5 Places Where Society Inexplicably Breaks Down
We have rules. We have a government. Most of us wear pants. We have television shows and movies, and the enviable luxury to complain about those things. Looking around, it's easy to call us civilized.
But we're animals. We're dirty, dirty animals. Given the right context, we'll abandon all of society's rules and live like the crappy bastard animals we all are. Here are five of those right contexts.
The Post Office
I like to mail headshots and DVDs of myself waving politely to our soldiers, firemen and several random addresses, just to remind everyone what we're fighting for. As a result, I spend a lot of time in post offices, so I can confidently say that something happens to a person's brain as soon as they step inside. They see the enormous line (there's always an enormous line). They see a large set of computers and cash registers, but only two employees. They realize that a post office is essential, that they can't go anywhere else to get their package from A to B, because mail has not been privatized. In a world where you can do almost anything online, from having groceries delivered to your house to downloading the most specific pornography available, these gray, brick-and-mortar, piece-of-crap buildings have completely monopolized the "Sending Stuff to Places" business, and people are resentful of this fact. They feel like someone is forcing them to waste 40 minutes standing in a line, because someone knows that they had no alternative.
"Hi, I'm the only one in the world who can deliver your package, and it is not a priority for me."
It's the same feeling people get when they go to the DMV (similarly understaffed, similarly line-heavy and similarly useless most of the time). "I never need this building except for the few times every year when I do need it, and when I do, they spend every second screwing me," they think. You feel like some organization has gone out of its way to inconvenience you, specifically, and something in your brain temporarily snaps because of it.
At the DMV or the post office, unlike anywhere else, when someone enters and sees a line, they immediately don't believe it. They think, "No, no, this can't be, where's the line for -- I just want to mail this small box from this part of America to another part of America. Where's the section for that?" When they realize that the line is the line, they either leave (a stupid plan -- they still need to mail their stupid thing or stamp their license or whatever), or they accept the fact that they will wait on this line, longer than they'd ever anticipated. No one ever budgets their post office time correctly, everyone always assumes it'll be an in-and-out trip, even though it's never been an in-and-out trip, not once for anyone.
If you want to see hate on a person's face, go to your local post office and watch people. Watch them seethe with hatred while in line. Hear them audibly growl when one of the patrons in front of them forgets to fill out a form or asks to borrow a pen. I've been waiting in line for a movie or show or to get into a restaurant, and I've had pleasant conversations with strangers to pass the time, but never once has that happened in a post office. No one even offers an obligatory "This sure is a line, huh?" Everyone just stares straight ahead and uses their peripheral vision to scan for weaknesses in anyone who might be ahead of them in the line. Patience is gone, empathy is gone, logic is gone. All you care about is mailing your goddamned sweater to your goddamned aunt, and you are not eager to make friends in the process.
Races, Music Festivals, Conventions, Etc.
I don't go to music festivals, but I've been to big races and conventions, and I imagine the principles are the same, except in music festivals I assume people are probably peeing ... just always.
"Raise your hands in the air if you don't care! Now, keep those up if you're urinating, right now, so you don't lose your spot. That is, wow, that is a lot."
What outdoor music festivals, big races (marathons, half marathons, really popular 5Ks, if that's a thing that exists) and huge conventions have in common is numbers. I ran a half marathon in Vegas last December that had 44,000 racers. Coachella had about 60,000 people in 2009. Comic-Con had 125,000. The thing is, no organization knows how to handle this amount of people. Not one.
"Everyone, could -- if we could all calm down, there's -- I think someone died, somewhere."
And that's scary, because when I go to Comic-Con with thousands and thousands of other people, I'm so reliant on someone knowing what the hell they're doing, and no one does. That's bad for any large crowd, but especially these crowds. We're not just regular lost sheep, we're sheep who are full of electrolytes and adrenaline, because we've been training for a marathon, or we're socially awkward, generally uncomfortable sheep, because we're at a comic convention, or we're on lots and lots of drugs, because we're at a concert in the desert.
Before the start of my race, two groups of people (each numbering about 8,000) were both trying to get to the same place at the same time, but neither group knew where it was, and both groups ended up marching directly into each other. "We're trying to get to the ... thing," I explained on behalf of my group to what looked like the leader of the second group. "We're also trying to get to the thing, and we think it's where you just came from," they replied. "I don't think it is," I said, but my opponent refused to believe me. We marched and shoved until no one could move, and then 16,000 people stood still and stared at each other, wedged between two fences. For 10 minutes. It's amazing what regular people will do when they simultaneously realize they're a big enough group that no one could stop them from doing whatever they wanted. When no shepherd came to organize these two sheep gangs, we took matters into our own hands: We tore the fences down.
