The bodies, compressed shoulder-to-shoulder, gut-to-gut, pulsate as one unit. Expanding with the inhale, quivering in anticipation with the exhale. Pacing from foot to foot, cheeks red and anxious, hovering over the Saran-wrapped pallet.
The bodies wait, staring at the immobile plastic mountain, elbows pressed outward to mark their space, their ranking in line based on who got there first. Hierarchy rules.
The supply is limited, which heightens the stress and competition. In this tight bubble, there is no room for sharing, no consideration for need. The poor and the greedy perch on the same branch, rewarded solely by their aggression and steady commitment to piercing the plastic barrier.
The bodies have been waiting weeks for the looming moment when the plastic is removed and they can possess the object underneath. This is important. Pivotal.
I have been here before.
It is 2008. I stand in the center of a circle on a refugee camp in Uganda, my hand on a plastic-covered stack of pink mosquito nets that we are distributing. This part of the world has one of the highest death tolls by malaria -- one child dies every 30 seconds from this preventable, mosquito-borne illness.
Mothers wearing dirty babies press toward the thin rope that we strung between trees, hoping to create some semblance of order. At first, it works. But as time crawls on, the tension swells. I hear the crowd growing in my ears, like a rabid dog pushed into the corner. I try to stay calm, to somehow send peace across the crowd.
But the dirt-lined faces begin spitting at me, shouting and demanding. They are sick of waiting. I rationalize with myself, knowing that I am here out of love, knowing that fear is the opposite of love. I reject the fear. Breathing. Breathe. I summon compassion, for the refugees' suffering, for their desperation. They are fighting to survive. I stand still and accept their anger, words slapping my face like cold, open palms. Now fists.
A sharp hand claws a mosquito net out of my hands, and the man runs away like a frightened thief. He thinks there are not enough nets, and this is a matter of life or death. I feel a chill rise, and with the crescendo, the crowd bursts through the rope barrier, a sea of despondency. The levy breaks.
I frantically look for an exit out of the mob. Claws, ripping, my heart chokes in my throat. I have no saliva. In its place, the rusty taste of fear. The riot explodes at my feet. I scream and tear for any exit, through arms and faces and sweat. With the next pound of my heartbeat, I suddenly understand the fight for life or death.
Ah yes. I have seen this before.
I look across the crowd, anxious bodies, circling a mountain of plastic-wrapped goods. Only this time, I am staying on the outside of the throng.
And this time, the mob swarms around a stack of DVD players that are discounted 70 percent for Black Friday.
This time, the mob is fighting for -- what?
It's so weird that I have to laugh.