Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654
"I'm no more ready to return to what passed for normal than I was prepared to inhabit that normal when it was here before."

If we refer to a crowd of crows as a 'murder,' a crowd of HomeDespot shoppers might reasonably be referred to as a 'suicide' of shoppers, for the context seems to insist upon a shopper's acceptance of suicidal risk as the price of entry. The door monitor, outfitted in fetching blaze orange vest and weary-looking face mask, turns back no-one, but seems posted as a public genuflection to a government recommendation and not as any serious enforcement. The aisles might be marked with fresh masking tape arrows which no more than vaguely hint at a form of traffic control, but I don't know the layout well enough to understand how to get where I'm going should I follow their subtle advice. I don't even notice their presence until I'm halfway there and the side aisle seems to have been blocked off for some lift truck work. I'm stuck however I go. By the grace of one of the genuinely lesser gods, I find what I came looking for, but I abandon whatever hope I carried in with me when I see fresh chaos at the checkout stands, with unruly aisles-full of overfilled carts and impatient customers. I return my prospective purchases back to the shelf display from whence they came, wheedling my way past clutches of husband and wife tag teams leisurely blocking my way, and exit the store to slather my hands in sanitizer and slink back home. I should have known better than to have ever entered there, me and my surviving hope to find better.

My history with crowds and consequent Crow-Ding (that warning klaxon sounding in my head whenever entering a crowd) informs my relationship with them now.
I encountered my first truly huge crowd in New York City's Time Square, forty-five summers ago. Bored and seeking adventure, my to-be spouse and I invited two friends to drive into New York City with us. We found there a hot and humid Summer Saturday night, with molten crowds moving along Broadway at the approximate speed of a glacier. Once entering that throng, it seemed to move us along, for we were closer than shoulder to shoulder with a heavily sweating mass of fellow humanity. Nobody's destination informed that crowd, and I remember somehow navigating into a stinking little coffee shop just to escape the crush, hyperventilating. Today, they have mechanical ventilators for veterans of such crushes. Returning to our car required swimming upstream through saxophone buskers and steaming greasers. I barely survived.

Smaller crowds prompt flashbacks of that fear-filled night. I have avoided concerts all my adult life. When a festival appears, I tend to veer off in another direction—any other direction—to avoid the consequent crush. I drive around rush hours. I'll gladly drive an hour out of my way to sidestep heavy freeway traffic. I try to go to stores during off hours. I turn around when I find a parking lot too full, and often insist that The Muse enter without me accompanying when confronted with the opportunity to enter a shopping mall. Crowded restaurants have never enjoyed my business, or me, theirs. I'll willingly go anywhere crowds can't congregate and work hard to avoid the fairs, zoos, museums, and promenades where they do. Now, with Stay-At-Home Orders in place, I've found welcome justification for my native tastes. I hold a damned good reason to turn around and head home when encountering a potential crush. Almost nothing I might purchase carries anything like a rush order designation.

I understand that some find reassurance when lost in a crowd. They energize with loud noises. They revel when immersed in the happy hour cackle of half-drunk interns publicly demonstrating their inexperience with alcohol. They genuinely feel a part of something bigger than themselves when shoving their way toward their concert seat, and don't really mind standing in line for an hour to gain entrance to another swirling swarm. They mourn those aspects of the good old days I never grew to appreciate while patiently waiting in the car. The Muse might wend her way into a teaming Notre Dame while I find a place to sit on the plaza at the periphery of the throng.

The freeways seem to be filling back up again. A short fortnight ago, they carried a dystopian load, odd cars and more long-haul trucks while I felt as though I might have died and been reborn lucky. I could zoot from place to place without facing the usual crush, but the crush has started returning, turning the roads back into slushy processions, slogging along again. My library might be reopening soon, offering curbside service for those reserving books and a pick-up time. I'm missing my library space, a quiet corner surrounded by humble murmur and a stilted view of the parking lot. I could meaningfully contemplate there, safely separated from the children's program's bustle, out in the world without much of the typical hassle. That's not a drive-by-able experience, but anything to avoid the now truly threatening crowds. Some seem suddenly cavalier, readily returning to what was once so very dear to them, like ants returning to that once-familiar hill. A chill runs both up and down my spine when I hear my Crow-Ding alarm sounding. I'm no more ready to return to what passed for normal than I was prepared to inhabit that normal when it was here before.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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