People get a certain look on their faces as they shuffle about events like this weekend’s St. Louis County Fair. They abruptly look up from their phones or fried snack with sudden optimism, a hopeful gaze that pierces even dark sunglasses. They’re looking for something or someone: a change agent to liven their world.
Most of the time, I’m not it. They look down again, or scan the crowd for better options. It would be very demoralizing if it weren’t for the fleeting exhilaration of finding people this way. Friends and lovers emerge from a sea of strangers like gold in the pan.
Sure, the experience comes with pitfalls, awkward avoidances and forgotten names. But some of my best memories come from the unpredictable chemistry of crowds. My wife and I owe our relationship to just such an encounter at the Hibbing Jubilee street dance. How many children owe their lives to the timing of their parents’ amble down the midway or some rough-and-tumble jamboree? Ours do.
I remember going to the county fair the summer after graduation. Like flies in a spider web, a group of friends from our school found each other near one of the exhibition buildings. The gathering was random, yet fated — as though magnets pulled us from the sea of strangers. We sat on the curb, commiserated on this being the last year at the fairgrounds of our youth. The fair would be leaving its historic location by the race track, north of Hibbing Community College (which we referred to as “Harvard on the Highway,” though many of my friends would gain degrees or job training there). The next year the fair would be held at its current location in Chisholm.
A girl from my class, in a white tank top festooned with the requisite ‘90s plaid, said something like “We’re going to be old someday thinking back on this day, the last Saturday night at the old fairgrounds.” The dull noise of the midway hovered in the air with the smells of fry bread and the industrial lubricants of the creaking rides. I remember how we laughed.
Today I walk into work from the side entrance to Hibbing Community College, some 40 feet from the exact spot my friends and I gathered that hot August evening. I’m usually carrying a laptop bag and a grade book, wearing a JC Penney sport coat over some wrinkled khakis and a dress shirt stretched taut at the belly. I’m still laughing, but for entirely different reasons.
Social media tries, but still fails to replicate the exhilarating power of crowds. For one thing, we self-select our online friends. We immerse ourselves in things we already know and believe. We visit sites that please us and avoid ones that don’t. Crowds offer no such customization. Everything of glory and shame in every community may be found in its rare gathering of spontaneous crowds.
Strange locals not seen anywhere at any time the rest of the year may nevertheless be observed lumbering at twilight through the gates of the county fair, high heels and facial hair, tattoos and trucker hats. We must reckon with the the politicians and carnival barkers, the old flames and abandoned friendships. We find a person crying, a person laughing and a person yelling within 10 paces of wherever we are. We remember that we cry, laugh and yell, too.
When we look up at the crowd we are looking for ourselves, reflected back to us through the faces of all humanity. We are looking for crude memories brought back to life, for significance in what we do and what was done. We are all somebody in the crowd, looking for an end to loneliness.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Aug. 16, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.