"I run a 5:30 mile, and I say the wall comes down."
There was no way to communicate or find answers, so we did what unruly mobs do, and we broke stuff until we were satisfied. Eventually we all got to the freaking thing or whatever, but only after we'd thrown out the rules of decency and safety that we normally wouldn't dream of breaking. We'd all heard cops telling us we shouldn't, but what could we do? We needed to get to whatever it was we were trying to get to, and there were just a few cops and so many of us that we had no reason to respect them. It's why people don't mind peeing all over themselves and rubbing their sweaty, muddy bodies on a bunch of naked hippies at Coachella. They'd never do that at a normal Kanye concert, but at Coachella, with tens of thousands of people in the desert, with no bathroom in sight? All bets are off.
That's what happens with big crowds. The rules change.
Stores, During the Holidays
Every year, you always hear stories about how people on Black Friday (the biggest shopping day of the year) will scream and fight and break down doors and occasionally stab people in an effort to get the best present. Retail stores become unholy dens of wordless, savage frenzies. But I'm not talking about retail stores, because I sort of understand that phenomenon. Someone wants to get the best present for their kid, so it makes sense that they'll knock a few people over to get it. If I see the perfect gift for my girlfriend or mom or brother, and you have your eye on the same gift, I'll murder you. I will do that and feel nothing. Fighting people in retail stores isn't an example of us rejecting our humanity; we're finally embracing it.
This is what we were meant for.
But no. I'm talking about grocery stores. The person who is at a grocery store on Thanksgiving morning is, without exception, the least stable person you will ever meet in your life. And the craziest thing is that there is a ton of this person. Two dozen people, and every single one of them is the craziest person you've ever seen.
"I'm gonna buy some FUCKING EGGS!"
I actually had the rare good fortune of going to a grocery store last Thanksgiving without needing to get anything important. I didn't need to sprint out and grab a nice dessert or a bunch of booze or a giant turkey to feed an entire family. This wasn't a desperate, last-minute food dash; I think I was buying sponges and light bulbs, or something equally pointless and well-stocked. And let me tell you something: In the land of the crazed, freak-shoppers all trying to get the last turkey, the man buying toilet paper and deodorant is king.
Dance, puppets, dance!
I could just sit back and watch everyone freak out. You'll see people randomly grabbing anything they can find. If someone has a grocery list and they realize most of the items were already sold out, they just panic and buy ... like, things. Whatever they can find that might, in some parallel universe, combine itself into a tasty appetizer. I watched a sleep-deprived man running around with his arms full of tomato sauce, vodka, cumin and Cheez-Its. Guy, if that's your contribution to the Thanksgiving party, they will not want you there.
"I meant to bring mashed potatoes, but all they had at the store was this, is that OK?"
Parking Lots After a Big Event
You've just left the concert or convention, and now you're ready to leave all of that stress behind and head on home and OH SHIT THE PARKING LOT!
I like to think that a species is a good, reasonable species if its chief concern is self-preservation. I see a thing that wants to keep living and I say, "Yeah, that fella's on the ball, he's got a good head on his shoulders." Success = survival.
So when I'm surrounded by a bunch of other crazed drivers in a dangerously busy parking-lot-induced traffic jam and I make decisions that actively show no regard for my own safety, I feel like I lose whatever soul I might have had before.
"For the next 10 minutes, God is dead and I'm the only real person left on the planet."
If I'm in a crowded parking lot, the hall that previously held the symphony or adult sex convention that I'd just attended suddenly becomes a bomb ready to go off at any minute, and I need to get as far away as possible, even if it means killing myself. Especially, in fact. If someone is trying to sneak his way into my lane, I'll speed up and do my best to flash him a look that says, "I'm ready to die. My soul is prepared; how is yours?" I want everyone to know that I'm just crazy enough to take this whole goddamn place down with me, a message I present via sexy and dangerous car-dancing (there's a lot of swaying and cursing and awkward forward-jerking that takes place). I don't do this in regular traffic; only in crowded parking lots. Survival becomes secondary to letting everyone else know that I'm the crazy one. "You all need to watch out for me because I'm not looking out for anything or, in fact, even looking while I'm driving right now."
But it's not selfish, because so is everyone else. Even if we all objectively know that things would be easier if we were all calmly and patiently navigating the parking lot with extreme caution, we lose that objectivity as soon as the parking lot monster shows its ugly head. It's the one time that the part of your brain that doesn't fear death (and, really, why do we even have that part?) overcomes every other part of your brain.
