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?"

  21. Agent Jester says:

    I arrived in the later part of the arrivals at Strand – so late in fact, that my messenger bag with my cell phone was denied upon my entrance! I was actually given the go-ahead to walk around the store with my bag on the one day I wanted to check it in! Despite this minor setback, after reaching into my back and setting my phone to vibrate I casually walked around the first floor to hear some funny dialogue between the Strand store employees. After a short time I overheard an employee say something along the lines of: "its live-art…its an installation so just go with it." It seemed that while certain employees didn’t know exactly what was going on at Strand, they made it a point to let everyone know that they knew SOMETHING was going on, and that they weren’t going to be fooled by it. Well played, Strand. Well played.

  22. Melissa says:

    I was one of the agents located inside the Strand store. I was part of the treo orchestra and my boyfriend was the one who was in charge of calling my phone. I happened to be on the ground level of the store when all the phones started going off. I overheard one of the workers say to another worker, "you mean ALL the phones in bag check are ringing? and the workers at the register were like, "Find the phone that’s ringing! Which one is it?" to where the bag check guy said, "All of them!!!" haha It was a blast.

  23. Hannah says:

    This is butt-ass awesome. Sux I was off that night, though.

  24. Agent Montague says:

    Philip Glass would be proud.

  25. agent scoboco says:

    freezing or not (and, yes, that was just about the coldest i’ve ever been), it was a total pleasure to be a part of bringing some joyous silliness to this amazing city. thanks especially agent kula for your fine conducting.

    ps: love the strand-ers "first-phone" theory .. like patient zero!

  26. Agent Jessica says:

    For my first mission, this was a definate success. Although I just so happened to have one of the three bags that was located with a ringing phone so when I approached the counter with my tag, the security guard recognized the number, "A26, A26, cell phone!" The manager comes over with his arms crossed demanding to know what that whole stunt was all about. I honored the code and didn’t reveal my sources, replying with, "I’m sorry I don’t know what you’re talking about…" He continued to describe the bit, "You know exactly what I’m talking about… there was a line out the door, cell phones all started going off at once, there was some person over there taking pictures… someone video taping!" "There was someone video taping?" (that made him start huffing a little more, oops) "Well, I don’t know if this is part of a class or what…blah blah blah… this is my place of business…blah, customers…blah… well, just tell that guy with the hat that I banned that he’s not really banned."
    hah. mission accomplished.

  27. Nick says:

    Haha, I’m the guy in the picture who was "banned from the Strand". This was my first time doing a mission and it was lots of fun. I wish I could’ve thanked the guy who called my phone but I had to leave early. I hope to do another mission soon as I had a great time!

  28. McGruff says:

    Sweet time! When you guys comin’ to CHICAGO!!!!!

  29. MadDog says:

    It was my first mission and despite the cold, it was a lot of fun. I never knew the perils of having an old phone until that night when I could not find a common ringtone. Still, it was a great time and I look forward to operating in the next mission.

  30. Agent Barth says:

    I learned that night that i take for granted having feeling in most parts of my body, however, despite the in-humane weather, the mission was quite enjoyable.

  31. J.P. says:

    I was a caller, afraid I was gonna lose a toe or two from the cold, but I had fun anyway. My favorite moment: when the "soloist" came up, someone in the calling crowd yelled "FREEBIRD!"

  32. AYpianoman says:

    So yeah — good times had by all…except for my left foot, whose toes took over an hour to regain consciousness…

    Wish I could have been inside to see what was going on, but it was kind of neat knowing that something was happening that we couldn’t see.

    Great mission. Wish I’d thought of it myself.

    Until next mission…

  33. Agent Kendall says:

    I was in the group that went to the Strand in the LG Hallelujah section. I’d never been there before, so after checking my back pack I went up the second floor and got lost in the back. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hear too much so I walked back over to the stairs where I heard phones going off and then the announcements about that happening. Something I thought funny was the reaction by some agents of not knowing what to make of the announcements. As if we were completely innocent. Another plus was finding a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert which I unfortunately haven’t read until now. Then I finally saw Agent Todd give the signal that the mission was over and walked back to Union Square to hear some stories. The guy that gave me my back pack seem to drop it on the counter, but I wasn’t sure if this was because of the ruckus or just his way of doling out bags. I had a good laugh when I got outside and saw the 6 missed calls on my phone.

