Cell Phone Symphony

60 cell phones go off simultaneously in the bag check area of The Strand bookstore in Manhattan.

Conductor: Agent Kula
DV Cams: Agents Shafer, EMartin, Adams
Digital Photography: Agents Nicholson, Rainswept
Audio Smugglers: Agents King, Arnheiter
Mission Inspired By: Agent Pinteresque

Last Spring I received an email from someone who had heard about us on This American Life. He wrote:

There’s a scene I’ve been wanting to pull off, but I don’t have the manpower. Feel like helping?

This is the gist: you know The Strand? (I work there). Know the bag check? As you can imagine, with all those bags and coats and things, people leave their cell phones with the guy. Occasionally they go off.

What I’m thinking is, you get a group of people, thirty or so, who all come into the shop and check their bags with their phones in ‘em. At some later point, every single phone checked into the bag check starts to ring at the same time. It’d be bedlam.

Like to help?


I loved the idea, but at the time we were busy preparing for our U2 Mission. A few weeks ago I decided it was time to make it happen. I got back in touch with the guy and found that while he no longer worked at the Strand bookstore, he still definitely wanted us to try the idea.

I did a few undercover surveys of the store and noted that the bag check area, which is located right by the front door and across from the registers, had about 120 cubbies.

I executed a test run by myself. I arranged for Agent Kula to call my phone several times and then placed it in my bag and checked it. I could definitely hear the phone going off in the bag, but none of the employees were fazed. As our informant had told us, it was a pretty common occurrence. We would have to get a pretty large number of participants to cause a scene.

After delaying the mission for a week thanks to the “Blizzard of ’06”, about 120 agents met on Saturday night in the 15-degree cold. We convened on the north end of Union Square Park, about a quarter of a mile away from the Strand.

The participants didn’t know ahead of time what they would be doing; they were just told to bring a backpack and a cell phone. After everyone had arrived, I explained the mission to the group.

The first step was to divide everyone up by cell phone brand. In addition to creating a cacophony of 60 phones going off at once, I also wanted to have different sections play at different times, like a symphony. Instead of the “string section”, we would have the “Samsung section”.

The crowd divided into brands and each group tried to find a common ring tone that all of their phones had. The Nokia group had the “Nokia Tune”, Motorola folks had “Hello Moto”, etc. Those without common ring tones would either partner up with someone who did, or partner with someone else without a common tone. Agents began to pair off and trade phone numbers, deciding who would enter the store and who would be a caller.

After the groups were in place and everyone had traded numbers, it was time to begin the mission. Small groups of agents headed down one at a time to enter the store and check their bags. We wanted to avoid creating a huge line at the bag check, which would certainly cause suspicion.

The Strand Bookstore is a massive store filled with “18 miles” of used books. It’s very popular and often crowded. It’s also usually very quiet. There was no house music playing the night of our mission, thankfully.

Some agents waited for the line to disappear at the bag check while pretending to shop on the street. After checking your bag, the instructions were to shop somewhere in the store far from the bag check area, preferably on the second floor or in the basement. We didn’t want to create a crowd of obvious spectators.

We took several steps to covertly document our mission. Agent EMartin filmed from the street, looking in through the window (it was night time, so they couldn’t see out). Agent Shafer smuggled a camera inside in his jacket and filmed from the second floor mezzanine. For audio, we checked Agent King’s camera in a bag, putting it right in the middle of the symphony. We also checked a mini-disc recorder, and I was mic’d with a wireless lav.

Once everyone was in the store with their bag checked, I called our conductor Agent Kula back in Union Square and told him it was time for the first movement. He counted down and had all 60 callers hit send simultaneously.

At once, the phones started ringing in the bag check. In addition to the pre-set groups of phones, there were many more random ring tones firing off in a maelstrom of high-pitched beeps. The primary audience for this mission was the Strand employees, specifically the two who were working at the bag check.

The male employee laughed and smiled throughout the entire mission. He didn’t seem too concerned with figuring out how it was happening, but he did offer one thought, “It’s cold outside. These phones are hot in here!”

The female employee seemed to be having fun as well, but she expressed more concern and was very interested in figuring it all out. Some memorable quotes from her:

** “1… 2… 3… 4… 5… There are five phones going off!”
** “When 8:00 comes, I’m out of here.”
** (To the register employees) “Do you guys want to come back here? I’m really afraid– cell phones should not all go off at the same time.”
** “There’s a Japanese ghost in here, dudes.”

