Feathers Flyin’ at the Be In, 2011.
A tour group of Canadian high school students, fresh from the Fashion Institute, are being lead down 14th street. Traffic is tough, but our destination is visible from the sight of feathers in the air and a palpable sense of frenzy coming from Union Square. Gripping our pillows, we arrive at the sixth yearly incarnation, of International Pillow Fight Day, held the first Saturday in April. My students charge into the fray.
My other favorite “nonsense-event” happens on the last Saturday of January, when a few hundred people meet in downtown Manhattan for the yearly No Pants Subway Ride. The crowd is split up to descend onto seven different subway lines; each line splits up into ten different cars. In each car, people are organized to get off at ten different stops. At the first stop, one person gets off; takes off her pants. Next stop two people, then four, then eight, so on and so forth. Everyone’s wearing underpants, just to be clear.
A train arrives at the first station filled with pants-wearing passengers. One person gets on: she’s not wearing pants. Passengers think “Hey, it’s New York, whaddyagonnado?” The next stop, two people get on. Passengers think “This is kinda weird” The next stop, four people. Passengers think, “I must have missed the memo…” Next stop, eight people and the train gets so crowded with people not wearing pants the passengers figure “I may as well just take off my pants!” And the pants-less party afterwards is awesome.
Back to the pillow fight; its really quite simple. Thousands of people gather in Union Square and start swinging pillows. Costumery is encouraged: for 3 hours, you have Roman warriors taking on Spongebob Squarepants, Ms. Pac-Man getting beat down by a crew of pajama-clad teenagers, and a gypsy punk band accompanying the fray. Once or twice, Gideon played the role of a Scottish general complete raunchy name (email him for the R-rated title) and oversized fish-shaped pillow.
The pillow fights are organized by a group called Newmindspace, who are devoted to creating “Urban Playground” events all over North America. The Levys’ even teamed up with them for an event last summer called “Zombies vs. Commandos: Capture the Flag on Governors Island”. As for the No Pants Subway Ride, Improv Everywhere is a much more well known organizer of pranks, from the Grand Central Terminal Freeze-frame to the Best Buy Blue Shirt Mob in which 80 of their agents entered a Best Buy store wearing blue polo shirts and khakis.
Fun events like this certainly aren’t unprecedented in New York City. The Be-Ins of the 1960s saw tens of thousands of participants (including our father Mark) wearing carnation petals, paper stars and tiny mirrors on foreheads, paint slathered on their bodies for a good old-fashioned freak-out. The earlier, less politically charged Be-Ins didn’t have much of a game plan aside from playing music and feeling groovy, but it still took a bit of legwork to publicize.
The organizers of the Be-Ins consisted of a rag-tag crew with good intentions who went on to do great things. Jim Fouratt was an actor who eventually became a major player during the Stonewall Riots. Paul Williams founded Crawdaddy, the first magazine of music criticism. And Susan Hartnett headed an organization called Experiments in Art and Technology, which helped to break down barriers between artists and scientists, indirectly launching experimental music and the works of Andy Warhol. The pooled together $250, printed 3,000 posters and 40,000 small notices which were distributed all throughout the city. So that’s how they did it without Facebook…
By Jonah Levy