“There is the theory of the moebius. A twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop, from which there is no escape. When we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.”
-Lieutenant Commander Worf, Star Trek: TNG, “Time Squared”
On Saturday, March 22, 2003 Improv Everywhere agents created a living moebius strip in the Astor Place Starbucks. Seven undercover agents meticulously repeated a five-minute slice of time for twelve consecutive repetitions. Starbucks employees and patrons were frightened, confused, and ultimately entertained as they found themselves stuck, without escape, in the middle of a time loop.
There were six major components to our scene:
1. Agent Todd and Agent Dippold enter the Starbucks holding hands. They stand in line, debating over what to order. Agent Dippold reaches in her purse for her cell phone, revealing a pack of cigarettes.
Todd: You can’t smoke in here, Katie.
Dippold: I’m not smoking. I’m just getting my phone.
Todd: Give me those (tries to snatch the pack)
Todd: You promised you would never smoke around me.
Dippold: I’m not!
Todd: You promised you wouldn’t let me see these. (tries to snatch them again.)
Agent Dippold becomes frustrated and begins to walk towards the door.
Dippold: I can’t believe you’re doing this!
Todd: (yelling) Come back!… Come back here!… Katie!
Dippold exits and Todd chases out after her.
Agents Dippold and Todd begin to argue
Todd attempts to take cigarettes
“Katie… Come back!”
Agent Mason (right) sits with Agent Kula
Agent Barrison takes his call
Agent King bumps in to Agent Mason
Agent Keech with boombox
This sequence of events was repeated seamlessly for one hour.
Agent King, Agent Barrison and I come in to look for tables. There is an open table right near the door; I throw my book bag on it. We look around for other tables, but only find one. Me at the one by the door, and Agent King and Agent Barrison on the one a level above us.
I get a grande regular coffee and a water. The girl behind the counter is REALLY nice to me.
I sit down at the table and Agent Kula asks to sit at my table. I decide I am a student working on a philosophy paper, and wait for Agent Todd and Dippold to start the loop.
Loop begins. Agent Todd and Dippold enter. One minute later, I decide to try and spill coffee. I let the cup fall over, and as I planned, just a bit of coffee leaks out. I say, “God…dammit.” Run across the Starbucks to get napkins, run back, clean up the mess, run to throw the napkins out, trot back. The coffee spilled correctly, so I decide I’m going to go with that. The rest of the loop goes as planned.
First repeated loop. I try to spill coffee as before but the entire top pops off and 75% of a grande coffee goes over the table and floor around us. “GOD DAMMIT.” I run to get a ton of napkins, wipe off the table, apologize to Agent Kula, run back for more napkins, clean up, more napkins to clean the floor some, throw them out, then I give up. Agent Todd and Dippold exit through my puddle of coffee. In the middle of this loop, the Starbucks guy comes with a mop to clean up the mess. I say, “Thanks.” He says, “No problem.” When Agent Keech walks through, there is no more coffee. A large man, a large woman, and another greasy looking older man sit at the table opposite the door from Agent Kula and I.
Loop repeats. From here on out my loop actually is the same each time mostly: I decide to spill water now. I take the top off the clear cup, drink it, spill some down my shirt, say “God damn it”, put the cap back on, run to get napkins, run back, as I crumble the napkin and place it on the pile of napkins on my table, I laugh to Agent Kula as though to say, “Heh, what a day!”, get back to studying, Agent King hits me, I glare at him, put my hands on my face, recenter, glare a little at Agent King on his way back, get back to work, Agent Kula sneezes, I bless him, I finish a page of writing as Agent Todd and Dippold appear to start the loop over, and get to the end of a paragraph to take a sip of water, which starts my loop over.
Loop repeats. After Agent Todd says, “Katie!” I hear a woman at a table above us: “We seen that the third time. The same direction, the same face. How many times do you see the same thing like that?”
Loop repeats. After Agent Todd and Dippold leave, the old man says, “Katie has gone out of here three times.”
Loop repeats. When Agent Todd and Dippold enter, the old people: “They always come back holding hands.” “Wouldn’t you give up after the second time?” “If I were him, I’d say, ‘Fine! Leave! I’ll just be here!'” Another table comments on Agent Keech: “Look. This guy with the boombox, he keeps coming in that side.” “Here he comes! Here he comes!!”
Loop repeats. Agent Todd and Katie come in, the old people say, “She’s just gonna run out on him.” When Agent Keech enters, the other table says: “And it all begins again.” The old people: “He just makes a circle.” “They should have a video of this.” The other table is chatting, looking for what else is repeating.