    So thanks IE for the mission and thanks Strand for the cheap book!

  34. Agent Rand says:

    Maybe it’s misguided leftover Bumblebee loyalty, but since I’d follow Agent Kula through hell, following his lead through an hour of 10-degree phone dialing was a cakewalk. I agree that part of the fun was wondering what was going on a few blocks away — it was like imagination calisthenics. My mind is so buff now.

  35. not you says:

    hope everyone who does this shit realizes that comments are constantly censored from this board, giving no real, cutting out everything critical and leaving only the self congratulatory. the vast majority of people who know of this "prank" are quick to see your arrogance and disregard for working people (i.e. making them the butt of your "chaos")… and how fucking annoying cell phone yuppies are.

  36. fishes and barrels says:

    to everyone who participated in the "cellphone symphony" "prank": if you choose to spend your Saturday nights siphoning snot from Guy Debord’s very dead frontal lobe- that’s your business. Godspeed and all. But as one of the (NOT!) (per your mission statement) smiling visages depicted on your ludicrously self-congratulatory website, I gotta tell you: you are on some Allen Funt shit. Candid Camera for the unbearably smug. Or, more accurately (considering your penchant for "Agent:Dipshit" style designations) that mid-90’s MTV talent vaccum "Buzzkill." (Remember it? Didn’t think so.) Anyway, congratulations – my buzz, such as it was, you killed. Allow me to return the favor: a few of my Strand co-workers decided to post comments to your message board and were uncermoniously booted. Considering your purported goal of fomenting"chaos"_ (your words) and seeing what "happens" (again) – this seems, at the very least, pretty fucking weak. Because here is what "happened" – your played an asinine "prank" unworthy of even the least self-aware college student ("NYU class" was a compliment I guess) on some tired working people and got called, I believe, DOUCHEBAGS, in return. This was obviously more than your sensitive, actory hearts could take – (Life is, like,…hard, I know) but at the risk of adding salt to ex cetera, I concur with my coworkers: YOU ARE DOUCHEBAGS.

  37. IE Webmaster says:

    Regarding the two comments above this: It has always been the policy of this site to delete comments of anonymous haters with nothing productive to say. Last night someone posted “You are douchebags” eight times in a row. Yes, we deleted them. Yes, we deleted all of the other anonymous posts that were posted last night (all posted, we figured, by the same person.) We welcome constructive criticism, but remember this is our home. If you make a mess, we’re going to clean it up. Just as if someone spray painted “You are douchebags” on the wall of The Strand, it would be promptly removed.

  38. a friend says:

    This project sounds fantastic. One possibility for the future is to ratchet it up a notch and get political with it. What if something like this happened in a government building–and the ringtones themselves had different protest messages on them? I suppose you’d all have to agree on the target of protest, but there are many things going on presently in the US that almost every person would agree is problematic (like present levels of government corruption, the incompetence of the Katrina disaster prevention and relief in New Orleans, etc.). You might take inspiration from what happened in the Philippines in the summer of 2005, when President Gloria Arroyo’s wiretapped comments supposedly about election rigging were floated online and then transformed into ringtones and communicated everywhere, at protests, on the streets of Manila, and eventually as car horns! Choosing the target based on accessibility of cellphone placement and appropriateness of the site for a peaceful protest would have to be considered. One might also want to use disposable phones and do away with the programmed ringtones if one doesn’t want to get caught, although as a peaceful protest one should in principle be able to use one’s free speech rights to do orchestrate such an event. I’m sure if you collectively considered some possibilities you’d be able to come up with something very effective and appropriate. Anyway, just a thought…

  39. Jacey says:

    Advice for “not you” and “fishes and barrels”– The following web domains are up for grabs:
    Partypoopers.net and Imafuddyduddy.com. With a little imagination and some hard work, you can set up shop & have absolutely no fun on your own sites. Let us light hearted folks gather here to share a few chuckles.

