Sunday, August 17, 2008

5:28 p.m. Sunday in Union Square Park: Silent Rave

(Courtesy Gothamist via RGP at Flickr)

We've just gotten back from Union Square Park where the silent rave that began at 5:28 p.m. was still in progress more than an hour after it started.

If you are one of the few people who don't know what a silent rave is, according to the Urban Dictionary, it's this:
"Rave" or form of wild dancing party where all of the members listen to music through headphones on seperate [sic] portable music players. The players are all synchronized so everyone is hearing the same thing, but no outsiders hear anything, hence the "silent" portion of the name.

However, this is actually as incorrect, as you'd expect from someone who can't spell separate, at least applied to this New York Silent Rave's official position (following the first one last April):
A Silent Rave. . . is a simple concept. Hundreds, hopefully thousands, of people from any background of life turn up in a public place at a pre-arranged time, turn on their iPods and dance freely to whatever music they choose to listen to!

(Courtesy Dietrich on Flickr)

Anyway, most sentient beings in the NYC blogosphere knew that the silent rave would start at precisely 5:28 p.m. even if Facebook, apparently unable to deal with such a supposedly eccentric time, listed it at 5:25 p.m. (Hey Mark Zuckerberg, deal with that! Now!)

So at 5:17 p.m. we were on the south side of the park just north of the rows of people on the shallow steps facing 14th Street watching the vendors selling crappy "handmade" t-shirts, crappy "jewelry," high-quality tube sox, and bad imitation Keith Haring prints. We were in the not-so-little plaza in front of a temporary bandstand from gone-by musical event and the second tier of steps.

None of the people on the steps looked ready to rave, and we wondered if we were in the wrong spot, but two guys were trying to float a flock of red balloons, two giant and about eight extra-large from a roll of heavy-duty string with something or other attached to it (ballast?) and they kind of looked official since they wore shorts and had cool tattoos.

However, their attempts to float the balloons, although they got pretty high up, never seemed to satisfy them, and we guessed something wasn't right. Meanwhile, there was no one within 25 feet of us, and we're pretty sure our armpits were smeared with Arrid XX, so we wondered - with just 7 minutes to go - if this rave was going to be a bust.

Soon a girl with sky-blue hair, green-and-white striped leggings and Swifty Lazar glasses came by and she had on the requisite iPod, so we figured we were in the right place. (Being "late adopters," we are aiming to be the last one in New York, even among those of us in the "young old" 55-64 demographic, not to own an iPod. Also, we don't want to be mugged while walking down Myrtle Avenue.)

As more people gathered, the balloon guys kept trying, and we spotted a guy who'd serve as what our family, which owned a hotel in the Borscht Belt once upon a time, would call a toomler. In another century, he'd be leading rounds of Simon Says beside a Catskills resort's pool, but this kid was wearing a red felt hat with orange trim the size of a Doberman.

A cute young people, the boy of which had chartreuse-dyed hair on the left side but who otherwise looked very A&F, also came by, as did some really skinny Asian guys checking the time on their phones. So were we: it was 5:26 p.m. We had a hunch that people who attend silent raves have, like our students in 8 a.m. college classes, a tendency to be a tad tardy.

Disconcertingly, we find that we're just about in the center of where we expect the silent rave will take place. As the balloons temporarily rise again, three frat-boy types wave sentimentally at the sky the way they probably will next week when their hedge-fund CEO parents' helicopters leave them on the Dartmouth campus. "It doesn't want to go up," says one of the two balloon men.

Someone else starts the countdown, though we don't hear it till "Six...five...four"
Then we see him by the steps on the west side: the countdown guy's finger flicks with every number. Some other guys stands against the lamppost in front of us, obviously not getting ready to dance.

Then, suddenly, more than half the growing crowd around us are, in fact, dancing. Only a few stop after a couple of minutes, apparently feeling too stupid to continue. If others feel stupid - which we doubt - it doesn't stop them. A girl on her phone next to us is narrating to an absent friends: "So now the balloons kind of went away."

We feel strange watching so many people dancing and yet hearing no music ourselves. This is what life would be like, we think, if we'd spent the past 40 years of Sundays getting up really close at the McCarren Park pool parties (which we'd given up on today when we saw the line snaking down Driggs Avenue three hours before).

(Courtesy Dietrich on Flickr)

And then we were reminded of the scene in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, one of our favorite adolescent novels that we inflicted on our students just a few weeks ago, where Oedipa, wandering on her search for the Tristero conspiracy through a psychedelic night in late '60s San Francisco, finds herself dragged into a hotel ballroom where deaf-mute conventioneers are dancing in unison without hearing any music.

Of course everyone is dancing to different music here, except perhaps for small groups which perhaps have coordinated their playlists. As some stout women of a certain age (ours) nearby say, "Dancing hasn't really changed much in the last thirty years." And, as we will note after an hour of watching the silent rave, there are a finite number of variations in human dance movements among those not in Pilobolus.

