You can be in a crowd in lots of different ways. You can be in a mash at a hard rock concert. You can be in Midtown Manhattan mid-week at lunchtime. You can be stranded on an Interstate surrounded by fast Ferraris, gutless hybrids and ferociously pollutin’ 18 wheelers.
Or you could be standing in a line as we did in the days before our modern cyber era (CE). Back then you had to line-up that in order to get so many things done that now take a few seconds on line. But in line, before CE days (BCE), it was a different story.
Take Registration Day at Cal for instance. BCE that was a ritual not to be taken lightly … after all your academic fate for the next several months, and perhaps forever, was at stake! And so too was your physical well-being! You could get hurt in that crowd of eager, motivated “type A” young adults … especially in Berkeley where crowds always seemed to teeter on the edge of unruly and unpredictable.
But sometimes there was a way around those long lines, as my roomie Ray, who could be a crafty bugger, proved the morning we arrived bright and early for Registration Day.
We were shocked, surprised and disconcerted to find a couple of massive lines stretching out for what looked liked miles! Both of these lines led to very large building’s entrances that opened to its different sections.
Ray decided we should wait a bit on the lawn about a couple of hundred feet from those entry doors, between those snaking lines, before resigning ourselves to a very long day of waiting. I know not how he intuited it, I guess it was a premonition of a spiritual nature, but within a few minutes of our arrival someone somewhere in the far reaches of one of the lines gave out a shout that the doors had opened.
It was a false alarm but the lines started to surge forward nonetheless and, in so doing, crushed several of the more forward thinking students who’d camped there overnight to be at the head of the line.
The result was a mess, a tragedy really. But, as the old proverb puts it, “It’s an ill wind that blows no man good.” As proof positive, and as the medics carted out a blood smeared girl the crush of students had pushed through one of the tempered glass doors, Ray turned to me and muttered in a cold, analytical voice, “Let’s stay here awhile longer and see what happens.”
It didn’t take long. The doors opened and the orderly lines of students somehow degenerated into a chaotic mass of arms and legs and body parts ballooning out from around the entrances, expanding ever outward until it actually engulfed me and Ray!
At that point the crowd, which had taken on an identity and mind of its own, caught me and Ray in its surge, and like surfers riding a ‘big one,’ we were carried through the entry doors right up to the tables set up for our freshman class, thus facilitating our registration and rescuing the remainder of the day for less consequential, but far more entertaining, activities.
But like I said, all crowds are different and unpredictable. The one I found myself in to show support for those romantic, rampaging French students was as dissimilar from that of registration day as salt is from pepper. And like the registration day crowd that had morphed into something that nobody could have predicted, so too did that crowd morph in May.
At first, as I watched the drama of that afternoon unfold, I remained calm … after all I’d skillfully employed all of my military training and street smarts in finding a protected patio on Telegraph with an emergency exit into a restaurant. Perfect, like a foxhole fronting on a forest on a battlefield.
I kept my calm demeanor even as the cops closed the street to traffic, occupied all the rooftops and dosed the street lights, citing the crowd’s blockage of the traffic that was still flowing unimpeded … which confused us, to say the least. And as hundreds of the cops marched six abreast en masse military fashion down the middle of Telegraph, I remained calm. And even as they spread out, donned their gas masks and brandished billy clubs I was singularly unperturbed.
But then I looked around at the crowd smashing against me in the patio and saw standing next to me Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers, That’s when a ripple of anxiety started to disturb my calm. And when I looked to my rear and saw the waiters of the Mediterranean Cafe standing belligerently behind the suddenly locked and barred doors with fierce expressions and baseball bats held at the ready, those ripples of apprehension turned into whitecaps of worry and waves of real concern!
I looked back at Mr. Seale and politely requested, “Hey, would you mind moving over just a bit?” He chuckled, but before we could get a real conversation going a whistle blew, tear gas canisters exploded and cops charged through a fog of the noxious stuff swinging their nightsticks like Leonard Bernstein conducting the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture!
All hell broke loose and I found myself trapped in cage of my own choosing standing next to East Bay Police Enemy #1, Mr. Black Panther himself, Bobby Seale!
What a revolting development!
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