Throughout the mission I was in communication with Agent Kula via cell phone giving him a report from the field and planning our next move. After the initial blast of phones, we took a five-minute break to let things get back to normal. Kula then got his performers ready and signaled for the second blast, another round of all 60 phones at the same time.

Other Strand employees started getting curious and trying to figure out what was going on. Some laughed. Some complained. Some rolled their eyes.

They started shouting at each other across the store, explaining what was going on.

News traveled to employees in other parts of the store. At one point an announcement was made over the loudspeaker, “Attention Strand customers: your phones are going off at the bag check.”

Customers checking out or getting their (non-ringing) bags started noticing as well.

The man above couldn’t stop smiling. He just kept looking at all the bags until he finally said quietly to himself, “It’s like a symphony.”

The working theory after the first two rings was that one phone was going off first and then triggering the other phones. I think some thought that the “triggering” phone was defective and the whole thing was a coincidence, and others thought that the guilty phone was specifically modified to make others ring. Either way, it was agreed that if they could find the phone that rang first and shut it off, the rest would stop as well.


Searching for ringing phones


“I think I found the first phone.”

One employee behind a counter close to the bag check continually searched for the perfect metaphor for what he was witnessing.

My favorites of his musings:

** “It sounds like cats fighting on hot coals!”
** “It’s like a David Lynch movie in here. It doesn’t make sense.”
** “It sounds like a flea circus with bad clowns!”

After the second blast, we started in with the specific orchestra sections. Each section had its own movement where its phones rang by themselves. We had six total movements:

** Nokia, “Nokia Tune”
** Motorola, “Hello Moto”
** Motorola, “Snaggle”
** Samsung, “Samsung Tune”
** Treo, “Treo”
** LG, “Hallelujah”

The male employee continued to smile as each ring tone grouping started and ended.

After the individual movements, one phone got a solo, ringing all by itself. One agent had created a unique ring tone for himself, so we figured its individuality deserved the spotlight. Agent Ace$Thugg was given the honor of performing the solo.

Eventually the manager got involved. He was convinced that it was a bunch of “NYU students from a class” and sent the female employee out to try to find people making the calls elsewhere in the store. Of course, our callers were five blocks away standing in the ridiculous cold. Unable to find any callers, he tried to pinpoint which bags were ringing and then take note of their location.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

The timing of his search could not have been more perfect. Almost exactly when he made the decision to start writing down the locations of the offending bags, our grand finale (all phones going off repeatedly for a few minutes) ended. It went from 60 phones ringing to complete silence in a matter of seconds. He was only able to write down three bag locations before it was too late. He then got out a Polaroid camera and waited for the bag owners to claim their bags.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

I gave the signal to the covertly shopping agents that it was time to leave. Our symphony had lasted about twenty minutes total, including pauses in between movements. We trickled out slowly, trying our best not to create a telling line at the bag check. Most agents ended up making purchases. There are always some great deals in the Strand!

When the first of the three “marked” bag owners tried to claim his bag, the manager took a Polaroid of him and informed him he was “banned from the Strand.” He just shrugged and left.

(image removed at manager’s request.)

Pretty soon there was a decent size line at the bag check, and the manager spoke up and addressed everyone in line, “Anybody who is in line who was a part of that last little bit there, I’m going to ask you to either A) Not return to the Strand ever B) just don’t do that again.” I think once he realized how many of us there were, he backed off on his idea of banning so many customers. He was a little bit aggressive overall, but in the end no harm was done. Wearing my hidden microphone, I went up to him about ten minutes after the mission asking him where to find a particular book, and then asked, “What happened up there earlier?” He repeated his “NYU class” theory, and then admitted it was pretty funny– but that it would have been much funnier if it had happened when he wasn’t on duty.

The manager seemed to loosen up even more later in the night. When one of the other agents with a marked bag checked out, the bag check guy called him over. After she refused to give him any indication as to what had occured, he requested that she “Tell that guy with the hat that I banned that he’s not really banned.”

There was a security guard near the bag check the entire time, but he seemed pretty unfazed by the whole thing. I guess he was busy looking for actual criminals.

