Cell Phone Symphony

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.


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.