  40. Agent Boles says:

    Wow, Agent Kula DOES look like Chris Martin in these pictures! I wish I’d thought to get a picture of myself with "Chris" to show off to my friends!

  41. Anonymous says:

    Who’s Chris Martin???

  42. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous? I posted my full name you shmucks.
    sincerly,
    Richard J. O’Keeffe

  43. still not you says:

    please remove the post from "a friend." it is posted in anonymity. duhduhduhduhdouchebags.

  44. Hillary M. says:

    Just be glad the other manager was on duty that night. He’s the nice one. If I’d been in I’d have fucking killed you guys. I like jokes as much as the next person, but y’all aren’t clever, just immature and obnoxious. Ever heard of subtlety? I guess not. Idiots.

  45. oh so not you says:

    "Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." when did the strand become a public space?

  46. Agent Adams says:

    This was my first mission and it’s such a great group of people that it makes you wanna keep doing it and doing it!!
    Watching Kula conduct a bunch of people on their cell phones in the bitter bitter cold as the cops rolled by was a beautiful thing.

  47. Agent Laurel says:

    I think all of the negative feedback coming from Strand’s employees just kind of reinstates the point of Improv Everywhere, which is to remind people not to take everything so seriously, that fun isn’t about having someone validate your level of "cleverness", it’s about perspective, it’s about enjoying the small things. We surely can’t expect everybody to feel this way, but we surely can’t let that get in the way of our fun. No major injuries were caused, there was no damage to property, hell, Strand even got some business out of it. So what was so wrong about this?
    I think there are some people on high horses here who feel like our fun personally insulted them. Perhaps they’re embarrassed because they reacted like asses and feel like perpetuating an ass reaction is the proper way to go about this, to declare their strength. My point here is not to insult, but merely to say you do your own point no justice by throwing around insults. You’re not angry because this mission didn’t satisfy your standards of cleverness, your angry because this was your turf and you feel like the butt of a joke, an understood reaction. But where’s the maturity in calling people idiots and shmucks and douchebags?
    So we continue to giggle on oursides and enjoy ourselves while you continue to sulk over how some douchebags disrupted your exciting Saturday night at work. Hell, even if you laugh at us for our "obnoxious" actions, I’d say that makes Improv Everywhere’s point that much more substantiated. Atleast you’re laughing at something. But anger can be intellectualized without insults. So work on that.
    Peace and Love always,
    Laurel

  48. Specified says:

    I can’t believe the people that work at the Stand are getting so upset about that. I would LOVE it if you guys did something crazy where I work, just to break up the day. Retail is boring, anything out of the ordinary makes the day go by faster & gives me great stories to tell. These Strand people must be REALLY uptight to get so bent out of shape over a bunch of cell phones ringing.
    & I personally think it was VERY creative, & well executed.

  49. Kitty says:

    Sheesh, since when has "douchebag" become a witty insight? Anyyyyway…

    Cute joke, I was a random shopper in the Strand that day and enjoyed the surreal kerfuffle going on. Keep up the light-hearted work, it’s obvious we need more of it around.

  50. Chandra says:

    I have to agree that the supposed Strand Workers took this way too seriously. It did not cause any extra aggravation or work for them…the only issue is that it was noisy for about 20 minutes. But I can’t imagine that being more irritating then in other stores where the same music is played over and over. I love what you guys do and although I know the missions aren’t always amusing to all people I think it is great that you do your best to not create a mess for others to clean up or impede their work. It is only people who choose to overreact that have issues.

  51. Ardelia Cross says:

    I love that eveyone assumes no customers were upset. I happened to be there during your "mission" and I was both upset and frightened so I ran from the store. When I told my sister what happened she mentioned we found this site. I don’t think its fair that only the hip people have a right to have opinon in this town. The moment someone disagrees they are labled uncool or uptight. You entered a semirelaxed area and caused an unexplained disturbance. Please try to be more considerate when choosing your targets.

  52. Mickyfinn says:

    I have to wonder it IE will have to create missions that only are in parks, etc. The feedback from the retail employees make me wonder if some trouble could happen at another such mission. I guess you can never know what someone who will call someone a douchebag over the net might do in person.

