by a mob, I was only six years old. It was the last day of school at Jim Cherry Elementary in Alanta, and as I stepped from my classroom with the dismissal bell, I became swept away by a stampede of now-freed children as they raced down the hallways and out of the building. These were the back streets of Pamplona and the bulls had just been released. Outside, there arose a great and hysterical noise as the whole student body raced from the building and shrieked a constant chorus of unbridled joy. And so I ran, and so I hollered, as that contagious ecstasy overcame me as well. The time had come to break those shackles, to ring in a summer of recess and of barefooting day after hot day down the red dusty road to our Georgia swimming hole.
That was in the late fifties, when the black kids across the road were segregated from our school, and when we regularly safety-drilled in case the Russians attacked with The Atom Bomb. One of the teachers at Jim Cherry configured his classroom desks in the shape of a Confederate flag, and the principal often used a belt on disrespectful boys. The next year, at seven years old, in broad daylight, I would sneak out of my classroom and run away from that school. No longer could I abide the terror wrought by my stone-faced and withered teacher, always clothed in black.
Several blue moons ago, some friends and I went to the Fourth of July fireworks in Traverse City, Michigan. To access the beachfront area where the best views were had, the crowd had to walk through a tunnel under Grandview Parkway. There was no pushing or shoving, but the going got very slow as hundreds of people had to funnel through the dimly lit corridor. When we started through, I felt, suddenly, herded like an animal. Because it seemed so fitting, I, of course, began to baa like a sheep. My friends, in kind, thought this was a pretty funny thing, and they, too, began to baa like sheep. The crowd around us then, as they beheld these eruptions, began to laugh, and also started to bleat. How odd it must have seemed to those people who had just exited the tunnel, that a distressed flock of sheep had just wandered into town behind them. And for a very long time afterwards, the humans who entered the tunnel caught the spirit and bleated like their predecessors before them. Now oriented to a barnyard sensibility, it was a cheerful audience that night that watched the rockets’ red glare, chewing, I imagined, on alfalfa.
Something there is that does not love a riotous mob, especially one that lifts you off your feet and takes your breath away. But when push comes to shove, and if the stakes aren’t too dear, the plaintive voice of a sheep, or perhaps a cow, can provide much needed perspective. But if the objective is freedom—pure, sunlit—allow the human stampede its full reward.
Tom Bohnhorst is a social worker and lives in Traverse City, Michigan. In 1973, he spent a harrowing night in a Turkish jail. He also has a blog called Poopiderum.