Airports During a Flight Delay
I know I've ranted and grumbled on this column a few times, but it's always been feigned outrage. I'm not an angry guy. Usually when I feel like I might get angry, I think about what I'd look like with a big mad-face on, and how silly that would look. Because when some people get angry they look intimidating, and others look like they're trying to poop. I'm in that second group.
"Whoa, you'd better not mess with that guy. He's shitting himself, currently."
If you suffered from Poop Face Disorder, you wouldn't get angry all that often, either.
As level-headed as I tend to stay, I am at my absolute worst as a human being in an airport terminal. I not only get angry, I lose all sense of empathy and reason. The night before a flight, I am the most organized and prepared person you will ever meet. I make a list of what I need to pack and I go through it. I clean my apartment. I pick out the clothes that will be comfortable and shoes that will be easy to take off at the security checkpoint. I make sure I have transportation to the airport, and I make sure that the people picking me up when I land know my flight number, so they can track it during the day in case it gets delayed. I reduce the amount of things that will be in my pockets to only the absolute essentials (passport, the ticket I printed in advance, a Spider-Man toy) and safely pack the other things that usually load my pockets (wallet, keys, cellphone, an additional Spider-Man toy). I triple check everything, and then I set three separate alarms (if it's a super-early flight).
But then I get to the airport, and everything except the caveman part of my brain shuts off, because in my head, absolutely every motherfucker in this building wants to stop me from getting to my destination, which means I'm allowed to fight them. Fight them with biting.
I don't know what it is about the airport that makes a person think they're the only one who needs to get anywhere, but that's where we're at as a culture. It happens to me every time I fly. If a line is long and I worry that I might miss my flight, I panic, because I feel like everyone else is there to inconvenience me. I'll suppress the urge to shout, "Look, I know all of these yahoos came to the airport to wait in line like a bunch of jerks, but I actually need to go somewhere. Somewhere important.
It's a strong sense of entitlement mixed with a total lack of concern for absolutely anyone who isn't me. I could march through an airport while hundreds of people around me die and I would just think, "Hey, that's their thing, I need to get to Austin."
But I'm not even the worst. Have you ever seen someone on standby, hoping to get a flight? These people are on standby because they've missed their original flight, and now they're hanging around on the off chance that there will be an opening for another flight. They're usually delayed by several hours, and their new flight, if they get one, will probably involve some inconvenient stopover in some other state. These people are the most miserable and haggard people you will ever meet. They circle airport employees like vultures. They loudly complain about how ruined all of their plans are, like their mild inconveniences are on par with being kidnapped and tortured ("And then someone at the counter was rude to me! And I was like, where am I, a Saw movie? Set in Communist China? With Nazis?"). They look at the people who do have tickets, and they size them up, mentally working out how hard it would be to murder someone, take their tickets and hide them in an airport bathroom.
Most of all, they lose all sense of reason. I fly a few times a year, so I've seen this exchange maybe a dozen times:
Employee: You are in this situation because you missed your flight, because you were late. And there are no seats left on this new flight.
Deranged Woman: But I need to get to D.C., you don't understand! I bought a ticket!
Employee: I understand that, ma'am, but you have to --
Deranged Woman: That's not good enough, I need you to get me to D.C., this is your responsibility.
Employee: We have a flight out tomorrow morning for --
Deranged Woman: No, no, no, this is your JOB. This is what you DO. Find me a flight, I don't care how you do it.
Employee: No, well ... well obviously you don't care, no one ever -- but that's not important, the point is there are NO flights to D.C. until tomorrow. I can't cha --
Deranged Woman: Fix it. I don't care, fix it. Give me someone else's ticket. Get me to D.C. Right now. You have 20 seconds to get me in the air.
Employee: I don't ... I'm not even sure where that threat could go ...
Deranged Woman: 19 ... 18 ...
And the weird thing? The rest of the other future passengers and I have no sympathy for this woman whatsoever. We all automatically assume "Well, she's not getting on the plane because she did something wrong. She's not as good at flying as I am. What a fool." Even though whenever we get delayed, it's not our fault, but the result of some giant airport conspiracy designed to screw us.
But her? She's an idiot, and we're happy to watch her scream her head off, while we feel nothing.
People are terrible.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's Senior Writer (ladies), and is prepared to die for his cause, provided his cause is getting out of Comic-Con's parking lot (cars).
Check out more from Dan in 7 Great Men in History (And Why You Should Hate Them) and Why Humanity Can't Get Past The 7 Deadly Sins.