    I also have to wonder if the reaction would have come if they were to find out it was a David Letterman gag. Perhaps its the fact agents are Regular Joes that ‘plotted against them’ that made them angry.

  53. jason says:

    I think it’s important to remember that anyone can claim to be a Strand employee or a customer that night in an anonymous internet posting. I was one of the agents on the inside, and from my perspective the phones were unsual and strange but nothing that seriously scared anyone. I didn’t see anyone running from the store. I mostly saw people laughing. I wish someone would come to my job and do something out of the ordinary.

  54. steph says:

    Wow, this was such a great mission. For me it’s right up there with the Moebius. It made people stop and think about what was happening, just have a break in their day.
    I personally do not see any harm in this mission, and I think you guys should carry with these great missions.
    Can’t wait for the next one!

  55. alphagirl says:

    I agree that adding a little wonder and chaos into people’s routines is a good thing. Why is it that there has to be a perceived "butt" of the joke, as though it were a prank being played "upon" someone? Just because some people end up feeling foolish, doesn’t mean that the point of the mission was to make people feel foolish. If that was the point, I think I wouldn’t enjoy IE’s work as much if at all. On to the next!

  56. Dick Deadeye says:

    This is for the so-called "employees" and the above "frightened customer".

    Please, PLEASE get over yourselves. If you proud nine-to-fivers at the Strand are really angry because a small group of people had their cell-phones go off simultaneously, try entertaining what a similarly sized group (120 people) might have done to your precious bookstore by wiring said cellular phones to fist-sized amounts of Semtex. _That_ would have been "not-funny". And you would have lost that important $6.75/hr that you spent all those years not going to college for.

    You wage-slaves are such primates you can’t even recognize what constitutes a legitimate gripe. Try cracking a smile about something besides short-changing customers and pocketing the difference.

    First of all, Allen Funt was a genius and a pioneer in the field of social experimentation. Secondly – your biggest beef was that you were annoyed? Wusses. I’m glad you were annoyed. People like you need to be bothered, because apparently you’ve lost the ability to think critically about the absurd.

    As for the frightened customer – Stay inside your home! It’s not safe for people like you out here! I’m sure your sister is hip enough to explain the whole world to you without you ever having to stick your big toe into harm’s way, you effing crybaby. And FYI – It’s not that the un-hip aren’t entitled to an opinion. It just that no one CARES what your opinion is. No one has "labeled" you uncool or uptight. You have embraced those lifestyles on your own. "OMG – An unscheduled public disturbance in a semi-relaxed area! RUN AWAY!"

    Freaking Ninnies…

  57. xian says:

    Impressive mission. It’s very similar to one that a Korean anti-government group did at a major conference in Seoul. They went a little farther–they got the mail addresses of most of the public officials at the conference and sent them all political messages at the same time.

    I like the way you broke it down into movements and by brand. That was clever.

    On the subject of the people who didn’t enjoy it or claim to have not enjoyed it: It’s certainly better to gain joy out of the novel and unexpected, so I wish they would have derived joy out of the event.

    However, the self-satisfied ripping of them for their opinion sounds more hateful than constructive criticism. I mean, looking at the general demographic of Improv Everywhere, people are not going to respond positively to people shouting "LIGHTEN UP! YOU HAVE NO SENSE OF HUMOR!" at them, even if it’s true.

    To the folks who say, "When are you coming to XXXXX?" why not start your own group? It looks to be a lot of planning and work, but why not try it out–even if you can’t do the press end of it (the reflections are really interesting), you will still have effect on those you interact with.

    If you are in Chi, drop me a line: xianb8 at the domain of yahoo dot com.

    peace.

  58. Per Lund says:

    I love your missions, wish I could participate in or be exposed to one!

    I read the somewhat bitter comments above. Provided they actually are written by store workers, it seems that it comes partly from embarrassment over how they reacted at the time, partly from a (misguided) sense of inferiority, partly from fear of what we don’t immediately understand, and partly from the idea that there has to be "victims" and they are those. It is sad, but maybe unavoidable. Some folks will take any excuse for feeling mistreated…

    It strikes me that some of these missions sort out people based on how they respond to innocent and not easily explainable situations. Some of us take it as an invitation to have fun. Others feel threatened by it.

