Today is Friday, the day I talk about the issues. Today’s Issue is: Passive Aggressive Territorial Claims.
A very specific case comes to mind, about two years ago when I was at Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL for short). It’s a very large outdoor concert festival where there are about 8 stages playing live music, 4 going at a time while the other 4 set up for the next act. About 75,000 people are in attendance and the park isn’t all that big, so it fills up pretty quick.
Now I was a 5-year veteran of this festival. I had run the gauntlet of standing in front of a stage all day. That doesn’t sound too bad until you add up all of the difficulties this entails. There are about 5 people in every 3 feet by 3 feet square when you get that close. It gets claustrophobic very quick as people are pressing on all sides. It’s impossible to sit down as it takes too much space, and even if you manage it, you are probably going to get trampled at some point. All the while the Texas sun is beating on everyone with an 85 to 105 degree heat. It’s like that for about 6 hours, and if you leave to use the restroom, get a drink, or get some food then you can’t get back to your spot in front of the stage. It’s a certain kind of insanity that I only reserve the big name acts that I’m most excited to see.
That’s one severe end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is for the casual music fan who doesn’t want to survive an experiment designed to test the limits of personal heat stroke. There is a chair section for this kind of fan, where he can set up a lawn chair and enjoy the concert, although from a much further distance than your front row mob. The chair section is much more spaced out, can be navigated by an experienced festival goer to the point that refreshments, restroom trips, and venturing to other stages is possible. The trick is, you need to find a spot big enough for your chair.
The first day of the festival I had survived a 6 hour vigil, pressed tightly in with the rest of my fellow MUSE fans. I tend to be the oldest guy, as the sweatlodge of the front row is a game for the young. The festival draws heavily from the nearby universities and high schools. These students form tight alliances in the front mob, and with some careful planning it can be quite pleasant for them. I’m a lone wolf wolf-pack when I venture up there. I stood through 6 hours and two other concerts in order to be in the front row to watch MUSE. When I saw MUSE I lost my mind and it was amazing. I shouted, I sang, I laughed, I cried, I lost my voice, I stomped my feet, I jumped in the air, I punched enthusiasm into the sky, and threw more than one person around in a body-surfing extravaganza. I also was dehydrated, exhausted, hungry, sun burned, sore, and a bit delirious when the night ended.
The second day I wasn’t feeling up to repeating the process. My feet hurt, my body hadn’t fully recovered from what it had been through, and I just wanted to take things easy. So for the second day I took a lawn chair with me to go and watch the Black Keys from the chair section. The park was already filling up, and about 35,000 people were gathering to watch the Black Keys perform. Being an avid festival goer, I took to pushing my way forward. There are tricks to this. The first is to not look at the crowd, that’s just a good way to panic and give up because it is so impossible. Just look 10 to 20 feet ahead and navigate that. With practice it becomes easy. With no effort I can navigate to the back end of the standing section, which is where the chair section begins. Today, however, I just wasn’t feeling it. I was going to leave this stage after the Black Keys, so I wanted to hang back a bit to give me a quicker exit. It took some doing, but I found myself a spot. In the middle of a swarm of people there was a hefty sized blank spot, so I walked up to it to set up my chair.
The spot I had found was large, probably six feet by six feet, which is unheard of for how far I was forward. I took my chair out of my bag to set it up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see a guy sitting in his chair, leaning forward and looking very cross. He was in his mid 40’s, kind of a thin guy, wearing dark aviator glasses and a visor. He leaned to me and shouted (not because he was that angry, but because you have to shout in order to be heard in that kind of crowd) “Hey, I’m saving this spot for my friend.”
I gave him a thumbs up, showing him I understood. There are no rules about saving spots. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if you aren’t there, then the spot shouldn’t be yours. Still, I respect the system of saving space because other folks in my group do it and it’s a festival where everyone should get to experience it with their friends and family. I can easily find another spot that isn’t ‘theirs’. ACL has a rather laissez-faire attitude about claiming territory, and generally it works out. However, I wasn’t about to give up on this other spot that his friend didn’t need, so I set up my chair. Like I said, the area was six feet by six feet. I plopped my chair down on what I gauged was more than enough room for the guy’s friend to come and sit between us. It was a ludicrous amount of room. However, I could tell that the guy was getting angry.
“Hey!” He shouted at me. “I said I was saving this spot for my friend!”
I nodded and smiled at him, giving him two thumbs up this time to show him that not only had I understood him the first time, but I was understanding him a second time as well. Both times that I had understood him, I was abiding his wishes for a spot for his friend.
“Get a load of this guy!” he started shouting to no one in particular. “I’m saving a spot and he practically sits down on top of me!”
The few chair folks around him had to look around to who he was pointing to, and I guess a few of them figured out it was me, but it was hard to tell. I could lean at him and stretch with all of my tenacity and still not be able to reach him.