Three young guys, one a very cute male-identified lesbian wearing a yarmulke, have signs that say FREE HUGS, and when they first hold up their offer, they get a few takers, including one thirtyish gay male who hugs the cute boyish lesbian five distinct times before resuming his geometric-cut dancing. Some girls from Long Island or New Jersey pass them, taking pictures with their cellphones.

Quite a number in the crowd actually don't have iPods, either, though a lot of them are dancing anyway. A guy in sandals can jump higher than anyone else, although that's the extent of his dancing talents. Another guy wearing what seem like Tony Hawk cargo pants is kicking as if he's in karate class. A chubby kid wearing a t-shirt that says "It Is Difficult to Be Alive" is shaking his way through the crowd. Lots of people are taking pics and videos which we will later steal from their Flickr to illustrate this post.

We're actually pretty much in the middle of what's a fairly big crowd. Most are 18-25, but a John McCain type around 70 is also close by, looking around and shaking his head in that way that some Democrats imagine Arizona's senior senator would were he in the middle of a silent rave rather than a campaign swing through the Rust Belt.

(Courtesy Dietrich on Flickr)

And some people with perfectly good (we presume) iPods, buds in their ears, are just standing around not moving. Can they be removed? One boy with a buzzcut is scratching himself a lot, but we don't think that counts. Four or five cops stand on the sidelines just having a grand old time laughing. They are the only ones we will see laughing that hard in Union Square all day.

"I love it when things are planned or something," says one young lady passing by to another.

The half-green-haired guy moves past us with his girlfriend and we notice his Nader/Gonzalez button. So when does it stop, we wonder. We forgot to check.

One guy looks nervous because he doesn't quite know what to do. Then we spot a guy with a good-sized cardboard box covering his torso and little rectangular boxes on his arms and a Dove Bar carton on his head. We know he's supposed to be a robot because his torso-box has a mechanical design and also it says ROBOT. (Later we will watch a woman doing a video interview with him ask how he prepared for the rave. He'll tell her that he smoked pot.)

It's now past 6 p.m. and the silent rave has gone on for over half an hour; the girls nearby who look like they go to NYU, don't ask us how we know, stop dancing simultaneously, as if they've prearranged a time to stop, and get ready to leave.

Nobody's taking up the FREE HUGS offer of the sign guys (and we use "guys" in a gender-neutral sense here) so they keep moving around, eventually to the top of the steps. Holding their signs without any hugging going on makes it appear they are holding cue cards telling the others how to act.

(Robot photo courtesy of Sarah A.O Rosner/The AMOC, who has more pics and a great blog post at The Urgent Artist)

We spot one of our numerous former students taking pics of himself as he dances and we move away lest he notice us.

A black girl seemingly dressed as Snow White, fanning herself with a paper fan advertising some anime film, moves side to side. We notice that many of the people on the steps facing 14th Street seem more interested in what's going on with shoppers coming out of Whole Foods Market than with the exciting cultural event behind them. Others stop to ask. "I don't know how to explain it," a young Japanese photographer says to an elderly man, and then does a perfectly good job. "What times we live in," says the old-timer to him.

There's some good moves by a lithe guy all in black with a really big Afro and a punkish girl with forest-green hair and a "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" t-shirt. But this is starting to feel a bit tedious to us, old enough to have gone to Studio 54 in the '70s, and not indulging in anything stronger than Tab or ginger ale, were similarly bored (though the waiters' costumes - or lack thereof - were somewhat diverting).

Few people seem particularly good dancers, but we feel bad about thinking that, knowing that's not the point. The point is to have fun even if you can't dance. Someone on the steps is repeatedly spraying streams of water from a blue plastic water pistol and we wish some of it would fall on us because in the sun it's hot. Occasionally people pass by who haven't used deodorant or are just dancing so vigorously it's stopped working. The robot dances less vigorously, his batteries apparently running down.

But spirits revive as the guy in the giant red hat leads a conga line. Wow, we didn't know young people knew about conga lines, and this gives us hope that the 1930s could be returning culturally as well as economically. Lots of kids want to join the conga line and they happily jerk to and fro. Eventually it becomes a circle, so that when Mr. Big Red Hat comes by us again, it seems as if. . . well, here's what he says: "Oh my god, this can't be the end of the line, I'm the beginning." The alpha and the omega, together again.

The conga line, or circle now, keeps passing. The robot has been revived and is dancing gaily behind a 15yo boy. People look like they're having fun, and the conga procession splits into two. The Hat guy passes again and then one more time before eventually the conga line dissipates into more individual and couples and groups dancing. "Are we done yet?" someone says, meaning the conga line. "Yeah, it ended," someone else answers him.

