Comfort zone

imagesWe are jammed and crammed. Two objects can’t occupy the same space, but this law of physics is proving to be more of a guideline at the moment. I don’t mean to bump and grind the guy in front of me. That’s the last thing I want to do, actually. But I’m being relentlessly shoved forward through a too-narrow space on Broadway near Times Square which has been converted into Super Bowl Boulevard in New York City the night before the Super Bowl.

Fans are kicking footballs through a goalpost to my left. A beefy man in a Denver Broncos shirt has just nailed a field goal. He pushes out his chest and thumps himself hard in celebration. I notice as I shuffle past him, but I’m too busy helplessly buggering my way forward in half-steps to care.

Robyn knew this was going to happen. She tried to warn me. She didn’t really want to come here. But she did. I can feel her behind me. She’s merely a domino in a long chain of dominoes like me. I am laughing at the absurdity of it all. I can feel her rolling her eyes at my back. Robyn tells me later that the woman behind her is the one actively propelling us all forward by shoving her through the mass of people like a human wedge. So, we are in wedge formation moving through Super Bowl Boulevard, which seems appropriate. Uncomfortable and weird, yet appropriate.

You get used to tight quarters in New York City. Sometimes it feels like you’re playing an unsanctioned game of Red Rover with the bands of tourists who crowd around near the 911 Memorial Gift Shop on the corner of our building. They like to stand and chat in clumps of five completely blocking the sidewalk. You learn to use your body as a battering ram to get through such roadblocks. You don’t try to run anybody over. You just slow down and keep moving forward as you bump through the knot of visitors and keep saying, “Excuse,” me until they part to let you pass.

When I was a kid, I played Red Rover at Hurley Elementary School on the outskirts of Salisbury, North Carolina. We stood in long lines and chanted names of children. When they heard their name, they ran towards us in a fury, trying to break through our joined hands. Sometimes the irresistible force of a boy rocketing toward the line met the immovable object of two other boys determined not to break the chain. Either the boy racing toward the line would be nearly cut in half at the torso and hang there on the arms joined together for a moment, or the entire line might bow inward as two boys determined to hang on fell down under the onslaught.

The unwritten rules of when and how to jam into small spaces in New York City are not hard to understand. You force yourself into a tight space when you can or feel you must and stand down when you don’t want to force the issue and can afford to wait.

The elevators in our building are usually sparsely populated. But then there are days when it feels like everyone in the entire 22-story building is trying to leave at exactly the same time. I get on at the tenth floor with four other people. That’s not too bad. About as many strangers as you want to share an elevator with. But then we keep adding in more passengers as we stop at every other floor to the point where you look at the final person trying to wedge in on the third floor just hoping they’ll decide to take the stairs instead or wait for a less crowded elevator. Everyone else must be giving them the same look because they decide to wait for the next elevator.

You see the same looks on people’s faces when you are standing on a packed subway car that stops at a crowded platform. The car is packed beyond capacity. You couldn’t move if you wanted to. No one gets off at this stop for some reason. But about thirty people would like to get on. About seven people do get on, wedging themselves into the car desperately. The door to the subway car cannot shut because the last two people are not able to actually squeeze their bodies fully into the car.

The door keeps closing on them and opening again and closing on them. Some kind soul sucks in his gut and pulls them tighter into the car when it’s obvious that the majority of the car has been glaring at them and considering pushing them back out onto the platform so we can all get to work or home or wherever we are headed. I’ve never seen someone thrown back out of a crowded subway car they tried to wedge into, but I can imagine that happening under extreme circumstances.

The only experience that is remotely comparable to the nearness of strangers in New York City is standing in long lines in theme parks in Orlando, Florida back when we’d make the two-hour drive from our home in Ocala. But that was different because it was always single file, even if you did feel fairly intimately involved with their lives after a time because of the way the lines looped endlessly in on themselves through the stiles. When you are flanked on every side by people and pushed forward relentlessly by the person behind you, that’s different that waiting in a long lazy line to hop on the Haunted House ride at Disney World or the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios.

A thousand things are going on in New York City on any given night. Millions of people are thinking about what to do. When they all think about the same thing at the same time, it leads to a log jam of people all heading to the same restaurant or Broadway show or museum. In some ways, the crowd of people seems to certify your own good taste.

If it’s this popular, it must be great. I find myself thinking these odd thoughts sometimes. Validation by mob rule. If it’s so popular I can’t get in tonight, this is exactly the place I need to be. Another perverse thought.

So, we surge forward in wedge formation on Super Bowl Boulevard. There is no going back even if we wanted to retreat. Only forward in small steps. Graceless dominoes falling forward into place. Lock step marching in the madding crowd. This must be the place to be because absolutely everyone is here. A sea of people locked together in an impossibly small corridor.

This must be the place.

Comfort zone

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