The Creative Energy of Crowds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I miss crowds.

I miss a packed Dodger Stadium in the bottom of the ninth, the fans on their feet, stomping and screaming and willing a hit.

Or the Hollywood Bowl on a summer evening, be it jazz or Beethoven, as long as I’m there with my wife, a bottle of wine, and lots of people.

How about a Broadway theater? Nothing like being front row, center, for a hit like Chicago with the legendary Gwen Verdon (as I was one night long ago.)

Heck, give me Langer’s Deli at lunchtime as I munch their famous #19 pastrami on rye, with the chatter of random conversation all around me.

I miss the bustle of the streets in downtown L.A. and midtown Manhattan. Now those places look like something out of I Am Legend.

Will crowds ever come back? Will people ever rub shoulders again without masks or hypochondria?

Will big cities recover their beating hearts?

There’s a split of opinion on this. In a post that went viral, investor James Altucher says the New York he loved is dead, and will not rise from the grave:

Now [NYC] is completely dead. “But NYC always, always bounces back.” No. Not this time. “But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

“NYC has experienced worse”. No it hasn’t.

A Facebook group formed a few weeks ago that was for people who were planning a move and wanted others to talk to and ask advice from. Within two or three days it had about 10,000 members.

Every day I see more and more posts, “I’ve been in NYC forever but I guess this time I have to say goodbye.” Every single day I see those posts. I’ve been screenshotting them for my scrapbook.

This sentiment rubbed one Jerry Seinfeld the wrong way:

There’s some other stupid thing in the article about “bandwidth” and how New York is over because everybody will “remote everything.” Guess what: Everyone hates to do this. Everyone. Hates.

You know why? There’s no energy.

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.

You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? I have always wondered, why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why.

Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.

I get the part about energy. As a writer who spends quite enough time alone at the keyboard, I love the electric current of crowds. Sometimes I want people around me—people I don’t even know, people who are just there at the coffee house, the park, the restaurant, the beach. There’s scientific proof (“The science!”) that such activity is an aid to creativity.

Yeah, I can fake it a bit with Coffitivity. But that’s no substitute for the vibe of a crowded ITW bar (especially when Gilstrap is present). I want to be able to sit in NY’s Bryant Park at twilight, and people watch. I want to nosh chop suey in L.A.’s Central Market at noon as the life of the city churns around me.

It would be nice to someday see faces again, too.

Alas, even when large halls and stadiums finally open up, they’re sure to be tightly regulated. (The power to tightly regulate is a drug not easily kicked.) In anticipation of this, I’ve composed a new song to sing at Dodger Stadium during the seventh inning stretch:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the few.
Buy me some peanuts and Handi Wipes,
Keep me away from the talkative types
As I root, root, root in my face mask.
To sneeze or cough is a shame.
So stay six, eight, ten feet away
As I watch the game!

Do you miss crowds? Think they’ll ever come back?

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25 thoughts on “The Creative Energy of Crowds

  1. Yes, I miss crowds. I’m a city girl, being surrounded by people energizes me. I’m even having social withdrawal from giving up my daily walk with three other women, up and down the hallways of our condo building. It was also a wonderful way to interact with the other residents of the building as they went to and fro. As a substitute activity, my upstairs neighbor and I engage in a “walk & talk on the phone” for 90 minutes every day, with each of us in our respective lofts. (We recognize our husbands are saints for allowing us to engage in this disruptive pacing-while-chatting activity.)

    I think crowds will return, if and when we get an effective virus vaccine. Smaller crowds maybe, with random mask and glove use. Not sure how it will play out, but I believe there will be a new normal way of life for most of us.

  2. With so many bright minds working on a vaccine and preventive treatment, there’s cause for hope, I’d say. I predict things will start to normalize around November, for the wrong reasons, or will continue to escalate from then on, for the right reasons.

    The take on NYC strikes me as hyperbolic. The interests that are driving the city towards its spectacular demise are conjunctural, temporary, and therefore bound to change. But the piece gone viral would have been on point had it suggested that those who think they have much to gain by having Downtown Manhattan resemble a ghost town will try to keep it that way, if not worse, for as long as it suits them, and then blame the other side with a straight face.

    Heck, it will happen here on this blog as well.
    On a ***Saturday***.
    100% Guaranteed.

    🙂

    I live in a metropolis. Even at its lowest, it overflows with people, so to speak. This writer isn’t gregarious when writing, anyway.
    Oddly enough, now that you mention it, my WIP does open up with a crowd scene.

    Do take care, Mr. Bell.

  3. I write thrillers for a reason. And I’ve lived around DC for too long not to see nefarious motives driving our current miseries. I know many New Yorkers who hate the glitz and glamour ushered in during the Giuliani years, and long for the grit of 1970s Manhattan. Looks like the Dinkins days are coming back. Lord only know how many greenbacks I’ve dropped in the Big Apple over the years . . . At the ITW bar alone! But I’m done with it. It’s not safe anymore.
    I’m also done with hiding. I have a growing contingent of friends who gather together and dine and laugh and interact just as if we’ve had our rights restored. I’ve bought a patch of woods in West Virginia and we’re building our forever home there, surrounded by new neighbors whose homes I cannot see from my own, but who I know are there.
    If I feel the need to remind myself why we left the (sub)urban world, I’ll be within two hours of three cities. Can’t wait.