In the end it seems like it was a fun experience for the employees and customers who got to hear it, and that’s exactly what we wanted. That’s my report from the store. Here’s Agent Kula’s report from the outside.

Agent Kula

The 60 or so people in the caller group were TROOPERS. Here they’d come out on the coldest day of the year, with no idea of what they’d be doing, and then they get the assignment of “Cool, so you guys’ll be standing outside here for the next 45 MINUTES…”

I wouldn’t have blamed anybody if they’d wanted to bail right then – but remarkably I didn’t hear one complaint. (Except from my feet, which were goddamn FROZEN THROUGH.)

So big time props to those folks who braved the cold. The highlights from my group:

**There was so much hype leading up to that first call – “Everyone ready? HERE WE GO!!” – that when we completed it, no one quite knew how to react. Like, we had no idea what it sounded like in the store, if it was working, etc – on our end at least, it was totally anti-climactic. I think I even said through the bullhorn, “So yeah … pretty exciting on this end, huh? (beat) All right, NEXT CALL!”

*At any given moment, there were at least, like, a half-dozen callers jumping up and down, phones to their ear, in an effort to stay warm.

*At one point while we were mid-call, a cop car went out of its way to cruise by us. I suppose we looked suspicious from a distance – a big group assembled in Union Square on a night where no one else was out in the cold.

But when they did their close-up drive-by, all they saw was 60 people silently making phone calls. Not exactly a 187.

*All the groups were great and on-point in their calls but, being that I myself have a Motorola phone, I got a personal kick out of it each time we cued the “Hello, Motos.” Terrible ring tone – but on this night? Perfect.

*I loved the cheers and applause that went up from the rest of the callers when Agent Ace$Thugg began his “solo.”

*For the finale we built until every caller in every group was calling back and calling back and calling back. This went on for about three minutes straight until, in true conductor style, I brought my arms down in a big flourish and everyone hung up together in a big “final note.” The sound of dozens of flip phones all smacking shut in unison was quite satisfying.

*Most of the callers were gone before I could even finish thanking them for coming out. It’s safe to assume their feet were goddamn FROZEN THROUGH, too. `Cause did I mention it was cold outside?

*After we’d finished, one of the callers asked if I would pose for a cell phone picture with him – apparently in my scarf and beard he thought I looked enough like Coldplay singer Chris Martin that he could prank his friends into believing it. That’s Improv Everywhere for you: one prank begets another – and they were all yellow.

Mission Accomplished.


OTHER RESOURCES:

Agent Rainswept’s Flickr photoset (133 photos)

Prior art: DIALTONES (A TELESYMPHONY) (A more sanctioned Cell Phone Symphony that took place in Austria in 2001)

Also see the comments section below for reports from many of the other agents involved.

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Comments

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79 Responses to Cell Phone Symphony

  1. dumpty says:

    Looks amazing, guys. Wish I could’ve made it.

  2. john says:

    Report

    I had to find a partner quickly due to being late to the organization. Luckily, there was another latecomer who needed a partner. I had no original ringtones on my phone (a hackjob) but I did have a couple of mp3s I did use as ringtones.

    I tagged along with the Treo group and then went upstairs to read S,M,L,XL. Halfway through some poem about Japanese building planning, a cacophony of ringtones welled up, loud enough to hear anywhere on the top floor.

    The pinnacle of the event, for me, was when management called over the PA system that "All your cell phones are going off". I stuck around for a bit of the aftermath, including an unfair interrogation of some people who carried more than one phone with them.

    I took my bag and left, and that was that.

  3. Agent Nicholson says:

    The documenting was subtle and fun, I felt like a spy.

    I entered after the first barrage so I was, obviously, not with the "phone people". I kept my gigantor camera under my jacket and tried to snap shots when I could. jolly good fun.

    I am sure I wasn’t the only one who purchased a few books – I can’t help it, it’s a bit of an addiction… I would highly suggest "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov" – it is amazing so far.

    well done fellow agents, well done.

  4. agent laurie says:

    chilling and killing to my toes and fingers! very enjoyable though, it was nice that though some people commented that it was very cold, no one showed any consideration of abandoning the mission. some nice person gave my friends some of his warm accesories for them to wear and i held hands with another person for warmth. i think we were just all very glad to be parts of what we knew had a great purpose

  5. Agent Sommer says:

    I have to admit: As my toes had passed beyond numb into "pre-frostbite pain", I began to wonder if any of this was really worth a few chuckles.

