At home in a crowd

Sarah Vowell's 'American Squirm' column appears every other Wednesday in Salon

Published March 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I used to think audiences were appreciative collections of fellow
citizens. These days, I see them as those random monsters that have been
showing up on recent episodes of "The X-Files": unpredictable, living,
breathing organisms that creep up out of drainpipes or the front yard and
mysteriously attack. All they seem to want is blood.

Last weekend, I performed at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. Well, maybe "performed" is too big a word. Let's say I gave a reading. Let's also say that I read the same story in front of 1,600 public radio listeners in Seattle the previous week and, not to brag, I killed. To people whose listening habits include weekly addictions to Bob Edwards, Cokie Roberts and Carl Kasell, I'm apparently a real laugh riot. But to people who flew in to see Jerry Seinfeld, a reunion of the SCTV troupe and Janeane Garofalo, I'm one big dud. I condemned Jay Leno at one point in my story and someone actually hissed. I felt as though I were speaking some foreign language, that the people in front of me weren't my people, and they were more than willing to freeze me out in hopes that I'd crawl back to where I came from. I felt -- what's the word? -- hated.

I slumped home from the airport and went to the movies -- "Payback"
starring Mel Gibson. My damaged ego was liking the name. Plus, I wanted to see it because of the ad campaign, which claims, "IT'S FUN TO ROOT FOR THE BAD GUY!" I sat in a movie theater in my own neighborhood and listened to my neighbors laugh while Mel Gibson's character stole money from a homeless man's hat and kidnapped a kid on his birthday and shot about 800 people in the face. I don't know whom I hated more, Mel Gibson or the audience around me. They were having fun rooting for the bad guy, and all I wanted was for their beloved on-screen serial killer to point his gun off-screen and mow them down.

So it's been a pretty lonely week out here in the entertainment killing
fields. The more I mope, the more alone-in-a-crowd memories keep rushing back at me. Like the moment when I was watching the Lifetime network (motto: "Television for Women") and I first noticed that all the commercials were for cleaning products and battered women's shelters and credit cards with pictures of cats and I realized the composite portrait of my gender the network was painting was of a woman with a black eye holding a kitty in one hand and a can of Pledge in the other, which is enough to make a girl flip over to ESPN. Or the first Sleater-Kinney show after they broke and the audience that had previously consisted almost entirely of slight, 18-year-old girls was suddenly bursting with beer-guzzling tall guys -- in hats! -- and I was so sick of pogoing just to see the band that when one of the tall guys bumped into me and didn't apologize, I shoved him into the stage and his forward lurch parted the crowd the way Moses did the Red Sea. Or a They Might Be Giants show in San Francisco the day after that meanie Pete Wilson got elected governor and the huge but kindly crowd was sweetly, obliviously singing along with a good-natured song about Belgian painter James Ensor and I just stood there and stared at them, yelling, "Did you people vote?"

Like all former cult members (I was a Pentecostal until I was
16), I've gotten over losing my religion. But I will never get over losing
my congregation. Because I know what it's like to be in a room where
everyone's singing the same song. I have heard, to use a sappy word, harmony. I keep looking for it in public places, finding it occasionally. There was that one night after a Nirvana show in Dublin, singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the sidewalk with every teenager in town.

Nature, though, sometimes trumps art. Lake Michigan has the best audience I've ever seen. There are whole summer weekends at certain beaches in Chicago where the promise of America is actually fulfilled, where the Mexican family barbecues next to the black family's picnic next to a gay volleyball tournament across from where the elderly Poles stroll. In such crowds, under the sun, no one hisses and no one sits disagreeing in the dark. No one's a spectator, or maybe everyone's a spectator, spectating everyone else, looking people in the eye, greeting them, "Nice day, isn't it?"

Still, I prefer good art with a good audience to a day at the beach. I
care about man, not nature. And I'm always waiting for that moment in front of a screen or a stage when my smile looks like everyone else's, when a whole roomful of people breathe more excitement than air, when we're backing something en masse. Did you see "Rushmore" on opening night? It was like that -- rows and rows of folks giving it a break, so desperate for surprise, so hopeful. We gathered together and asked Bill Murray for grace. And Bill Murray heard our prayer.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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