Tuesday, March 13, 2007

News flash: New Yorkers on subway actually smile!

In its second action, several Radical Performance Group members gathered in Union Square at dusk to descend into the subway, where we tried to engage random, isolated strangers on the 6 train in a friendly game of Telephone. For those who don't remember what it was like to be 8 years old (or simply had the misfortune of never playing), Telephone is a game in which one person whispers a message - anything - into the ear of the person next to them, who in turn passes it down to the following individual, and so on, until it reaches the end and usually turns out garbled and distorted - but nevertheless meaningful and relevant! - by the end.
It's an interesting exercise in communication but also in observing how people who are so isolated from each other and normally wouldn't dare make eye contact, much less whisper ridiculous messages into the ear of a stranger, interact with each other. Personally, I didn't think it would work, but on a minimally crowded uptown train, the idea took off instantly. Soon, in a quintessential yet truly unexpected New York moment, people from all walks of life were whispering down the car and - gasp! - smiling and - EVEN CRAZIER! - actually laughing IN CONCERT WITH ONE ANOTHER! Like we're some kind of community or something and not just bored-looking, alienated commuters who hate each other and compete for seats!

It was amusing and heartening to observe individuals you never would think would take part in a game of Subway Telephone take off their headphones or put down their book or drop their cold 'don't fuck with me I'm on the 6 train' stare to eagerly jump in. It was equally amusing to watch casual bystanders let themselves be seen smiling and laughing and emerge out of the bubble in which everyone tends to hide themselves in closed, public spaces.

All it took was a little RPG magic to remind me (I hope others) that beneath a cold, hard, thin surface of isolation and fear, New York is actually a bubbling, breathing, genuine community whose people still have a spark for spontaneity and a cautious affection for each other.

if anyone can remember the slogans we used - and the messages that came out at the end - please post them because that's the best part.