  4. Not a lover of crowds at all. I like a few people around me who I know. Trips to Costco are the bane of my existence. So, not being able to out and about as much isn’t hurting my heart any. (My first high school had about 3,000 kids; my second had a total of about 300…I was in heaven.)

    OTOH, I hate the part about someone *telling* me I can’t be out and about.

    A rebel at heart…a nod to Mr. Gilstrap. I might just go find me a crowd somewhere and join it just to make a point. Properly masked and carrying a yardschtick, of course. 🙂

  5. Though I grew up in the city, I much prefer the quiet of country living. My happy places include tromping through the forest thronged with wildlife, majestic mountain ranges, pine-scented air, and lying on a blanket with the hubby beneath a star-filled sky. I do miss kibitzing with strangers while at the lake, running errands, dining out, and of course book signings, but I have faith that this pandemic is a (long) blip in our lives and things will return to normal one day. I need to believe that, if not for us than for my grandchildren. The thought of them living solitary lives is too painful.

  6. I remember watching The Andromeda Strain in college. In the final scene, the protag had to climb through a narrow shaft while dodging laser beams. If he failed, an alien virus would cover the Earth.

    The audience was swept up as the hero fought to hold on to the ladder despite being burned by the lasers. Pure exhilaration!

    Years later, I watched it again on TV with my wife and daughter. Neither had seen it before, but none of us got as caught up in it as I was when I first saw it. We didn’t have the contagious emotions you can only get from a fired-up crowd.

  7. Nope, never been a crowd person, not even pre-corona. But they will be back. It’s inevitable.

  8. We bought a cardboard version in memory of my dad who’s sitting in Section 12 at Dodger Stadium, smiling and wearing a blue shirt. We’ve been “don’t like crowds” people for a long time. There are very few local events the Hubster is willing to go to because, “there will be too many people” and this was long before the pandemic. When I go to LA to visit my mom (when I used to, anyway), I’m a wreck before I’m out of the airport. All that concrete. All those cars. All those people!
    But people are still gathering in throngs–and spreading the virus–although I know those aren’t the sorts of crowds you’re talking about.

  9. There’s a lovely home for sale on an island in Maine complete with lighthouse.
    It’s tempting.
    I’m a chameleon. I’m okay with crowds. I’m okay with bring alone.
    I don’t think normal is coming back. I think too many people are scarred for life, afraid to come out and too many others relish the power of keeping others locked away.
    I hope I’m wrong.

  10. I used to attend so many conventions, conferences, fairs, exhibits, shows, and on. Aside from more writing time, the other thing I was looking forward to when I retired last December was not having to request time off to attend a con or a big party or go to a writer’s retreat. In the overall scheme of things, pretty minor as bummers go, but still a bummer.

    I do miss crowds. I miss the energy, the color, the variety, the excitement. I remind myself that this is likely not forever, depending upon the results of the current quests to develop a viable vaccine. Nine are currently in Phase-3 trials. I believe we’ll have a much better idea in December about whether or not crowds will return sooner rather than later.

    Meanwhile, I substitute by video chat on Zoom, Whereby and FaceTime, play board games with extended family and friends on Board Game Arena while video chatting etc. It’s not the same thing. I’m a hugger, and miss the hugging, but I’m lucky to have the most huggable person alongside me in our own private hermitage, my wonderful wife of 38 years.

  11. Do I miss the crowds? No. My days are spent with crowds of people clamoring for my services. I enjoy the weekends and days off hiding out with my wife.

    Do I think they will ever come back? Yes. The virus will “burn” through the population eventually – fast or slow. A vaccine will help if enough people get it. And people will take off their masks when they are “allowed to.” Just watch how many people slip their masks off whenever they can. As they lose their masks, they will gradually lose their fear, and regain the natural human craving to be with others of their kind.

    Like Mr. Gilstrap, I have been fortunate to have been able to buy a piece of solitude – the home where I grew up surrounded by 28 acres of woods. I look out the window every morning, longing for the day when I can stay home rather than go to work, and tell my wife, “Honey, this is paradise.”

  12. My idea of crowd energy is five or six smart writers around a table, brainstorming.

    In 2018, I had a wonderful trip to NYC for Book Expo and will forever cherish those memories. I’m glad I had that opportunity then b/c it will not be duplicated again in my lifetime. But it was exhausting to be around that much energy.

    Montana real estate is booming–out-of-staters madly bid over the asking prices for properties they’ve never seen.

    If Norm Langer wants to build a “delly” here, I’ll welcome him with open arms.

    • I miss seeing my writer’s group in person so much. We formed seven years ago as a brainstorming and support group (not a critique one) and have been inseparable. Now, we meet online. It’s a lifeline, but it’s not the same thing.

  13. I read Seinfeld’s thoughts. I had to disagree with him on one point. He said that the tough New Yorkers would rebuild NYC in both numbers and NYC spirit–or something like.

