For our latest mission, Agent Lathan gave out 2,000 high fives by standing next to a subway escalator during the morning rush. Five additional agents spread out along the adjacent stairs, holding signs that prepared commuters for the upcoming high five fun. Enjoy the video first and then check out the mission report and photos below.
Starring: Agent Lathan, as “Rob” Featuring: Agents Eppink, Lindquist, Small, Thomas, Wimpy Digital Video: Agents Adams, Whines Digital Photography: Agents Sokoler, Todd
The subway station at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue can be a nightmare in the morning. Thousands of commuters make a daily transfer from the E or V train to the 6 train. The first part of the transfer involves taking one of two giant escalators, which both run up in the morning to accommodate the huge crowd.
Packed escalators at 8:30 AM
To the left of the escalators is a staircase. Hardly anyone goes up it, and it’s against the rules to go down it during rush hour (you use another escalator further down to get to the platform).
Everyone is generally in a pretty crappy mood when they’re making this transfer with a herd of other people at the crack of dawn. It was definitely a location in need of a bit of fun.
Our agents take to the stairs
Agent Eppink made four signs that together said, “Rob wants to give you a high five! Get Ready!” There was a fifth sign that just read “Rob” and had an arrow pointing downward. Our agents grabbed their assigned signs and spread out along the stairs a little after 8:30 AM. The staircase had platforms every 10 steps or so, which made it easy for the agents to divide up evenly.
The view looking down
I made two animated gifs to show what the signs looked like from the perspective of someone on the escalator. The first looks straight ahead, and the second looks to the side, following one woman’s ride up.
Our agents stood as close to the escalator as they could in order to leave plenty of room for the few folks who chose to take the stairs.
We picked Agent Lathan to be the high five man for a few reasons. First, he’s really tall. The stairs are a little lower than the escalator, so we needed someone tall enough to reach the riders. Second, Rob’s a comedian and one his of characters is a parody of a life coach whose mantra is “get psyched!” In other words, Rob has lots of experience being positive and pumping people up. I knew if anyone could keep his energy up during 2,000 high fives, it was Rob. I have to admit, I was somewhat concerned that he would get separated from the rest of us.
Rob high fives as Agent Eppink holds the sign behind him
It was awesome watching the reactions of people before, during, and after the high fives. I’d say around 75% of the riders gave Rob a high five. There were some people who were both listening to music and reading a book who didn’t look up to notice what was going on. A small percentage seemed suspicious of us and elected to keep their hands to themselves. Most people smiled and high fived. Some people kept a straight face during the high five, but then privately smiled to themselves a few moments later. Watching people after they gave a high five was almost more fun. Almost everyone was left with a smile. Agent Sokoler took hundreds of reaction shots, peering from behind columns at the top of the escalator. Here are some of our favorites.
People on the further escalator watch the high fives
Lots of people wanted to know if Rob had washed his hands. “You bet I have!”
Rob executed a few “double high fives” when people passed up the steps
“Show me some skin!”
Smiling post high five
“Give me some love!”
Post high five glow
Looking up towards Rob
Making the decision to high five or not
A wise choice!
Playing it cool
These girls were upset that they were on the wrong escalator for the high fives. Rob gave them some “air fives” to their delight.
Leaving the escalator with a smile
We lasted for about 45 minutes in total, staying through the bulk of the morning rush. My guess is that people passed Rob at a rate of one per second. So that would be 2,700 people over 45 minutes who passed by and probably around 75% of them played along. I wonder if 2,000 consecutive high fives from strangers is a world record?
After the crowds thinned out, we quietly disappeared. We got some funny looks from MTA employees throughout the mission, but no one ever said anything to us.
It was tons of fun to do. Most people were into it. I was kind of worried that people would not be into it or angry, but just about everyone was down. Some people were stone faced, but still gave me a high five. It was 8:30 in the morning so people were tired and not in a good mood, but once people connected with my hand, they almost all laughed and smiled. Everyone should start their day with high fives. My hand was a little sore, but it made it through. I think 2,000 high fives is probably the maximum a hand can take.
I was the “Rob wants” sign, the very first sign in the chain. At first I couldn’t tell if it was going well. I wasn’t getting any reactions at all in the beginning, but then I started to hear people interacting with Rob, and I realized it was working. Since I was first I got a lot of people looking confused. They would just see my one sign saying “Rob wants” and wouldn’t get it. Lots of people thought I was Rob and would say, “What do you want?” Then they’d look past me and see the other signs and realize something bigger was going on.
I was the second person people saw. By the time they got to me they were asking who Rob was and how far away he was. My sign read “to give you,” so it introduced the expectation that people were going to get something. Lots of people asked if he was going to give them money. That was a big thing. “Is Rob going to give me $5?” As soon as people made eye contact with me I would smile, and then they would smile, and that made me smile bigger for the next person. It was a fun chain of smiling.
By the time they got to me they were asking, “Where’s Rob? What’s Rob going to give us?” Then they’d see my sign and realize it was a “high five.” They were really into it but were getting impatient because the escalator was going so slow and they wanted to see Rob. One woman asked me, “Why is Rob giving high fives out, is it his birthday?” I told her, “No, he’s just trying to do a nice thing for you.” A lot of people on the further escalator were laughing more than the ones on our escalator. I think they liked that they were going to get to be in on the gag without having to commit themselves.
I was the “get ready” sign which was right before people got to Rob. I saw a lot of people look around me and see Rob for the first time. Seeing that process of people deciding to give him a high five was great. Usually they were smiling by the time they got to me. I would see in their eyes the moment they decided they were going to do it, which would make them smile even more. People started talking to each other, “Are you going to give Rob a high five? I am. Let’s give him a high five. We should move over to this side.”
I also got to hear the litany of things Rob was saying behind me, “Way up high! Down low! Give me some skin!” That caused me to laugh most of the mission, and at one point someone on the escalator told me I had a great smile and asked for my phone number! I did not give it to him because I was focused on the mission.
My job was to hold the “Rob” sign above his head to indicate who Rob was. I got to witness all the high five magic. Two people were so into the high fiving they tried to give me a high five as well. I told them that I wasn’t Rob, but I couldn’t let them down. Mostly the focus was all on Rob. I was his sidekick. He’d say “Up high,” and I’d say, “yeah, up high!” One guy was so into it that he gave Rob like 10 high fives right in a row. It seemed like people wanted to be given a light moment like this in the morning; they wanted to connect with someone else.
One funny thing was that there were lots of people who were really ready to go, but because of the speed of the escalator they couldn’t get there any faster. They would just have to wait a few extra seconds with their hand up. It was a really great awkward pause.
My favorites were the people who wouldn’t crack a smile the whole time, but still gave a high five. Other people were into it early and smiled the whole ride up. I guess it’s a pretty corporate neighborhood, so to see all of the people dressed up in suits cracking a smile was pretty great.