Chaos and Joy

July 16, 2011


Photo by Chad Nicholson of Mp3 Experiment 8, New York City, July 16, 2011

“This very likely isn’t of interest,” the note began. In fact, that was the subject line, an email from my native New Yorker friend Shmuel, someone I’ve known online since I went online in 1999. Our connection has survived the demise of our participation in two or three different electronic discussion list communities, as well as changing fashions in blogging and in social networking. We met for the first time in person when I sojourned in Brooklyn for a week of fiction writing in February of 2010, and he was one of the first people I met up with when I got here for my Summer in the City three weeks ago.

“. . . but then it might be,” the note continued, and included a link to Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based “prank collective” that “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” The “mission” scheduled for tonight called for interested persons to go to two locations near the World Trade Center, wearing black t-shirts (if their birthdays were in the first half of the year) or white ones (if they were born after June). They were to carry a camera with a flash, something like a glow stick, a mask, and an Mp3 device to which they’d downloaded a file which they were not to begin listening to until precisely 8:30 pm.

“Why not,” I said. I’ve been spending a lot of time alone (two days this week I didn’t leave the house except to procure food), reading, exploring the emotional tangents the reading gives rise to, writing, nothing very formal, mostly the meandering brain dumps that writer Susan Tiberghien calls “moodling.” Although I haven’t felt as bereft and as homesick as I did on about my third night here, I have periods of loneliness. My online community tends to disappear into their weekends, much as I disappear into mine when I am at home. Something to do on a Saturday night, something I have never done before, seemed like just the thing to keep me out of Mope Mode.

I can be wary of public “pranks.” In 2007 I wrote about “shopdropping,” expressing my bafflement as to why anyone would consider this “nice, subversive fun.” I had learned about “shopdropping” from one of the discussion groups that Shmuel and I participated in. Many in the group, most of them mature publishing professionals, were touting this idea as if it were the most delicious thing they could think of to do. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned my objections to activities that might seem like fun but ultimately cause problems, even heartache. One person quit the list because she found me mean-spirited. As I wrote then, “For that I got a reprimand from the owner of the list about my hurting the feelings of people who find shopdropping amusing and an invitation to leave the list unless I could control myself.” I think that was when I began to withdraw from that list, reading only occasionally now and almost never, these days, contributing.

But something about this event, as outlined on the website, seemed like fun.

And it was. Shmuel, who lives across the river in New Jersey, met me at the 4 train station at Fulton & Broadway. (Yeah, that’s how I talk now, giving the letter or the number of a train or bus and an intersection: 86 & Lex, the M86 to 91st & 1st, Murray & West Broadway. You can hear the numerals and the ampersand.) We had something to eat, and walked around Ground Zero where the National September 11 Memorial is taking shape. Around 8:00 we made our way to the park where we had been told to assemble.

Lots of black t-shirts about. A black t-shirt is kind of a uniform in New York City. It goes with the wires from your earbuds snaking into your backpack. It’s not an outfit that calls attention to itself. Nevertheless, we looked around and decided that most of the people sitting about were there for the same reason we were. At precisely 8:30, we turned on our Mp3 players, and a sonorous voice started giving us instructions.

The fiction for tonight was that we (those in black shirts) were People of the Southern Tribes, and were about to make first contact with the People of the Northern Tribes. We wanted to go in peace and seem friendly, so we practiced their ceremonial bows (hands to the sky and ankles crossed), and handshakes (grasping a partner’s elbows and doing a slow dance). As we set out for the Northern Territory, we did silly walks, high-fived people who were not participating, took each other’s pictures.

Once we arrived at the area where people in white shirts were gathered (I have no idea what they had been instructed to do), we waved flashlights and glow sticks, made arches with our arms for people to pass under, danced some more, took more pictures. By 9:20 or so it was all over, and the crowd dispersed amid cheers. We’d covered a lot of ground on our trek to meet the People of the North, but the night was pleasant and the energy that seeped up Murray Street and Chambers Street from people who had come together for a common purpose but would never be together again was full of good will. Shmuel walked me to the 4 station, though it was the opposite direction from the place where he would catch his PATH train.

The train was a long time coming, and a long time getting uptown, and then there was the wait for the M86. I was sweaty and rumpled by the time I got to the lobby of my building. “Those are terrific shoes,” said a woman waiting for the elevator, of my purple polka-dot Nikes. “Thank you,” I said, glad I had just this morning shipped home some dressier shoes that I know I will not wear for the rest of this trip. If I can’t go there — church, dinner, someone’s Park Avenue literary salon — in my purple polka-dot Nikes, I’m not going.

People who know me probably know how reluctant I am to have my picture taken, more reluctant to display any. Below you see the way I looked tonight. That I am willing to publish this is a measure of how much joy I took in the night’s chaos.