At Musikfest, waiting for something to happen

The crowd, suddenly there where there was nothing before, is a mysterious and universal phenomenon. A few people may have been standing together – five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been announced, nothing is expected. Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are… It seems as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others. But that is not all; they have a goal which is there before they can find words for it.

― Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

What’s cool about Canetti is that he could be describing a neo-Nazi rally, an inner-city riot, or a big carnival like Musikfest in Bethlehem, PA, where I worked all week.

For me, the event was an outdoor sales ordeal intensified by thunderstorms, daily temperatures in the 90s and a cacophony of power generators, crowd noise and cover bands cranking out the greatest hits of the 1970s. For the crowd, it was… I have no idea. Who knows about crowds?

The crowd was small and then it was huge. Madmen babbled at the sky. Tattooed lover boys stalked giggly girls. Old couples sipped lemonade to stave off heatstroke. Women pushed baby carriages, dawdling forward as the sun beat down on their unshaded, screaming infants. No one moved fast except for kids and the grossly obese pilots of those silent go-carts that zip by without warning.

At night the crowd swelled and the lines at the beer vendors’ tents and the porta-potties grew longer. Thousands of strangers ate greasy gyros and drank from glow-in-the-dark mugs. They squeezed past each other, stopped dead, looked like they were waiting for someone to tell them why they were there.

They was waiting for a signal, it seemed, something that would focus their enormous collective energy. I felt an inkling of that energy only once, on the first night, when hundreds of young dancers at Wireless Disco, seeking shelter from a sudden downpour, converged on a big white tent that collapsed under their weight.

But this was only one small segment of the crowd, which covered several square miles. The rainfall was too fierce to allow people to come “streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction.”

Which was fine with me. I’d rather an ordeal than a catastrophe, so long as the ordeal results in a decent paycheck.

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