Register Saturday | March 17 | 2018

Before Your Very Eyes

On being part of a crowd

When I was fourteen, I was hit by flying blood at a boxing match. I had a ringside seat next to my father and his friends. They had season tickets. It was a big deal to be invited. I was graduating from the realm of kitchen and car-my motherís realm-to my fatherís. I was now old enough, tough enough, normal enough to be in a crowd of real people. It meant that I could be average. And it was frightening.

Even while we waited in line for our tickets, I felt physically threatened. The Halifax Forum was an industrial coliseum made for the most primal of spectacles: it was bare concrete and brick and smelled of urine, hot popcorn and animals. It could house cattle and horses; it could withstand riots. We were herded into its darkness as if onto a slave galley, in a hard clamour of shouts. It was impossible to tell if the yelling was angry or exuberant. There seemed no distinction in that place.

I had seen boxing on television, but I had not been prepared for the sickness I felt on witnessing pain, actual human pain, close up. I could see the mist of sweat shaking off the fightersí heads with each thudding blow. And the violence of the crowd behind me was-well, it was thrilling, as so many frightening things are.

One boxer was being beaten. His head kept snapping back, his mouth loose and his eyes half-closed. The crowd was on its feet and the noise was deafening. I couldnít believe the referee wasnít stopping it. Even my father was saying, "Stop it now, stop it." And the referee did stop it, but not before I felt something warm spray my face and arm and looked down and saw the red speckles on my sleeve.

I was a little young for this experience. It did more than horrify me-it got me hooked. Now, I feel the same nervousness on entering any stadium, for any purpose: I feel a faint nausea as I move through the concrete tunnels toward the roar. The fear is the thrill. The rawness, the intensity of what violence, what emotion, what trauma might occur. And Iím not just talking about what happens on the field.

To enter a large mass of humanity, we dress as if for battle. Look at David Niddrieís photographs of fans: here is a blandness of costume so meticulous it must be significant. Spectacles require suits of neutral utility, the kind of thing we would wear for painting or camping. There are no clothes too casual for a car race, for a soccer match. It is as if we are dressing to enter the combat itself.

I always remember the violence of those boxing fans: the drunkenness, the cackling, the urge to do as they did. It is solidarity with other humans that I seek in fandom. To watch is to be not on the stage. To watch is to accept anonymity-or rather to accept being subsumed into an undifferentiated mass. This in itself is thrilling: it is an assertion of humanity.