The Madding Crowd

Photo by Vishnu R Nair on

I’ve always had an aversion to being in a crowd. There have been too many times when I felt a total loss of control over my situation as I was literally moving in tandem with the people around me with no other possibility. I’ve left college football games with the feeling that I was being herded like a calf. I just kept moving forward step by step hoping that I would not fall and be trampled by the surge of bodies pressing against me. As I grew older and less confident in my ability to stay on my feet, I learned to wait in my seat until the initial flow of humanity had left the premises. 

Most of the time I’ve laughed at myself for being a bit too claustrophobic and admitted to feeling silly for becoming so anxious in a moving mass of humanity. I have generally been strong enough to hold my own in any situation. Decades ago when the Houston Rockets won the National Championship I attended a parade in honor of their victory in downtown Houston with a friend and one of my daughters. We arrived early for the event and landed a curbside spot that was guaranteed to give us a fabulous view of the players as they passed. We had to wait for quite some time but we didn’t mind at all. We had come prepared with water and snacks and an upbeat attitude. 

Everything was fine until just before the event started. Suddenly people from behind us began to push forward in an effort to get a better view. My daughter immediately showed us how to lock arms so that we would be able to keep our footing without being pushed aside. Her strategy worked and the efforts to move us stopped. I felt victorious in standing our ground, but also had a bit of concern as I thought of what might have happened to us if anyone had fallen with the pressure from behind.

I’ve had countless similar encounters and I have found that as I have grown older and less able to withstand pushing and shoving. I worry more about being hurt in a crowd these days. I’ve had terrifying experiences getting on and off of trains during rush hour in New York City and London. I solved such dilemmas by timing my travel during off hours rather than sparring with my fellow humans when the throngs were at their peak. 

When we visited Buckingham Palace a couple of years ago I was enveloped in a sea of people. I was just beyond the fence behind very large men who never thought to notice that if they had let me stand in front of them we all would have still had a wonderful view. It was a young girl who realized how anxious I was becoming from being encased in the sea of tourists. She sweetly pulled me to the front where I had room both to see and to breathe. 

By far the worst situation I have ever endured was at Epcot in DisneyWorld on New Year’s Eve about fifteen years ago. We had spent the day there with our children and grandchildren and decided to stay for the fireworks display in the evening. The crowd had grown and grown as the hours passed and it had become difficult to walk from one place to another. Nonetheless we found a spot for gazing into the sky where we parked our little ones who were resting in strollers. The two bigger boys were helping to watch over them and entertain them until the pyrotechnics lit up the sky.

Just as with that Rockets parade latecomers began to push their way into our area, seemingly oblivious of the little children who were with us. One woman almost knocked over the stroller where my youngest grandson sat in her attempt to get a good view of the proceedings. We were surrounded by people before we totally understood the danger of the situation. My husband and sons-in-law each hoisted a little one high above their heads and me and my daughters held or lifted the older children. The crowd was raucous and a few heated comments were exchanged but we all managed to delight in the dazzling display, thinking that the danger was behind us.

When it was time to leave a violent and convulsive pushing of bodies began. My eldest daughter had to get aggressive with a woman who thoughtlessly almost stepped on one of the children. A war of words ensued as my daughter made it clear that thoughtless adults were endangering children all around them. When the other people in the crowd realized the seriousness of the dilemma they joined together to create a corridor through which we might pass unscathed. While I appreciated the group effort, I did not catch a normal breath until we were once more out in the open. I pledged that I would do my best to never again be in such a dangerous situation.

We all like to have fun times, to attend events that attract crowds. We go to rock concerts and parades. We visit the rodeo or watch our favorite sporting teams play. It’s almost impossible to totally avoid crowded situations without foregoing some of the most memorable moments. We rarely think of the inherent dangers in being in such places, and yet there is always an element of potential harm when people are pushing together.

Sadly, we have endured a terrible tragedy in Houston this past weekend, one that was supposed to be fun and provide a sense of normalcy after so much heartache from COVID-19. A festival of music in the complex that once was home to AstroWorld attracted thousands of people to gather just to have a good time. There were folks of all ages in the crowd, including young children, when something went terribly wrong. For some reason there was a collective surge forward. Those standing closest to the stage were compressed and crushed. There was no place for them to go, no way to escape. Before the hysteria stopped eight people had been injured so badly that they died. Hundreds more were hurt. It was a devastating situation for those impacted by the tragedy as well as for our entire city. A collective sense of grief and wonderment that such a thing could happened hovers over us like a shroud. For me it is particularly stunning because I know how quickly a moment can turn from delightful to dangerous.

I don’t know how to make large gatherings safer, but I do believe that we have to find ways to try to do so. I suppose that if we were all to use our own common sense as well as a genuine respect for each other such disasters would never happen. Sadly there will always be those who don’t seem to notice the needs of those around them. They push and shove and start a chain reaction with devastating potential. Fun turns to horror when we don’t help each other. I feel fortunate that when I most needed others to help keep me safe there were heroes who stepped forth. I am grieving for those who were not as lucky. 


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