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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003
I don't know when my dislike for crowds began, but from what I've seen happening at private dance and performance venues over the past couple of weeks, I think it might be serving me well.
There are plenty of venues, especially public ones, that are safe and tightly policed by their operators to prevent the kind of disasters that have recently occurred in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. I heard from one woman recently who was upset that Ruth Eckerd Hall has no center aisle and thought that was a safety problem. She should have noticed that the rows of seats are much farther apart than in most auditoriums and that the sides of the auditorium are virtually lined with exits. I can't think of anywhere I feel safer.
But people who think fire laws don't apply to their businesses, if that's what is happening, care more about making a buck than they do the welfare of their patrons, among whom I will not be numbered.
I think my main aversion to large gatherings is based on the Jerk Quotient Rule. The quotient, first created by writer Stephen King, actually has another name, but it won't pass muster for a family newspaper. The rule says that 10 percent of any group will be jerks.
Therefore, if you limit as much as possible being in any gathering of people greater than nine, you should be able to avoid the quotient altogether, although sometimes someone being nine-tenths of a jerk is pretty irritating.
There isn't anyone or anything I want to see badly enough to be jostled, doused with beer, threatened or, in the extreme, injured or killed, because someone came up with the formula of adding alcohol to moron and producing instant jerk.
Grateful Dead concerts and folk music gatherings tend to have a much lower quotient, the laid-back nature of the groups being taken into consideration, so I always made exceptions for those. Besides, folk concerts are frequently outside, so you can run in any direction you choose if a threatening situation, or a really bad act, comes up.
So I am unlikely to find myself dancing away in a crowded club in the middle of the night or gathering in a small crowded room to hear some formerly well-known rock group.
And I am always mindful of the safety of my surroundings. I saw enough fire deaths during my days as a cop reporter to know that isn't the way I want to go, and my rule is that if I get strong mental images of crime scene tape or fire hoses when I look at a place, I either don't go in or limit my stay as much as I can.
A couple of my favorite hotels are old, wooden and not really built for quick access or egress. I stopped going to one because its quality had slipped so badly, and the other had closed the last I heard. Frame construction or not, I always locate the fire exits of any hotel I am staying in as a routine part of checking in.
I will have to admit that age plays a part in my avoidance of nightclubs. I have a hearing problem that makes it nearly impossible for me to discern conversation against even slight background noise, and I firmly believe there should be state and federal laws against straight white men dancing in public, so I'm not likely to be seen in a place like that unless I am with someone whose conversation I would rather not hear, and I try to avoid people like that.
If, for some reason, I found myself in one, I'm pretty sure I would try to position myself near an exit, so that I could get out quickly, emergency or not.
Not being a sports fan, and many American sports fans being too drunk to rush a fence or barricade as has happened at some European and South American competitions, I am unlikely to get caught in one of those horror stories. Maybe I am missing something in not having the passion of those willing to be crushed or beaten to death for their favorite teams, but I am okay with that.
Meanwhile, I am adamant about checking to see if exits are open or openable and clearly marked and asking questions if I don't like what I see.
I wish more people would be -- and had been.