Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Madding Crowd

If I were Muslim, I’d definitely lie to Allah and tell Him I was too poor and frail to go on the hajj. It would be a tricky lie since I’ve been to Egypt, Isreal, the United Arab Emirates and have Starbucks mugs—which, in my defense, I bought in Dubai—from Bahrain, Kuwait and, oops, Saudi Arabia. Or maybe I’d just come clean and tell Him I was afraid of people. He’d understand, wouldn’t He? But I’m not Muslim. The closest thing Christians in the South ever had to the hajj was the Billy Graham crusades. Luckily I went to one of those as a child before I developed my adorable fear of crowds—and to me, even two’s a crowd.

Keeping my fear of you in mind, follow me back to New Year’s Eve 1999/2000. I’m in London in a limousine, drinking cheap champagne with a dear friend, her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, six people I’ve never met before, and my partner. We’re all dressed up like we’re on our way to the prom and tooling toward The City. We’re playing Ricky Martin very loudly—in case you need a mental soundtrack.

The limousine costs us each twenty quid. The driver shows us off to most of London and then drops us off on the bank of the Thames to watch the fireworks, hyped to be the best fireworks display EVER. EVER.

From the tinted windows of a limousine, London sparkles with jolly old history, but in a matter of two hours after being dropped off, my elegant group of twenty-somethings are squatting to take a pee et al. in any structure that resembles a concave corner. Groups of penis-proud men are Manneken Pissing over bridges and into fountains. Suffice it to say, access to official public toilets is insufficient for the crowd.

London does only one thing right—Indian food; everything else is a massive cock up. On New Year’s Eve, the London Eye(sore) is supposed to open, but it doesn’t. The party at the Millennium Dome is marred by controversy with the ticket sales. The Thames is supposed to be a “River of Fire.” As far as I can tell it continues to be a “River of Water” the entire time all one million of us glue our gullible eyes to it. The fireworks display is OK; but the next day, when I see the Eiffel Tower spraying sparks like a gargantuan purple fountain, I have to fight back tears. EVER? Really?

Back to the Thames. The most exciting part of the London fireworks is the paper raining from the sky. As the sky becomes still and black again, all one million of us, covered in nuclear-fallout-esque ash, start to move toward the Tube. See, in London, there’s nowhere to park. Almost everyone comes into the city on the Tube. The traffic in London moves so slowly that you can walk home more quickly than the bus can take you. If you’ve ever tried to get a taxi late at night in London, you’ll know the burning reality of the phrase “not a snowball’s chance in Hell.”

“What’s the problem?” I say to the people in front of us. They’ve stopped moving toward the entrance to the Tube, which I can see about 200 metres away.

“Dunno.”

Suddenly the people in front of us have turned around and are moving toward us instead of the Tube, but the people behind us are still trying to go forward.

“Wait,” I yell. “Don’t touch me!” This imperative goes unheeded, and a man brushes against me . . . against my bare hand! You can imagine the electric shock wave pulsing from my left ring finger to my temples. But then things get even worse.

Women scream, our mental soundtrack takes a dark turn with lots of oboes, and then someone yells, "The Tube's closed due to overcapacity."

“What? And so they just closed it?” I say to one of my friends who’s now got her face squashed against my chest by the man’s arm that so inconsiderately touched my hand. “Didn’t they prepare for large crowds?”

“Wuh-buh, suh-suh-buh,” she says, slobbering on a perfectly new shirt. “Buh.”

The weight of a thousand people is a phenomenon I hope you never experience. A strong arm—I lift weights—can keep a dozen people from crushing a small woman next to you for a while, but if the pressure builds—which, thanks to my hysterical screaming, it doesn’t—it can be as unstoppable and deadly as a pyroclastic flow.

“Stay calm!” I scream at the twenty people around me, all pressing various parts of themselves into various parts of me. We sway together as if tossed by a raging sea. Someone starts humming “My Heart Will Go On.” OK, I can’t be sure of the exact tune, but the mood is dire. Long story short, push comes to shove, and I muscle our way out of the crowd.

Heavily petted but unharmed, we begin looking for alternative transportation to our home in Tooting, about thirty minutes from The City. There isn’t a taxi to be seen anywhere. Every bus in town is Jamaica full. People are hanging out of the windows and sitting on top. Safe to assume, they are all touching one another. We, along with thousands of other Londoners, walk home. It’s relaxing to walk in the cool, early morning air, far from the madding crowds.

In 2012, London will be hosting the Summer Olympics. I hope she’s learned something about crowd control in the last decade. I would like to attend, so I’m considering buying one of those enormous transparent balls to roll around the city in. I’ll be prepared this time. Hey, maybe I could lend the ball to my Muslim friends when they go on the hajj.

I must be off,
Christopher