    To me, it is clear that your intention, as you say yourself, is to provide opportunities for fun, enjoyment and a sense of wonder of daily mysteries.

  59. me says:

    love it love it! there are indeed a few totalitarian types who run the show at the Strand. nice to know they were able to go along for the ride at the end.

  60. meg says:

    Great job people! I love reading about your missions. Way better than writing a boring paper.

  61. rhondaar says:

    hahahahaaa you are so funny! lynch- hot coals- clowns. perfect!

  62. Killired says:

    This was even funnier than the Best Buy Mission I just read!!!! I would have loved to have been there and seen this one!

  63. Myles says:

    This is another one that highlights the "culture of fear" that has been cultivated in this country, if not as sharply. A cellphone is not dangerous, it cannot kill you. A few dozen cellphones ringing in unison should be a frightening experience to no one. Even if one finds it not an entertainment but an annoyance, it certainly isn’t an occurrence that should naturally cause fear in anyone. I’m honestly not belittling or mocking those who reacted in fear, though, their fear is real. I’m just pointing out that fear of something innocuous like this isn’t a natural response, it is a trained one, a learned one.

    For those of you who were afraid, I would like to learn what you were afraid of. What exactly did you think could occur to threaten your safety or life that could be caused by cellphones? I think many reading this should know what exactly you were thinking at those moments.

    As for those out there who ARE belittling the people who are afraid, stop. Now. You are causing more problems than you hope to solve.

    Finally, to those of you out there painting IE as some sort of vicious cell of brain terrorists, you can stop too. No reasonable person going into this mission could possibly have predicted a reaction of fear from anyone.

  64. lemonade says:

    *On the internet, people can pretend to be anything they want to… like a Strand employ, as someone else already mentioned.

    *Someone "does" not seem "to" have "a" good grasp of "what" quotation marks "do." Perhaps a "dictionary" "is" in order.

    *A shopper ran from the store because of the disturbance?? Damn. I’m surprised they’d have balls enough to be in NYC at all if that scared them.

    *Lastly, to the alleged other manager who posted… I’m thinking you need to chill and really reflect on exactly what you could have done to these miscreants legally. Besides "kill" them, I mean.

    *And is it really necessary to point out that people who are over-reacting so much in their behavior from the outset are NOT going to respond to any comments that hold a differing point of view? Because otherwise, they wouldn’t be so freakin’ self-important in the first place.

  65. Klawzie says:

    Sounded all in good fun to me! If I had been there I doubt I would have been anything other than mildly nervous while simultantiously intrigued and amused.

    "What ho!" I might think to myself, pausing a moment in my book-worm gorge. "Is this entertainment or the innocuous-sounding precursor to the store blowing up?" Obviously, if it were the latter, it would be too late for me to escape, so why not be amused in my final moments, surrounded by the books I love so much?

    Cheers. I’ve stayed up until 5am reading your adventures. Round three after a few hours of sleep.

  66. Kat says:

    This is the first time that reading Improv Everywhere’s site has ever made me sad. I’ll have to steer clear of the comments page from now on, and I’m sorry the symphony was such a disturbance to some. I enjoyed hearing about it after the fact.
    -k

  67. Xpect25 says:

    Niice.. I’ve got an idea that I will share with you in the near future. Prepare.

