This party's on fire

It was Tuesday afternoon and work got too heavy. A break was called for, mindless diversion. My thoughts turned to an old favorite: a matinee movie. Ninety minutes of popcorn, soda and cinema. This sounded like exactly the ticket.

I could not have been more wrong.

It was not the film that failed — it was obvious going in that this action flick would earn no Oscars.

It was the experience: a solitary man armed with a mask, hand sanitizer and enough Clorox wipes to disinfect Congress, seated alone in an auditorium built for 300 humans.

I dozed off through gunfire and explosions. I lost what plot there was. My mind pinballed before hitting on a realization.

Some events, to feel right, require a crowd. Chalk up another act of destruction committed by this damned pandemic.

Eventually I gave up on the movie and compiled a mental list of great crowds I have been in — moments where the assembled humanity begins to crackle with shared energy, a sense of mutual joy, excitement, thrill, love. 

If that sounds hokey, I can only say that it was not at all strange in the moment. Like, say, the night of Nov. 4, 2001, when I was high in the rightfield stands on the night the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees 3-2 to win the World Series.

The last 10 months have featured less human contact than that single evening full of high fives, fist bumps, screams, prayers and — when at last Jay Bell danced across home plate with the winning run — hugs with complete strangers. 

Crowds will do that to us. You surely have your own stories, tales that run parallel to my parents taking my brother and I to see “Rocky” at Christmas in 1976.

I was 11, but I can still hear the crowd cheering the screen, the nervous chatter during Rocky’s battle with Apollo Creed, and I can still reimagine every boy who had been in the packed house boxing his way through the lobby afterward. 

Or a great concert. Not even 18 months ago, I spent a weekend in Texas for Austin City Limits — a bucket-list event. 

In dusty Zilker Park, tens of thousands of us gathered in a claustrophobic swarm to see a reunited Guns N’ Roses run through 20 hits, from “It’s So Easy” to “Welcome to the Jungle” to “November Rain.” 

That was Friday — old rockers, warm beer and the thick smell of weed. The next afternoon, when Billie Eilish sang “Bad Guy,” there was a solid mass of teenage girl dress-alikes who accompanied her with every word. They pogo’d when Billie did, crouched, twirled, prowled their little slivers of space.

Who knew at the time that would be the last crowd I’d be in for months on end?

Now watching events on television — old footage of Tiger Woods winning the Masters — I marvel at the way we once crowded together shoulder to shoulder. 

Most years, I wander out to watch the Waste Management Phoenix Open with 200,000 of my closest personal friends — sorority sisters in platform heels and microskirts, beery frat bros who heckle golfers at the 16th hole, and the hordes in Nike gear and Titleist hats. 

This year, attendance will be held to 5,000 fans a day. Question: Will a Phoenix Open with 97.5% less crowd be 97.5% less electric?

Turns out, I love the power of crowds. It’s a small loss among everything inflicted by COVID-19, but let’s hope someday soon we can assemble again unaccompanied by anxiety, 6 feet of social distance and the nauseating scent of sanitizer and Clorox.