(Courtesy Gothamist via RGP at Flickr)

Behind us, a woman about 23 is saying to her boyfriend, "You go to talk to a girl and I'll go talk to guy." "No," he says. "Okay," she says back, "then you go talk to a guy and I'll go talk to a girl."

One guy is dancing with a hula hoop and as we watch him, it falls down three times. Still few takers for the FREE HUGS guys, so they keep moving around until they finally pass close to some hug-starved dancers. "I'll hug you," one says, "but I'm as sweaty as sin." The male-identified lesbian says it's okay. Another guy calls "Double hug!" and simultaneously hugs the other two signholders.

A guy we thought was wearing a bright yellow witch's hat, we finally realize, also has a roundish yellow torso that says MUSTARD. He's a mustard container. Before this we'd thought his torso had said HARVARD. Maybe it's time for us to leave. We walk up to the top steps to see the rave from the other side instead, to get a sense of perspective.

We're dismayed by two signs of unwanted commercialism off to our right, by the subway entrance. Two athletic white guys are playing with big cardboard arrows that say YOUR AD HERE for only $295 A DAY and list a phone number. And three black guys who look like the regular performing breakdancers we see at the park actually commit the cardinal sign at a silent rave of turning on a boom box for a couple of minutes until, we presume, they're shamed into shutting down the intrusive sound of music.

Two parents in their late 40s have brought a son about 11 who wears a t-shirt that says JUSTIN RULES. If he's Justin, he's dancing first with his mom, who tells him it's okay to do anything, and she demonstrates by doing plies and other ballet moves.

Some people have just arrived and they have more energy than others. After more than an hour, some people seem tired. Every once in a while someone starts a little cheer to rally the crowd, and others join in. But more than few dancers' enthusiasm seems to be flagging, or maybe it's just us.

One guy yells something we can't make out in order to excite people. Finally we realize he keeps shouting "Plutonium!" A boy is holding a sign that says RAPE HER BALLS OFF, which seems not very nice although there's no antecedent to the pronoun. Actually that makes it worse. "Is this, like, some kind of flash mob?" a guy asks us. A family of obvious tourists is trying very hard to not look like tourists, not staring because they assume this is something that goes on every day in Manhattan.

We're tired so we sit on the steps next to a boy about 19 with a nose ring who looks very bored. "Woo woo!" someone says, and we think of the ancient term co-ed. The "Difficult to Be Alive" guy from before is now finding it easy to play Guitar Hero without a Wii. Girls' voices keep asking, "Avery, where are you? Avery, where are you?"

Behind us, two pale guys who look like actors in Judd Apatow films are talking. "This depresses me," one says. "I know what you mean," says the other. "Everyone here looks like someone I know."

(Courtesy Gothamist via RGP at Flickr)

Someone looking like Darth Vader if Darth Vader were Eurotrash in a black raincoat passes by us. Mr. Mustard is dancing and talking at the same time. "What a cute costume," someone is telling him, and he seems as flattered as if he'd been mistaken for Grey Poupon.

We're ready to go back to Brooklyn on the L train because we've had enough fun and we're hungry and tired. And it really was fun, actually. The world needs more silent raves. Hopefully this one will go on till at least midnight.

But down in the subway we're dismayed to see the ebullient guy with the big red hat talking quietly with his girlfriend. Okay, now he's kissing her. That's better. Could life be any more wonderful?


freemydreams said...

Silent Rave was one of those events that leaves you buzzing til the moment you go bed, laying down and re-living the best parts. Getting every one together to dance to their own music was not, as the critics claim, anti-social and a way to advertise for Apple products. People danced and talked and laughed and made new friends. Best night ever<3

btw, I'm the girl in the second picture! Yuna, that's me :)

Stephen said...

As one of the huggers, I'd like to say the response was fairly decent. Perhaps you just weren't paying attention to all the hugs we'd received.

Richard said...


Our (really sincere) apologies if we undercounted the number of hugs you received.

We did not mean to belittle your efforts, but having little experience observing such an event, we may not have known the average number of hugs in such an event.

The "love-ins" we attended in public parks in the late 1960s were of a somewhat different character.

We expect that you may have received more hugs after 6 p.m., when people are perhaps in a more huggable mood. We may have just witnessed the "warm-up," so to speak.

If you can tell us how this compared with other "free hugs" events you have participated in or witnessed, or if you can calculate the approximate number of hugs you and your cohorts received, we will be happy to correct any misrepresentation in the main post so as not to sully your reputations as huggers or harm your chances of making the U.S. hugging team at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Also, if you or your friends want to write up your experience of the Silent Rave hugging experience, we will gladly add your report to our main post.

As for us, no matter how cute you were, we are rather elderly and so it is probably better that we receive our hugs the old-fashioned way - by paying for them.

Lvx16 said...

I've read a lot of reviews about the 17 but I think this is one of my favs. Has the good, the bad, and everything in between.

There's another one on October 15 if your interested ;)

~ The lithe guy all in black with a really big afro ;)