  68. Agent Dolan says:

    i know this is absurdly late, but better that than never i figure…

    I was in the "Hello Moto" group mercifully located inside the Strand on that partucilarly frigid evening… when i arrived at the Strand there were dozens of people at the entrance so i shopped around the block for a while before entering with a smaller line of people. Dutifully checked my bag (there were almost no cubbies left for my bag!) and began shopping around on the top level. from my position i could dully hear the cell phones begin to blast but managed not to laugh at the thought of how loud it must be on ground level. People all around me were talking about the stange phenomenon while they continued to shop. Once the announcement was played over the PA i decided to check out the basement level, mainly so i could pass through and casually observe the scene on the main level without staying there. it looked fantastic. i loitered in the basement for a while until i went up to check for the "end mission" signal. i saw agent Todd with his grey hood and knew it was time to collect my bag and pay for my Collection of Stories by Truman Capote. As i approached the bag check i noticed that there were far fewer bags than when i checked in and also that my bag had been pulled aside on top of the cubbies! A very large Jamaican guy had replaced the man i left my bag with and did not seem at all pleased. when i handed him my ticket he saw that mine was one of the "quaratined" bags and seemed even less pleased. He held my bag up for me to see. This is how the conversation went from there: Jamaican man: "Is dat yo bahg? Ringin?" Agent Dolan: (innocently)"yes, that’s my bag, but ringing?" JM: "Yeah, ringing. With da RING TONE and a MANS VOICE". AD: "i’m not sure what you mean. I may have accidentally left my phone and someone could have called me. I am supposed to go to a party later on…" JM: "Stay der" At this point he called a manager over who was in the same low spirits as the bag check guy. He glowered at me asking me whether my phone had been rining. I told him i wasn’t sure, that it was possible i supposed, afterall i was going to a party later on… (i figured this was not a lie, for all i know my partner never called my phone. if a tree falls in the woods and all…) The manager brusquely gave me the same options as all the other agents at which point i was finally given back my bag. i thanked them, bought my book and took off. Once on the street i managed to wait about a block before i laughed myself silly. That earned me some strange loks seeing as i was by myself… i was sad the the employees (especially the Jamaican and the Manager) didn’t think the mission was funny. i worked retail for a loooong time and i would have loved it if something like this had happened to break up the mind numbing monotony! Overall it was a fabulous time, i loved participating in the mission! It also gave me an excuse to put on a Jamaican accent and say "Is dat yo phone? with the RING TONE" everytime one of my friends’ phones ring. hahahaha!

  69. Agent X says:

    you guys inspire me…this cell phone symphony is DEFINITLY going to be our april fool’s joke at school this year…every phone in the hallway going off in a tribute to you guys

  70. hannah says:

    That was pretty dumb…..

  71. Suzanne says:

    That is priceless. Just priceless. Quite inspiring actually.

    And for the record, omg the "Hello Moto" ringtone is horrible. My phone played that in class last semester and I ignored it because I didn’t want to answer the phone and claim it as mine.

  72. Bob says:

    A more elaborate prank would be to make clips of actual parts of a sonata and send parts to specific phones. Then you could make a song with each part. (like a violin group, viola group, cello group, etc)

  73. Matt says:

    Lol this site is great I love reading the new pranks.

  74. Skandranon says:

    This is my favorite of all your improvs. The symphony idea was beautiful. I used to love going to the Strand, and can picture the whole setting in my head as I read you page. I’m very glad some members bought books; I love how your work is always positively oriented and even goes as far as to help the intended “victims”. The hostile replies I see on your page from “Strand employees”, though, makes me feel less inclined to shop there again.

  75. eli says:

    i think this stuff is HILARIOUS!!! i dont know why all of you people are being so negative. it just ruins the fun for the rest of us who actually like what ie is doing. sheesh.

  76. Alex N. says:

    Great Idea! That was amazing! xD wish I could’ve been there, but I live out in the desert we call Utah :(

    -NewkirAj

  77. Cancer Cell1705 says:

    nice job, i am impressed. i think i might get a whole bunch of people and do that at Michigan Adventure Land where there are more than 300 lockers and we will have an even larger symphony. Kudos and awsome job

  78. Rin says:

    Improv Everywhere is the best thing I have ever stumbled across on the Internet. You guys are ingenious and wonderful and awe-inspiring. Being a theater student I find it all the more lovely. Keep up the great work and good luck on all your future missions.

  79. BRIZA says:

    HEY GUYS THIS IS SOOOOO COOL!!!
    I DIDN’T KNOW THERE WAS PPL DOING THINGS SO.. AMAZIN!!
    LOL WELL… CONGRATULATIONNSSS..
    WHERE ARE YOU?
    I MEAN, IN WHICH COUNTRY DO YOU DO ALL THIS… ?
    I’M FROM ARGENTINA

    KISSES!