I’ve been accused of being high-maintenance in the past. Whether or not that is true, I will admit that even I have reached a new zenith in personal upkeep (or nadir, depending on your point of view): On Sunday, January 10, 2010, I matched my eyeshadow to my underpants.
In my defense, I had very good cause to do so. The No Pants Subway Ride, organized annually by the shamelessly creative improvisational comedy group Improv Everywhere, was held for the ninth year that day, and I was participating. This year, forty-three cities in sixteen countries joined in the public stunt, including cities in Australia. In New York, the birthplace of the event, some 5,000 stalwart and steadfast participants rendezvoused in six locations in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, with a singular goal in mind: to take off their pants.
The concept behind the No Pants Subway Ride is simple: what would you do if, when riding the subway, your fellow passengers stood up one by one, calmly removed their pants, and got off the train at the next stop? Furthermore, what if, a few stops down the line, other pantsless people boarded your train and rode to different stops? Finally, what if all of these people’s paths (all strangers, mind you) miraculously converged on one final destination? What would happen?
Over 8,000 individuals RSVP’d to the No Pants Subway Ride Facebook event to find out. I joined my friends at Foley Square, the flagship meeting location in downtown Manhattan, at 3 pm on Sunday the 10th, where a chattering crowd (fully clothed) had already gathered. An Improv Everywhere agent with a bullhorn greeted our cheers, and announced basic rules for the ride: Act normally. Be polite. Deny any knowledge of what is going on. If asked, say that you forgot your pants at home or you were feeling hot, and admit that yes, you are a bit cold.
The agent divided up the crowd into four teams by birthday month, with each team assigned to a different subway line. The teams were then divided again by the last digit of each rider’s cell phone number, making ten sub-teams, one for each subway car on a single train. Within those teams of ten or more people, team leaders chose who would take their pants off first, second, third and so on. The division process was chaotic at times, but the presence of multiple Improv Everywhere agents and veteran no-pantsers cleared up most of the confusion.
I was assigned to the sixth car on the 1 train, heading north from Chambers Street. I was to take my pants off at the fourth stop, along with three others in my car, exit the train and wait on the platform for the next train to come. I would board the next available 1 train and ride it to 42nd Street, where I would transfer to the south-bound N, with a final destination of Union Square.
The moment our team boarded the subway car, my heart rate surged and my hands started shaking. After the second de-pantsing, our fellow passengers began to take notice. A young man seated across from me smirked and shook his head. At the third stop, I worried that I would offend the people I was sandwiched between by removing my pants, but there was nothing to be done for it: the doors closed, my adrenaline spiked, and I fumbled out of my jeans so quickly and awkwardly that I pulled my boots back on the wrong feet.
At my stop, the subway platform was dotted with normal New Yorkers bundled against the winter cold, save for their bare, goose-pimpled legs. No one spoke to anyone else. Some people leaned against pillars and stared into space as they waited for the train; others read books or magazines. My refuge was my iPod. I blasted Breaking Benjamin on a loop through the whole train trip, to make me strong, and to keep me from smiling and giving away the game. Other useful tactics included clenching my stomach muscles and biting my tongue.
By this point, pants-wearing individuals (those foolish people) had begun to notice something was amiss. Riders on passing trains stared, pointed, laughed and took pictures from their car windows. The second train I boarded already contained pantsless riders, who made up a good two thirds of the car. (If I could have changed one thing about the event, I would have shifted the timing so more pants-ful people were riding the lines with us. As it was, the pantsless dominated the subway cars, leaving the pantsed to stare in wonder, or just to ignore us.)
As my team leader had predicted, the fun really started when it came time to transfer trains. The magnitude of the event came to light, as hundreds upon hundreds of college kids and pre-teens, model-pretty women and nerdy gamers exited their trains, all people you’d expect to see roaming the 42nd Street station on a lazy Sunday (only, y’know, missing a certain garment.) Underwear choices were fun but not outrageous: boxers and briefs on both men and women bore basic solid hues, dots, stripes, and cutesy patterns. The more daring wore lace, Hawaiian prints and silky Bugs Bunny patterns; superhero boy shorts were a popular choice. (I sported black and pink sequins.) Best were the well-heeled businessmen, striding confidently from train to train, briefcases in hand, spiffy in suits, ties, pocket squares and boxers. Skin and hair, cellulite and bone abounded; the terrifically varied bare legs of pantsless riders pouring through the station turned more than a few heads. A few choice quotes overheard from onlookers:
“What the hell is going on?”
“What’s the occasion? Why is everyone in their underwear?”
“Is this a fundraiser?”
“This has gotta be some Facebook shit.”
The first trains of pantsless riders began to arrive at Union Square around 4:15 pm. From here, the pretense of not knowing about the stunt broke down, as people in their underwear thronged in the main concourse of the station and spilled out into the watery daylight above. In the park, a huge No Pants party raged. There were pantsless conga lines, a No Pants Dance-Off. Some brave pantsless souls climbed to the upper levels of Filene’s Basement, a large discount department store overlook the south end of Union Square, and danced in the large glass windows, much to our delight below. We converted several bystanders, who removed their pants to the crowd’s cacophonous approval. Best of all, a group of Pants Evangelists (presumably also from Improv Everywhere) had set up tables by the subway entrance. They handed out pamphlets entitled “The History of Pants!” and “Welcome To Pants!”, and offered free trials of pants for those curious about the lifestyle. Men bearing sandwich boards (“Are You Missing Something? Ask Me About Pants!”) wandered through the crowd.
Just as suddenly and inexplicably as the pantsless had come together, so too did they depart. No official afterparty was held, though the establishments surrounding Union Square received their fair share of pantsless patronage throughout the night. The beauty of Improv Everywhere lies in its ability to bring strangers together to elicit emotions (confusion, shock, mirth, joy) in others, and to demand no more than that from its participants. I believe I can safely say that the No Pants Subway Ride of 2010 was a unequivocal success.
(And me? Will I continue to coordinate my makeup with my undergarments? We’ll see.)