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Human Touch

Monday, 30 April 2012

Bruce Springsteen--"Human Touch (live)" (mp3)

NOTE:  Having had an extraordinary experience at New Orleans' Jazzfest last weekend, I find myself wanting to draw larger conclusions from that experience.  I plan, for the reader's sake, not to dwell so much on Jazzfest itself as on what it revealed to me about the human condition.

Think for a moment of your day-to-day interactions.  How many people do you see in a day?  How many do you talk to?  How many do you pass by?  How many get close to you, maybe even violate your "personal space"?  Most importantly, for my purposes, how many do you touch?

Is it not amazing that when we ponder the human race on this substantial planet, we base most of our conclusions on the hundred or so people with whom we might have significant contact in a given week? 

Shift gears to a large music festival like Jazzfest.  Probably, even before walking inside the festival gates, we've had encounters with many more people than that--overheard conversations, observations, sizing ups, maybe even a few smells, bumps, or jostles.  All of those people wanting to get to the same place at the same time. 

All of this came to me when I was standing at the edges of a massive Bruce Springsteen concert last Sunday.  My friends had decided to stake their claim on a close spot and therefore to spend their festival day in one place near the front.  I imagine they have their own observations about this topic.  I had been 15 or more places by the time I reached the imminent Bruce concert late in the afternoon, and so I had to try to carve out a kind of last-minute place to stand.  I chose one of the walkways that led into the concert on the right side, and there found a place to stand behind the sea of chairs and blankets in front of me.

"Do you think it's okay if I stand here?" I asked the woman next to me. 
"It's fine with me," she said.  "I'm just looking for my brother and his wife out there."
"Good luck with that," I said, gesturing to the mass of humanity before us.

The place where I quickly established my squatter's right stood at the edge of an informal thoroughfare.  And even though the population density in front of me seemed as if it could handle no more, people streamed behind my left into all of those people.  Sometimes, they side-stepped and maneuvered their way to my right as well, those people who had outposts that they needed to get to despite the tight quarters.

As this continued, most people that passed behind me either bumped me forward or hit my elbow or brushed me with their portable chair or rubbed me leg to leg or tried to take up their own residence.

It does something to you when you get touched that much by that many people.  At one point, I decided I would just count the touches for a minute and extrapolate from there to try to figure out how many people I had come into contact with.  But when I tried to keep that mental count, it broke me quickly, the simultaneous bumping and the attempt to keep count of it.  And then the steady movement inward, followed by the ways people move once the music starts, and then the steady movement back out after three or four songs for those whose expectations were not met for whatever reason, meant that contact never really ended.

But what does it do to you?  I was not angry or irritated; I was not overwhelmed nor was my concert experience undermined.  I didn't even get claustrophobic. I just sort of withdrew inwardly and absorbed the blows like a fighter, not wanting so many body shots to be able to take any kind of toll on me.  I kind of said to myself, as I think back now, yeah, I'm a part of all of this, and much as there might be a temptation to put myself above it, I couldn't.  It was a place I had entered willingly and I could not distance myself from it.  All of us were hot, sweaty, crowded, purposeful. 

Most people I know, myself included, claim to want to avoid crowds, claim to want not to go to the places where the crowds are, but then that same crowd becomes the essential, collective "organism" whose one voice and one sound spurs on a performer or even a movement.  We claim not to want to stand in line to get what we want, but we also know that if the line wasn't there, we probably wouldn't want it, whatever it is.  Who wants to go to a rally for someone/something no one else cares about?  Who wants to eat in a restaurant that no one else thinks is any good? 

Attending a festival is a good lesson in the larger humanity that we avoid on most days.  We meet a larger sample of those fellow citizens whom we don't know.  We remind ourselves that others in a given situation want no more than the same thing we want (a space, a vantage point, a tasty foodstuff), and that is no crime. We discover that most people are polite and mannerly and apologetic if they intrude.  Most of all, we realize that we are a part, not separate.  Most days don't teach us that.

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