I suffer them in silence, for the most part. When I must go, I troll through them with a heightened sense of awareness, always looking for wolves & sheepdogs. Whenever I go into a bar, I try to find the bad guy and the good guy that would get my back if a fight broke out. In crowds, it's like that too. These are my basic instincts gradually being educated.
Recently, I attended my third JazzFest in New Orleans. And on that Saturday during the Elton John concert, I was in the biggest crowd I can ever remember. It was packed. Took me 20 minutes to move 100 yards in the 80 degree sun.
When you are in a crowd at a concert of an artist that you never heard of or are not particularly fond of, it gives you an opportunity to witness first hand what it is like to be in a foreign culture. The strangers there will dress in clothes that you don't find particularly appealing. They will chant lyrics to songs you simply don't know. They will dance and gesture in unison to strange rhythms. The odd thing about this particular experience for me was that I actually do know a lot of Elton John songs, more than I remembered before hearing them, but they simply didn't resonate in me with the same level of enthusiasm. No big deal, it's all just a party. The same thing can be said for New Orleans itself. It's a city, a crowd, and I am surrounded not only by people who respond to different rhythms, but different ideas about place and most importantly different laws.
Like Las Vegas, Daytona Beach and Orlando, New Orleans is one of those uniquely American towns that is largely defined by the kinds of celebrations it hosts for people who come to visit. We all understand that there are things you do in these places is out of joint with your normal life. In New Orleans, like no other place I know, you can order an alcoholic drink in a bar on one block, take it outside and finish it in the street or in another bar across town. While the rest of us have a set of dangerous thoughts associated with 'open container', in New Orleans that's what all containers are supposed to be. All the time. Laissez les bon temps rouler. So you're likely to see a bunch of drunks stumbling and sometimes even crawling through the streets.
My brother Doc, LAPD officer who works LA's Skid Row, gave me two indicators on homeless folks with regard to their state of relative desperation. The first thing to identify are the shoes. If they are barefoot or wearing shoes in complete disrepair, chances are that they are very poorly off. Good shoes make a big difference. Next, check the face. A man that doesn't wash his face has given up hope. These were things I noticed in New Orleans streets, but also that almost none of them carried signs advertising their fate and soliciting aid. If you're a bum in New Orleans, people pretty much expect that you're just a bum. No cares given.
It has been about as impossible for me as for anyone to keep the national fracas over policing out of my ears recently. What strikes me about policing is the extent to which cops are the Krell to the public will, whether or not the public states it's will publicly. Police in any city express the id and superego of those who get elected. There's really no way around it. People get the police department they demand. If they want people who drink in public, piss in public, panhandle in public, sex in public, smoke in public or whatever to be molested or unmolested, the cops will respond accordingly. If you want crackheads or methheads busted, that will happen. If you want gangs taken down, that will happen. If you want green cross dispensaries left alone, that will happen. One thing I've noticed about cops is that they are machines in service of department policy. They can't give a crap about public opinion on the law. They enforce it at the direction of their sergeants and captains all rolling downhill from the chief.
Anybody who has walked the streets of Salt Lake City, Detroit, Boston, Brooklyn, Houston, New Orleans, knows that street wisdom in different neighborhoods is different. What works in Park Slope Brooklyn does not work in Brownsville Brooklyn. People's expectations of public behavior is very different. What provokes people to call 911 is very different. Around the corner from me is Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Back to back bars as tightly packed and overflowing as any block of Bourbon Street. But I'll never see tits flashed or public barfing on Pier Avenue. We allow a different level of drunkenness here at the California Beach than down off the Old Man River. On the other hand, I'll never hear live roadhouse blues or straight ahead jazz of any quality in Hermosa that compares with that in New Orleans. The McDonalds on Pacific Coast Highway and Diamond in my neighborhood is packed full of retirees reading newspapers, some craftsmen with their crews off for lunch, moms with strollers and a gaggle of high schoolers. The McDonalds on Canal Street & Roosevelt in New Orleans has more people hanging on the sidewalk than inside. They're selling smoke paraphernalia there. I recall when I lived Uptown. The McDonalds there was all about how much you could get into an argument with the staff. Every night was an almost fight.
If there's a point to all of this observation, then it goes hand in hand with what I hope we Americans understand with greater respect. Communities form themselves unequally, and they diverge. That's what we want, and we need to stop enabling people who would pressure us otherwise. What reasonable people hate is monopoly and monoculture. Sure if you're a frequent flyer like I used to be, you want Starbucks and Marriott Courtyards to be the same wherever you go in the country, but in other things you want inequality, divergence. Not to assert any notions of superiority, but to get in where you feel like fitting in that week or at that point in your life. There's nothing worse than the set of fools who seek to homogenize American life to their comfort zone. Liberty and justice for all does not imply conformity in the social domain. That's why there is no social justice, only justice.
I want to get out of the crowd. I want to listen to my own music in my own neighborhood. I don't want America to be just one big crowd that says 'ho' when the man on stage tells them to. I want multiple stages where I don't have to hear the music from one, and I can walk across the field to another group when I feel like it. I don't want to hear that the rules for Baltimore apply to Detroit or that the cops in Seattle are the same as those in Miami. If McDonalds can be different, why can't we all?