He's wrapped in an enormous scratchy green overcoat, army surplus from some toppled regime -- there's a label inside the inner pocket printed in an indecipherable language -- and grateful, too, at first, because the temperature outdoors hovers at around fifteen degrees not counting wind chill. Inside, though, the mercury rises maybe a century above that and the coat is intolerable. He can't quite remember where the coat came from, a girlfriend or a transient roommate or an unclaimed-goods dump or maybe a store, but it doesn't matter -- he feels an overwhelming desire to throw the thing in a corner and be done with it. He stops himself because he knows, dimly, somewhere at the edge of his consciousness, that if he did that the coat would be stolen and he would face a long walk home or somewhere else in fifteen-degree misery protected only by a T-shirt.
The room is probably in a basement, or has the feel of a basement, since it has no windows or ventilation and the walls are unpainted cinderblock. A flight of stairs may have figured in the entrance ritual but right now he can't be sure. The ceiling is only about two feet above his head. The room probably isn't too big in its two other dimensions, either, but just how large or small it is remains unclear because it contains what appear to be two or three hundred people, mostly in darkness, just a few sloppy streaks of light with smoke running through them, and a gigantic roaring noise emanating from its far end. As he stands there somewhere in the rear he discerns pain, several sorts of it -- heat, lack of air, the cramming and heaving and jostling of the crowd, the alternation of total darkness and blinding white light, and the monstrous pain of the noise -- although at the same time he's floating, not above himself (not enough room there) but within, where he can pick up each element of this pain and examine it dispassionately before replacing it with the others. He might not, at that moment, be capable of telling you his name, certainly not his address, even assuming he has such a thing. It is uncertain whether he would be standing upright without the wall of the crowd. He's merely there, facing forward and taking it in, like everyone else in his end of the room. He lights up a cigarette and it tastes good even though it seems to take an insane effort to inhale it. He reaches with two fingers, pulls it out of his lips to exhale, making a grander gesture with it than the space allows, feels a vague bump and sees that he has left a glowing circle in the back of the person in front of him. This causes him to flinch, as if he expects a punch in return, but the other party has failed to notice. But the circle expands as the garment appears to be actually burning. He doesn't want this to happen. He reaches forward and pats out the smolder, and that is what the neighbor notices. The figure whose face he can't see in the darkness spins around on its axis and lashes out blindly, thrusts out both arms and pushes, hitting him smack on the solar plexus, and he falls back, onto someone else, who pushes him forward again. He hits the character in front, who responds with a knee, which doesn't hurt since its impact is cushioned by the green overcoat, but its momentum thrusts him back once more, and then he doesn't quite know what happens. He feels a hurtling sensation and he can sort of make out a bumping, low-key fight that has spread to his whole neighborhood in the crowd. Arms are raised and elbows fly, and then a beer can arcs through the air and his head is soaked. With a huge effort he propels himself forward and to the side, aiming for the wall, and although he doesn't quite make it, as he eventually hits an unmoveable large body, he has reached a still place outside the fray.
Here he can see a bit better. Through the spaces between heads and bodies he can make out fragments of people, facing the crowd, in the lit area at the end of the room, as well as parts of instruments -- a bass neck, a high-hat cymbal, the pebble-grain texture on some stacked amps, a microphone. A head bobs up to the microphone, a nub-headed head, eyes like minus signs. It opens its mouth and coughs -- that's what it sounds like -- and the instruments fall to, wham wham wham wham. There's a tearing noise on top of a chopping noise on top of a hammering noise, all in four four. The singer continues to cough or whatever it is; the words are unguessable, whatever sense they contain lost to the angry bark of the voice and the huge rasp of the sound system. Every time the music starts up the crowd is cranked into compulsive motion -- heads and backs more than limbs. He feels it more than he sees it. From his viewpoint the scene is reduced to a line of broken light at the top of the black sheet which is his field of vision, broken more or less in accord with whether the band is going or has stopped.
But here and there maybe in a cigarette glow you can make out details: very tall guy in cheap vinyl jacket keeping eyes closed and punching to the beat as if engaged in contemplative exercise; two small girls with short yellow hair hanging on to one another's necks and swaying in drunkenness or grief or maybe in time; guy with balaclava pushed down over face exposing only eyes, nose and lips so that he looks like some sort of inverted jack-o'-lantern; big fat guy with shirt off and breasts bobbing; woman with eyes and lips so scored with makeup you could print a reasonable likeness by applying a sheet of paper to her face. And all of these personages have their doubles somewhere else in the crowd. A small number of styles are endlessly replicated: the white T-shirts gone yellow, the abused white dress shirts an inch away from separating into individual threads, the black denim, black leather, black vinyl, black lipstick, the clothing-for-the-needy overcoats, the shirtsleeves hanging off or baldly sutured with something like bakery string, the tights with half-dollar holes here and there, the gaudy bowling shirts with names on the back that allude comically to some other or previous version of life, the skinny arms with no muscle tone and maybe cigarette burns for decoration, the jug ears standing clear away from thin skulls, the homemade tonsures with clots of hair sticking up here and there, the occasional blue- or white-tinted head, the tiny breasts poking through mercilessly tight T-shirts, the biker jewelry and Mexican jewelry and jewelry made from shower-curtain rings and electrical supplies, the slogans and band names magic-markered onto shirts and coats and pants, the safety glasses and cat-eye glasses, the clod-hoppers and pointy shoes and sneakers and orthopedic boats.
He takes in very little of this. He doesn't care, really, as if the crowd were foliage or furniture. He's sweating profusely within his tent of green wool, almost feels a little faint -- an occasional efflorescence of white dots rises before his eyes. He's kept from falling into unconsciousness by his treating the music as a solid object on which he leans. The volume alone could be said to possess mass, density, weight. Between his entering the room and this point the music has changed for him, gone from being vaguely assaultive to vaguely interesting to dully remote to, now, a set of bars he can climb and rest upon. And he begins to need more of it. He is directed forward and he alternately barges and threads through the crowd, conquering foot by foot.
Up front the air is even thinner. The people here have that look of having won a prize, the prize being an open vista of at least five feet, open to the impact of unbuffered noise and light. The closer he comes to the front the more the people he is pushing aside hit him back, and although the coat effortlessly absorbs every blow he has to launch himself into the clearing as if through flames. He finally has a look at all four of the long-jawed guys making the noise, their affects ranging from preoccupied to irritated to absent. Their girlfriends and hangers-on are lounging against the side walls, thus trumping the status of even the first row of mere spectators. They have also obtained beers from somewhere and are drinking them. This detail makes him angry. He would like a beer very much and senses that in this place only the elite enjoy the privilege. It's beginning to make him angry, too, the way the four guys presume to stand facing the crowd, presume to own and wield musical instruments, presume to have contrived some sort of arrangement whereby they will stand together in one place at one time and deploy their instruments in synchrony, as if to mock the stiffs in the crowd who possess no such advantage. He doesn't understand why the passive bodies around him are permitting the charade to continue unchecked. He feels like the only one awake in a room packed with sleepers. He realizes that responsibility has devolved upon him, that he has been charged with the task of alerting the others to the danger. He steps forward and elbows aside the singer, who is taken off-guard and stumbles back against the amps, and then he seizes the microphone. The bass and guitar, startled, lose their momentum and hiccup to a halt while the drummer continues robotically, oblivious. He stands for a second holding the microphone, facing the wall behind the drums, then circles around. The crowd, he can see, is closing in on him. "Let me go!" he yells. "Let me go!"
Copyright © Luc Sante, 2002