    What Seinfeld misses is that the tough New Yorkers were not the people who stayed there. The really tough New Yorkers were the ones who packed their wagons with food, not really knowing how far they could get before having to hunt to keep them alive, where they’d find water. Then they headed west, into the land that no one really knew yet. Into the lands that were claimed by the Indian people as theirs, claimed by the big cats and packs of animals that also thought they owned their territories. Many didn’t make it. But many did.

    The New Yorkers who stayed in Seinfeld’s version of New York, the ones who drifted into and out of bars and restaurants and watched movies and musicals that told them how tough New Yorkers are, are the New Yorkers that the old New Yorker settlers might well have dismissed as booze-and-sushi sissies.
    Such as those who drank and belched around the Algonquin table.

    Seinfeld among them.

    When New York gets going again with finally enough people to film all the NY cop shows, . . .

    Well . . .

  14. I’m not energized by large crowds, but I do miss getting together with friends. We also belong to various organizations that haven’t met in person for months and we miss the people and the vibe. On the other hand, if I’m going to be on lockdown, I can’t imagine a better scenario than being with the one person in the world I adore above all others and having the extra time to write.

    I’ve been thinking about the pandemic from the POV of history. The world has come back from worse disasters. I’ve heard the black plague killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century and returned at regular intervals to decimate whole cities. Fifty million people died in World War II, and entire countries were destroyed and had to be rebuilt. There have been famines and wars throughout history that wiped out civilizations. I hate to sound like Pollyanna, but wearing a mask and zooming for a year just doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

  15. The difference between an extrovert and an introvert is that a crowd energizes an extrovert, it drains an introvert. I don’t avoid crowds, but I don’t need them either.

  16. Poignant post, Jim. I’m INTJ, small town, love sports, but don’t often seek crowds. But when I’m swimming within one I’m reminded that I’m part of a diverse human tribe far bigger than me and that we’re part of something infinitely bigger than our tribe. And I like that.

    I think Mr. Altucher is swimming, too, past a shipwreck that we storytellers refer to as the all is lost moment. And we know that there’s more to follow, and that we’re a collection of main characters who have yet to write the ending.

    I’m an optimist.

  17. I can’t stand crowds. They didn’t bother me when I was young, but the older I get the more I hate them. And lines. Ugh! Lines drive me batty, and the pandemic has actually made them worse. SH is right. A house alone in the middle of 28 acres sounds like paradise.

    But I do like eating out in restaurants. I’m an excellent cook, but if I could eat out every meal for the rest of my life I would. I want my local restaurants to survive, so I get take out regularly, but that’s not the same. I enjoy concerts. Small to medium sized venues only these days. The largest venue I can tolerate is Chateau Ste. Michelle in the summer, and that’s with a reserved seat and a bottle of wine. And travel. I haven’t been on a trip since well before the pandemic. Unless you count my ill fated trip the other week to Mt. Rainier to see the wildflowers one last time. It was an utterly miserable experience, to use a too used word combination. Why? It was too crowded, and I went early on a weekday.

    So, yeah, I’m generally fine, but these inconveniences suck. But here’s the thing. Today somewhere between 800-1100 people will die of Covid, and tomorrow will be the same. That sucks way more than my being inconvenienced. So, ya know, I can live without going to restaurant or a concert or whatever until things are better.

    I really do believe that there will be a vaccine, or multiple vaccines, sometime in the next 6-12 months. Probably treatments, too. It may take longer than I would like, but I do believe that things will eventually go back to normal. The further you go out in time, the more normal things will become. We will never forget, but we will go on.

  18. I abhor crowds of more than three. I fake well, but I am extremely anti-social. I’m good for an hour or two but after that, I deep fade into the woodwork (if I am not there already) and slide out the door.

    That said, I believe that crowds will come back. They’re back already, actually, in some major cities, protesting, demonstrating, and rioting. For others, drive through neighborhoods of marginal reputation after dark and you’ll see gatherings of dozens/hundreds partying like it’s 2019. After-hours clubs are doing big business. I get it. People want to get out, at least for certain events, like bar hopping, sporting events, and concerts. We have a bitter state slogan here: “Ohio: where you can play high school sports but can’t go to school, and go to college but can’t play sports.”

    Jim, you mentioned Broadway. That has a lot of moving parts to it. The Great White Way is closed until at least the beginning of January 2021. Many of the restaurants that relied on the business of pre-theater guests (and taverns that slaked the thirst of post-show fans) may not be able to resume business, which may adversely affect the number of folks who attend performances. Jerry Seinfeld notwithstanding, I know of workers in at least two industries based in New York who are quite content with not having to make the trek from and to North and Central New Jersey each day. They find that they can do their jobs quite well from home. Will New York come back? Probably in some fashion. Those who find life there something to be endured rather than an experience, however, may not be.

  19. Bouchercon 2021 – New Orleans. A group of us international indies bowed out of next year’s conference – not because we don’t believe in the wonderful world of trad and indie publishing – but because of the travel uncertainty. I see a big move towards online conferences facilitating separate one-on-ones. It’s like Gilstrap and I can get virtual-pissed together over the net.

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