I, like many New Yorkers, find an endless source of bragging rights in my city. One of those bragging rights is about flash mobs. I am proud to call my home the birthplace of this phenomenon.
While the 1960s had “happenings,” the post-millennial era has flash mobs. At first, it was predicted that flash mobs would become the new form of political protest. But that idea never seemed to take hold, and they remain what they started out as: harmless pranks intended to make someone think, laugh or simply smile.
Flash mobs occur in public, involve many people, appear spontaneous, and are short-lived; some last less than a minute. By now, most of us have seen footage of an impromptu group dancing in a park or a chorus breaking into song in a mall’s food court. These are some of the flash mobs that went viral, although many go undocumented.
I first heard about flash mobs with the comedy group Improv Everywhere. I was instantly taken with the whole idea. They pulled off elaborate stunts that were kind-hearted, mischievous breaks in the routines of those who witnessed them. Although Improv Everywhere’s director insists he does not create flash mobs with his troupe, the appearance is very similar, if not the same.
Instead of calling them flash mobs, Improv Everywhere creates what they call “missions”: highly orchestrated and rehearsed incidents that appear random and improvised. The members of the troupe are called agents and, for the most part, are actors or comedians.
For instance, one mission took place in the bag check of a popular New York bookstore. Within a 10-minute span, 60 agents entered the store and checked their bag, in accordance with store policy. Each person made sure their mobile phone was inside their bags and the ringer was set to the highest volume.
Meanwhile, at another location, 60 more agents stood poised with their phones, ready to dial the numbers of the agents in the bookstore. At the designated time, every phone was dialed. In the bookstore the guard standing at the bag check was at first startled, then perplexed, then finally amused at what happened next: countless phones, each with a different ring tone, sounded off in unison.
This is just one example of a typical mission, and it is similar to a flash mob. In fact, the creator of the first flash mob seemed to have the same intentions as Improv Everywhere: to make people laugh at an unexpected occurrence.
New York’s first
Now, back to those bragging rights: the very first flash mob took place in 2003 in this city, on 34th street.
Well, to be more accurate, it was the second flash mob. According to local lore, the very first one was thwarted when police got wind of the plans and shut down the designated area. But the second one went off without a hitch, making it the first successful flash mob.
That time consisted of 130 people gathered around a single rug on the 9th floor of Macy’s flagship store. They appeared suddenly and began debating over the merits of the rug, stating they all lived together in a warehouse and needed to decide as a group if this was the rug of choice. Just as suddenly as they convened, they disappeared, scattering back into the throngs of shoppers. By the time security guards arrived at the designated rug, no one was left.
Later on, in the lobby of a very swank hotel in midtown, more than 200 people streamed in silently. At a designated time, they broke into applause for 15 seconds and promptly left. This was the start of something big.
Meanwhile, Improv Everywhere began creating their missions. Some of these included hundreds of people suddenly stopping whatever they were doing – walking, eating, tying a shoe – in the middle of Grand Central Station. They remained frozen for five minutes and then un-froze to continue on with their business.
Some flash mobs occur regularly. One such event is the annual Pillow Fight, which now takes place in more than 25 cities and has thousands of participants. It is exactly as it sounds: every year on March 22, people have a pillow fight in a designated public place.
Improv Everywhere has its annual No Pants Subway Ride on the first Saturday in January of each year. That is also exactly how it sounds: throngs of people are dressed in their warmest gear – it is, after all, winter in New York – completely bundled up from the waist up; and although they are wearing thick socks and warm boots, they aren’t wearing any pants. It has become an international phenomenon from what I hear. I think it goes without saying that the agents who volunteer for this mission are extremely brave (in more ways than one)!
Dancing in the streets
Improv Everywhere is an open group and anyone can join to be an agent. I joined a few years ago, but so far, no mission has been the right fit for me. For instance, one mission called for identical twins. Another called only for natural redheads. Some missions require professional level acting. Others require physical stunts. And of course, one mission requires people to take off their pants – count me out!
Although I never got the chance to partake in a mission with Improv Everywhere, I was in a flash mob three times with my dance troupe. One of our troupe’s goals is what the director calls “guerilla dance performance,” gathering in public and dancing together. The impact is heightened because we all wear matching costumes.
The first time was planned: We danced in unison in Grand Central Station, accompanied by two drummers. The minute we saw security guards approaching, though, we got out of our formation, lined up, and shimmied our way out of the terminal.
A second time, we gathered by the giant cube sculpture in Astor Place. Each of us had an umbrella, which we all opened at the same time, miming the actions of someone caught in the rain.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in midsummer.
The third time was completely improvised. This was on Sept. 10, when there were city-wide commemorations of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We were traveling by subway from one performance to another. As we descended the stairs into the subway station, we heard Flamenco music. It is common for musicians to play in the subway stations, but it was rare to hear authentic Flamenco. We saw a trio of musicians who, it was soon discovered, were from Spain. Within seconds, all of us surrounded the trio shimmying, stamping, twirling and clapping. Our drummers quickly joined in.
We were a sight: 27 dancers in matching outfits, waving silk veils and dancing our hearts out…until we heard the subway approach. And just as quickly as we started, we ran down the stairs to catch the train, leaving the trio to themselves.
They didn’t miss a beat and appeared to take it all in stride. After all, this is New York: birthplace of flash mobs!
It just so happens that this past Saturday was International No Pants Subway Ride Day. This mission happened in Warsaw, Moscow, London, Prague, Barcelona and Sydney, as well as cities all over the U.S. – Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and of course, New York. So if you live in a city that has subways, and saw someone walking around without pants last Saturday, you know what it means now. For myself, I prefer to stay warm and fully covered on the subway, of course, but to each his own!
Single Catholics, do you like the idea of a flash mob? How does the spirit of playfulness and fun apply to you in your search for a spouse? (Author Amy Bonaccorso says spontaneity is one of the five habits that attracts love.)