Loop repeats. The old couple pay no attention to Agent Todd and Katie. Have they lost interest? No, they notice other things, but like Agent Todd/Katie: “The loud yelling ‘Katie!’, that’s the funny one.” Regarding Agent Barrison: “This happened before, too, the 9pm.” Regarding Agent King hitting me: “Look! He hit him again!” “You could just stay here all day, and they’d keep doing it. They should charge admissions, to just sit here all day and watch.” The old people now notice almost everything, even Agent Kula’s sneeze (as it happens right in front of them). Best line of the day from the old people: “You know, there’s another Starbucks right over there, I bet this is all happening there, too.”
Loop repeats. Overheard someone else: “It’s the same sequence.” Table behind Agent Barrison, Agent King: “You think Starbucks always has people in here doing stuff like this?”
Loop repeats. Old people haven’t said much in a while, then: “Hey, where’s Katie? Oh! There she goes, there she goes!” The table behind Agent Barrison and Agent King get up to leave, the woman seems to be stressed by the whole thing, like we’ve made her feel like she’s been here longer than she really has, she overhears the old people exclaim about Katie: “Yeah, they’ll go around maybe like five more times after you leave.” Young Asian girl passes Agent Keech as she leaves: “What is up with that guy, man?” Girl behind me (excitedly): “The SAME THING’S happening over and over.”
Loop repeats. Another guy: “That’s scary. They shouldn’t do that.” When Agent King comes back from restroom: “See? That just happened. That … scene. It all just happened.”
Loop repeats. The past two times I’ve gotten napkins, the Starbucks guy is by them, I say, “I’m sorry,” he says, “No problem.” A guy leaving the Starbucks bumps into me, a la Agent King, and says, “I’m sorry.”
End of final loop.
I clean up the now fairly large pile of napkins. I pack up my stuff. Agent King, Agent Barrison are also leaving, as I return from throwing out the napkins, they are in my way, so I bump into Agent King hard and say, “I’m sorry” sarcastically, and glare a little. I leave, and meet up with other agents at the B&N.
We met up at our usual coordinates, the Starbucks Cafï¿½ in the Astor Place Barnes and Noble (a corporation inside a corporation!). We took a group photo, synchronized our watches/cell phones/iPods and headed to the Starbucks across the street (there are three Starbucks within spitting distance in this area).
Agents Dippold, Keech and I stayed outside while the others entered and found their tables. Dippold and I gave them a good five minutes to get settled before we made our entrance. This particular Starbucks is one of the largest in the city. It’s always filled with NYU types who camp out at tables for hours at a time, reading and studying. We essentially had a captive audience, and our stage played like Theatre in the Round; there were eyes on us coming from all sides.
I held the door open for three ladies as I entered (I repeated holding the door for the same length of time at every subsequent loop, despite their being no one to hold it for). A few steps inside the door, Agent Dippold and I joined hands. We slowly made our way to the register area, carefully memorizing every step we would have to repeat eleven times.
Once Agent Mason had returned to his table with napkins and had commenced cleaning up, Agent Dippold and I began our argument. Our exit was quite loud with me yelling, “Come back!” in an exasperated tone. We walked around the corner, passed Agent Keech coolly leaning against the wall with his boombox, ready to enter. We waited about two minutes before it was time to re-enter.
We were largely unnoticed on our second entrance. By the third loop, it was clear that we were being watched by nearly everyone in the room. Two men sitting a table near us even switched seats so they could get a different view of the action. On our third exit, I noticed that Agent Barrison’s cell phone was ringing right as we walked out the door. This continued to happen at the exact same moment every subsequent loop. Agent Kula’s timing on the phone call was dead on.
On the sixth loop, a Starbucks employee, obviously hip to our antics, approached me and asked for the time. I looked at my watch and replied “5:25”. He smiled and said, “Thanks. I hope everything is going ok.” For the remaining five loops, I looked at my watch and said “5:25” at the exact same moment; it was now part of our sequence.
On the twelfth and final loop, we switched shirts and roles. The same employee approached us again:
Employee: Hello. I just want to make sure that everything is ok with you guys.
Agent Todd: Yeah…
Agent Dippold: We were going to get something to drink if that’s ok.
Employee: (timidly) Yes. Yes. I’m so sorry to bother you…
Agent Todd: No problem.
Employee: I’m so sorry…it’s just…all these people back there…(pointing to the other agents)…I feel like this is some kind of “instant replay”. Anyway, I’m so sorry to bother you.
