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Follow the crowd that's not following the big crowd

The crowds are really gathering this summer. We have the two mob scenes known as political conventions. Dancing in the aisles - as long as you don't try to move your feet.

Then there's the Olympics in Los Angeles, where the spectators will have to compete in a special event of their own known as the Can-you-reach-your-seat-from-here? decathlon.

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When the subject is crowds, need anybody be reminded of the Michael Jackson tour? Traffic will slow to the pace of snails wearing snowshoes (and one glove) wherever the Peter Pan of rock goes. Ah, the apt symoblism of his moonwalk - moving backward while giving the illusion of moving forward.

In the summer, of course, nobody requires the excuse of such events in order to form a thoroughly immobilized crowd. The Fourth of July will do. Crowds, fleeing the all-year-round congestion of the city, are even now piling into cars and moving - barely - toward the nearest beach, where they will stack up, elbow to elbow, in the surf or spread out, towel to towel, on the sand. All those pink arms and legs! All those talking heads!

Is there a more rueful contradiction in terms than the country mob scene?

In the summer, as at no other season, the world seems to be running out of space. Crowds spring up as densely as tropical flowers, filling the bleachers of baseball parks, the parking lots of ice cream parlors, the seats of all movie houses playing Steven Spielberg films.

If an advocate can't sell zero-population growth on a weekend in July, forget it.

You cannot even turn on the television without seeing crowds in the news. How the long days and balmy nights bring out the strikers, the protesters, the soldiers at war, the ecstatic celebrants of athletic victories!

We all feel the swelling power of the latter-day crowd - a little stronger with each political convention, each Olympic game, each new rock star - and it has polarized us into two parties: the Crowd Seekers and the Crowd Evaders.

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Most of us belong to both.

Another shuttle is launched, Cape Canaveral has become a mecca for Crowd Seekers. Who does not sense the exhilaration of being there? Something ancient and tribal in us responds to the chant of the countdown. When the blastoff takes place, the whole nation becomes one crowd.

Indeed, it has been hard to think of ourselves as a nation of individualists ever since the census went above 200 million.

America itself is getting to be a crowd.

Which is the more representative American scene - Huck Finn, the great Crowd Evader, trying to lose himself on a raft in the middle of the Mississippi? Or the New York Stock Exchange, with the bulls trying to start a holiday rally just before the Fourth?

Once the natives would have picked Huck to represent them. But, whether we like it or not, the crowd scene on the floor of a stock exchange comes closer to the way we live: in airport lobbies, in conference rooms, in commuter traffic - in a crowd.

To be in a crowd, observed the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, is to be modern. Still, we moderns are not used to it yet. Staying too long with a crowd makes us feel as if we're riding with Genghis Khan. A crowd has such energy for destruction - at times, what a crowd celebrates seems to be destruction. Where would Hitler have been without a crowd?

Having sought out and dissolved into the crowd of our choice, with Democrats or Republicans or high hurdlers or Michael Jackson, most of us will be driven by thoughts like the above to flee it. We are not, in the end, comfortable as Crowd Seekers. As the summer cools (along with our groupie ardor), we will return to that raft again, in mood at least. It still feels like our natural, solitary perch - the American way. And if, a century after Mark Twain, even loners seem to travel in crowds, we'll just have to bite the irony and say: That's our kind of crowd.

A Wednesday and Friday column. Columnist Melvin Maddocks is about to go on vacation. Watch for his next column Wednesday, Aug. 8.

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