    Then I read about the guy saying, "It’s like a symphony."

    Awesome. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

  6. Agent Wright says:

    My favorite part of the entire experience was listening to the Strand employees try to out-reference each other. I think the consensus critique was, "This is so like a David Lynch film."

    Meanwhile I was having my own little pretension party in my head. As ringtones were going off in harmony all around me, I was reading Bob Spitz’s new Beatles biography describing their experiments in the studio with tape loops. Heavy, man. Heavy.

  7. Agent McFarland says:

    This was a bit of subtle beauty; I especially enjoyed watching the man behind the desk sort of throw up his arms and soak in the polyphonic sounds.

    From my location, however, I was best able to observe the actions and reactions of the manager. He seemed to be getting frustrated not out of actual frustration, but more out of the need to keep up appearances. He had a slew of priceless remarks, including, “Can we just step on them all”; and something about a symphony from hell. And that David Lynch comment. *Loved* tha David Lynch comment.

    A friend from out of town was visiting and we had to leave early (sorry, Agent Todd!), but it was a lovely mission and my visitor was still telling people about it two days later!

  8. B. Schaffer says:

    Perhaps one of the funniest descriptions of the cell phones was the one likening it to a cricket circus. Oddly enough, when we got back to Union square, it turned out that one of the agents had been to a cricket circus and could masterfully recreate the noise the made. It did not sound very similar to 60 cell phones, especially when they were playing "hallelujah."

  9. nhatty says:

    I was the person Agent Kula mentioned who wanted to take a picture to prank his friends =). Thanks for being a sport Agent Kula! With the drinking that night, the dim lighting, and my crappy camera phone, everyone believed I actually had a picture with Chris Martin.

    However, I was not a caller but rather a proud member of the Strand Motorola faction. My buddy from NC and I took the "shop as normal" suggestion to heart and was perousing pretty seriously and didnt see most of the response from the employees so it was a blast to see all the audio and video from the mission. Best moment was definitely the announcement over the PA by the manager. Also, the "David Lynch" employee also made me chuckle as we were on the line to get our bags back, as he said "those NYU kids, they think they’r sooooo cool!".

    All in all, great first mission for this newbie. When’s the next one?!! =p

  10. Lauren says:

    I was having a blast on my side out in the cold with the LG section. I think a lot of our fun was coming from the potential sillyness that was happening in the store, and for the bitter cold we were subjecting ourselves to, everyone had a great sense of humor about it. I loved how open and friendly everyone was, how easy it was to make a buddy, that jokes were being thrown around everywhere and people were just embracing the good time. At somepoint, someone near me said "Next time we should put all the phones on vibrate!" to which I responded with laughter "Yeah, way to get a bomb squad called in!"

    The man in the pictures with that smug little grin on his face who had said to himself "It’s like a symphony," that made me giggle. Life had to have sparkled for him in that moment, as perhaps for any onlooker with a sense of humor.

  11. Agent Costello says:

    I was sent to the bookstore. Despite our best efforts, there was a long line at the bag check-in. I thought that this alone might tip the staff off that something was afoot, but nobody seemed to pay it much mind except for a nice lady from Iowa City who asked me why there was such a long line. I told her that I overheard that a number of them were visiting NYC on a marching band trip which I thought did a good job explaining the high number of unremarkable-looking white people.

    At first I parked myself over in the Humor section and absent-mindedly flipped through a copy of Rita Rudner’s "Naked Beneath My Clothes: Tales of a Revealing Nature." As the symphony started I noticed that there were a lot of people standing around absent-mindedly flipping through books and perhaps it would be less suspicious and more pro-active if I were to pick up a few books, and make it look like I was actually shopping. So I grabbed a copy of "The Holocaust Encyclopedia" and "Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir" and headed over to the cookbooks which seemed like a good place to keep an eye on what was happening, specifically on the manager who was stationed nearby.

    It was a lot of fun watching the situation progress, and I enjoyed the staff’s attempts at determining what was happening. I especially enjoyed the search for the magic phone that might be setting off all the other phones. It was fun.

    But it wasn’t fun for one person: The Manager.