To our audience, it seemed as though the first couple of times Agent Todd and I repeated our loop we were fighting then making up and coming back. Each time we returned, I felt more heads turn to watch. When I stormed out we would walk around the corner and while waiting I would fix my hair in the GAP window … So I wonder if the GAP had its own deja vu thing going with this girl who kept appearing in the window every five minutes fixing her hair.
Agent Mason’s “Goddammit!” was definitely a hook: customers in the area around us would turn around each time to see what had just happened, and then they’d watch Mason’s sad dash from the table to the napkins dispenser all the way across the room.
It was the perfect blend of hilarious and pitiful, like these people (myself included) wanted to laugh but at the same time felt so bad for this poor guy whose shirt kept getting more and more soaked.
Every single time after Mason brought back the napkins and toweled himself off, I’d look up from my magazine and we’d share one of those half-smile/half-shrug looks like, “Yep, it’s just one of those days…”
At first I was nervous that someone was going to spot me using my phone and would put it together that I was the one calling Agent Barrison, so I hid the phone in my lap, underneath my copy of ESPN The Magazine.
I realized halfway through the mission that the way I was fiddling with this hidden phone, it must have looked like I was playing with myself — while reading ESPN The Magazine.
I came awfully close to breaking the first time Agent Keech walked in. Not so much because, you know, here’s a dude in Starbucks with a boombox kicking out the jams, as it was here’s a dude in Starbucks with a boombox kicking out “Shiny Happy People.”
When Agents Dippold and Todd enter for the fifth or sixth time. A table of older customers seated by the door is watching them:
Old Guy 1: Uh oh, look … here comes “Katie” again! Watch, they’re holding hands now, but she’s gonna storm out soon.
(Dippold and Todd begin arguing at the counter)
Old Guy 2: Here it comes, here it comes!
Dippold (rushing out): I can’t believe you’re doing this.
Todd: Come back … come back! Katie! (exits)
Old Guy 1: See, I told you! “Come back, Katie!” Ha ha haa, s’like that every time… (whole table cracks up)
Old Guy 2: What are we, in a time warp?
At minute two, Agent Kula would call my cell phone. I would let it ring for about 20 seconds, answer it, and move near the door to get better reception. After about 20 more seconds I’d make my plans to meet at a bar at 9 and resume sitting and reading.
By the third of fourth iteration, people started noticing. At one point, a patron was seated at the table near the door where I took my call. He was sitting with an older couple, and all three of them were on to what was occurring. This huge mass of human saw me coming at perhaps the fifth loop and said, “Look at this dork.” Look at this dork, indeed.
A student was sitting at a table behind me. She caught on pretty quickly, and by the tenth time had the entire loop memorized. She was talking to all the people sitting around her, pointing out each piece of the cycle. She called her friends and begged them to come down to see it. She thought we might have been making a movie. How right she was, thanks to Agent Winckler and his custom camera bag.
There was a young girl sitting up beside Agent Barrison and me. She first noticed Agents Todd and Dippold on the third time through and noticed me repeating, “The line for the bathroom is really long” as well. She was mostly just watching it all. Then as things continued to progress, she started rubbing her face and shaking her head and stuff – just looking really confused.
Her confusion was eased when she discovered someone else who was noticing what was going on. She and the guy down near Agent Winckler started talking and pointing out the series of events, saying stuff like, “Here comes radio guy again!”
She started laughing then and watching it all happen, kind of cueing it. Then she and the Starbucks employee talked and he said he had noticed it too. They were all kind of giggling and not sure what to say.
She was still there when we left.
I took the opportunity to modify my courier bag into a hidden camera rig by cutting away fabric behind an existing transparent ID card pocket. Once I packed a few precision T-shirts around my camera, it was ready to go.
After grabbing some wretched Starbucks tea, I situated myself at a table where I could tape the time warped action of the other I.E. agents. I set my bag on the table and hit the RECORD button. To cover my pans, I fiddled with the junk in my bag and called my voicemail, pretending to make notes on my PDA as I shoved the bag back and forth.
A nice Amerasian guy at the table next to me saw the camera. At one point about halfway through the mission, thinking to throw off suspicion, I inquired of him, ‘is there something weird going on?’ He said, ‘well, you’re filming it.’ I was at a bit of a loss. He pressed me for information and I told him I’d let him know what we were doing after it was over–‘mum’s the word, eh?’ He was the first to notice something weird, I think. It was awesome to see him close his textbook, smiling eagerly, as he waited to see what would happen next.
All photos taken with this hidden camera bag
Strangers laugh and share their experience
Employee and customer
Strangers point and predict the next move in the loop