“What an [carrot-face]!” He kept going on, lamenting his woes to whomever would listen. I heard him call me several names, but decided to ignore him. At this point it was getting funny. This concert had some pre-game entertainment. I wasn’t really excited to see the Black Keys, but now I was going to ardently sit here to make this guy’s life a living hell by simply existing.
“Hey buddy!” he yelled in my direction. I ignored him, because he obviously wasn’t talking to me. I wasn’t his buddy. He’d just called me an [carrot-face]; ‘buddy’ must have been someone else. I just kept staring ahead, watching the crowd surge in and out of itself as people situated for the imminent Black Keys performance.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! This is my friend’s spot! Get out!”
I waited for four seconds to see what he would do. Would he throw a punch? He’d have to get up and walk over to me in order to reach me. Would he throw something? I was ready to catch anything he threw my way, but by the look of things it’d either be his hat or his glasses. Either case, I’d just keep it. He just kept shouting at me, reiterating how this tract of land was his, so I finally turned to him and curtly asked “How fat is your friend?”
This shut him up. Up until this point I had been pleasant. I had abided his wishes, I had smiled, and I had given him three thumbs up total. Questioning the obesity of his friend caught him off guard. It also made him angry. I can only imagine because his friend is so incredibly fat that his friend didn’t like to talk about it because it was a sore subject. The guy’s friend must have been massive to need more than a four feet by six feet area to sit in. A similar area at the front of the stage could have held 15 people all crammed together. For those of you that don’t do well with spatial reasoning, that’s the size of a fold-out table. The absurdity of it all was very entertaining, and I had to fight the impulse to break my tough-guy exterior and laugh into his face.
I went back to watching the pre-show techies as they adjusted their cameras and lights, climbing up and down the scaffolds. Sort of. Out of the corner of my eye I was watching what this guy would do. He was so angry and there was no reason for it. I found it hysterically funny. His friend had more than enough room to set up two chairs. This random guy didn’t get to claim the entire park just because he had a ticket to ACL. I had one of those also, and had just as much right to sit well outside of the space he had saved for his friend as anybody. This isn’t Oklahoma and he wasn’t a Sooner; this spot wasn’t his just because he said so. He was just pissed because he wanted to be pissed, and I wasn’t going to let him tell me what to do just because he was throwing a temper tantrum.
He stood up. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point, so I kept an appearance as if I was ignoring him. At the same time, I was gathering my feet underneath me in case I needed to stand quickly. If he wanted a fight, he’d lose, and no Texas jury would ever convict me of standing my own ground. If he wanted to verbally accost me that was fine because I could just sit here and laugh and make him all the angrier until his heart exploded. I just didn’t know what he was up to. I don’t think he knew either, as he just planted his hands on his hips and adorned his best ‘tsk tsk’ act.
And then he started packing up his chair.
I didn’t believe it. He was going to give up a glorious spot for no reason at all. There was his spot, his friend’s spot, room for another friend in front of me, and room for still another friend. I wondered if this guy went to the movie theater and got mad if anyone sat in ‘his’ row. Maybe he lacked depth perception. I was a bit disappointed in him; if he left I wouldn’t have anyone to entertain me with their absurd notion of personal boundaries.
But the show wasn’t done yet. I knew what he was going to do before he did it, because I saw him planning it on his stupid face.
With his chair packed up, the man dropped the chair so that it’d fall over towards me. It landed harmlessly on the ground, because there was an absurd amount of space between where I sat and where he stood. I shook my head as he demonstrated for everyone how generous I had been with the space I’d saved him. Undeterred, the man walked to the top of his chair, stood it up again, and proceeded to drop it a second time so it’d fall in my direction. This time it hit my shoulder and then fell to the ground. He walked to the front of his chair and proceeded to bend over, bumping me with his hip. He picked it up, and dropped it again so it landed on my armrest, then gently nudged me with his arm as he recollected it. All the while he kept sarcastically uttering “excuse me, sorry, pardon me.”
I ignored him. He was livid. I could tell he wanted to get under my skin, and ignoring him was driving him maniacal.
He got in my face and yelled, “Maybe now you’ll be more respectful when someone saves a spot!”
I turned my head and acted surprised, as if I didn’t expect to see him there. My facial expression was carefully crafted to express many complex thoughts at once: smugness, superiority, dismissiveness, pity, slight confusion, nonchalance, and a complete lack of craps that I gave about him. With a careful amount of slight annoyance I asked “Are you finished?”
There he stood, slack-jawed and stupid. He wrenched up his chair and turned to leave in a huff, when he almost collided with several unexpected members of the audience. While he was going through his crotch-display ritual to impress the other baboons, two teenagers had plopped down their chairs on the exact spot he had been sitting. A third was almost smacked by the man’s chair when he whipped around to make a big show of leaving.
“Hey mister, are you leaving?”
It was too perfect. The man huffed off, but not before he saw that not one, not two, but three people could have fit in the space that he had been saving for his comically corpulent friend. I howled with laughter and saw him grip his fists into white-knuckles as he stormed off to the back of the crowd for absolutely no reason at all.