    At one point The Manager picked up the phone and explained the situation to somebody. Who was he calling? Another employee? The cops? I figured it was unlikely that we could get busted for checking a bag with a cell phone in it so I decided to run some interference with The Manager to slow him down in his search for the culprits. I started asking him questions about where to find books. "Are the antique cookbooks shelved with the cookbooks or are they shelved with the antique books?" That’s a pretty solid question, when you think about it. And to his credit, The Manager did his best to split his attention between answering my questions and the Mystery of the Cell-Phones. I enjoyed acting as exasperated as some of the employees were. When one movement started I threw up my hands and barked, "Riff-raff!"

    After the mission ended I actually got caught up in trying to find some books so I think I might have been the last of our group to leave the store. It was a good twenty minutes after the symphony concluded that I checked out and the clerk eyed me and said to one of his co-workers, "I’m going to be suspicious anyone who checks a bag the rest of the night."

  12. Agent 3000 says:

    It may have been freezing outside but there was no doubt that those cell phones were hot inside. I knew the mission was going to be a success as soon as I saw 60 people flock over to the bookstore. Even one blast of 60 phones going off would’ve been worth braving the cold but creating a symphony was something amazing. It was just so beautiful. We must’ve looked quite suspicious to that cop car checking us out.

  13. Agent Boles says:

    All the ringers in the orchestra took our jobs very seriously; I was in the Hallelujah section. Agent Kula was a skilled conductor. The most hilarious moment was when Agent Ace$Thugg performed his solo – everyone hooted and cheered him on, even though we had no clue what that sounded like over at the Strand. A few curious pedestrians stopped to see what we were waiting for, but couldn’t put up with the cold long enough to find out.

    Afterwards, it was so satisfying to hear the initial reports that the rings could be heard from the far reaches of the third floor!

  14. Agent Dan says:

    w00t, this mission was great! i was a dialer, out there in the freezing cold, but i hooked myself up with the largest chai possible whilst the group made its way down to strand. i was stupid though, and never asked my pair what kind of phone she has so i opted out of the parted section. that was a whole lot of fun, even just imagining the mayhem happening at strand. great job, everyone, and horray for participation!

  15. Dave Rywall says:

    ANOTHER BRILLIANT MISSION, PEOPLE

    Keep up the good work, dammit!

  16. Agent Anderson says:

    Pinky toes probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but after freezing them off during the mission I learned that they’re really not that useful anyway! Despite the cold, it was a great idea and really funny, even for those who weren’t in the store. Just imagining what was going on inside made the night entertaining.

  17. Nhatty's Buddy from NC says:

    Just to amend the comment above, our whole bit goes like this:

    Me: "Check nhatty’s phone. I come up and he’s getting his picture taken with Chris Martin. AND GWYNETH PALTROW IS TAKING THE PICTURE!"
    Random Sucker: "Holy shit!"

    Hahaha. Anyway, great to be in NYC and be a part of this. Great planning you guys, keep it up!!

  18. Agent Siegel says:

    Due to my criminal background from the previous mission, Agent Todd forbade me from being a member of the in-store crew, saying he didnt want to feel more guilty if legal troubles happened again. So i remained with the callers out in the cold. After the initial organization was handled and we were separated into our "sections" began a nice long COLD game of waiting. When Agent Kula received the call to begin we were very excited, and i dialed, waited until i got voicemail and hung up. That was anti-climactic,
    the rest of the calls were fun and we imagined that the store was crazy, but for us out in the cold, we were most concerned with keeping warm and protecting ourselves from teh wind.
    I did like when the police rolled by several times, making sure we werent doing anything too crazy…"Its weird," one guy said "this is like the best spot for service" "yeah me too" others chimed in.

    Our big finale was epic, as a dialer it felt good. then we dispersed, freezing and numb , but yet still had a blast being a part of it all

  19. Agent FuryAce says:

    Yay, the first mission that I participated in, and I had a great time. It was bitterly cold outside waiting for all of you to get in there, but the Square group made the best of it. Great idea, great execution, and fun all around! Looking foward to the next one…

    P.S. Meghan from FIT, its Nick from Long Island, shoot an E-mail to furyace@yahoo.com next mission you do, maybe we’ll meet up beforehand.

    P.P.S. Two seprate commenting sections for the mission? Slightly confusing setup…

  20. Agent Siegel says:

    PS. On my way to the mission, a rando guy from college recognized me on the subway and said, "you’re going to keep your pants on for this ride right?"