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It's startin' to get pretty crowded around California

September 03, 2007|Al Martinez

It occurred to me after a small boy bit my ankle at Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific that there are just too damned many people in Southern California.

To begin with, the aquarium had crowds the likes of which I had not seen before at a facility that offers little more than fish swimming in circles.

"It's a fun place," Cinelli said, undertaking the impossible job of lifting my spirits. "You love sharks."

"Only when they're attacking surfers," I said.

"Or maybe journalists," she added less pleasantly.

Getting there was slow, parking was slow, buying tickets was slower and moving around inside was slowest. The largest component of the crowd seemed to consist of babies, some of whom were still in the womb, some in strollers and a lot of them scurrying about like frightened chipmunks.

"There must be a breeding farm around here somewhere," I said.

"Just keep moving," Cinelli said.

They were babies of every ethnic background, representing a cross-section of the world, which, for some reason, had converged on this house of fish the very same day, resulting in a level of calamity from the lobster pit to the gift shop that was the emotional equivalent of a departing jet.

A boy with rosy cheeks and Swedish hair bit my ankle as we were maneuvering through the teeming masses toward a tank in the distance that was home for a large, dour fish with a mouth that turned down into a Walter Matthau scowl. When I complained about the bite, Cinelli watched the kid run off screaming and said, "You must have stepped on him."

"No way. He attacked for no reason. He's a pit bull."

"He's a baby," she said. "Babies do peculiar things. They put beans up their nose and bite strangers. You want him impounded and tested for rabies or what?"

In hindsight, I have decided that the boy's feral behavior reflects the impact of overcrowding on the human psyche. A website points out that our society is becoming "a veritable Babel of gibbering crowds," which, while less than scientific, does explain a lot about L.A.

With 18 million men, women and babies shoving or driving their way from here to there in Greater Los Angeles, forming lines that sometimes seem to disappear over the horizon and generally jamming into every venue available to the public, it's no wonder we are perceived as a hell on Earth. We represent a separate reality.

Add to our own massive numbers the 20 million tourists who descend upon us in their plaid shorts, striped shirts and white-stocking sandals every summer to vacation amid the mammalian clutter of a large, soulless metropolis. Readers of movie magazines, they are here to catch a glimpse of celebrities like Nicole Richie, who spent 82 minutes in the slammer for driving under the influence of drugs. Her jail time has so altered the notion of jurisprudence in America that soon we will see criminals sentenced from 75 minutes to life in prison or 122 minutes without the possibility of parole.

But that's another rant for another day. After treating my ankle wound with an anesthetic lotion and hearing my wife cry, "But he didn't even break the skin, you nut!" I continued researching the negative effect of crowds on human behavior and discovered that we had the lemmings all wrong; they do not deliberately hurl themselves into the sea. But the annoying little rodents' growing population does cause them to kill themselves accidentally.

Debunking the myth of their suicidal tendencies, a website called admits that lemmings are noted for cyclical population explosions and when those occur, they migrate wildly in search of food. "While migrating," the website concludes, "some lemmings do fall off cliffs or drown, but these deaths are accidental."

I see it as a result of all the pushing and shoving that goes on, which, like frustration on the freeways, may result in criminal behavior. A little nudge by one lemming that sends another spiraling down the side of a cliff is either flat-out murder or a darker aspect of Darwinism at work.

In a separate study involving rodents and overcrowding, researchers from UC San Diego determined that rats subjected to a high-density population for a year turned to infanticide, cannibalism and homosexuality. It seems also that the survivors became very clubby, which I guess is what you do when you share the same traits.

Just before leaving the Long Beach aquarium, I stood on an upper floor and looked down at the crowds and suddenly realized that we are probably more like fish than rats or lemmings, swimming in circles but not understanding why. Cultural anthropologists haven't categorized that characteristic yet, but when they do, it will explain much of what occurs in the City of Gibbering Crowds, including the kid who bit my ankle. He may even be the precursor of tomorrow's cannibals.

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