Hundreds of cars gleam in the sun, neatly slotted in the parking lot grid, an enormous keyboard waiting to be struck. A black and orange Shelby GT rumbles in, the timpani taking its place. A silver Prius takes up position alongside it. A 2008 Dodge Durango chirps out a single staccato note as its driver walks away.
I swing my borrowed 2000 Jetta between a Fit and an Accord like a clarinetist elbowing his way to his chair. To the shoppers stuffing garden hoses and summer gear into their trunks, the cars were mere means of transportation and carriers of freight. But to the 100 Improv Everywhere agents on site, the vehicles were instruments, wheeled into place and positioned on the unauthorized stage that was the shared parking lot between a Staten Island Kohl's and its neighboring Lowe's.
The first movement of the Car Alarm Symphony was about to begin.
The goal was to activate our car alarms, en masse, without being seen. We were given instructions to park our cars, then convene behind a 10-foot high wall that ran from the edge of the Kohl's building to the edge of the Lowe's. There, we were completely out of view from our audience, but visible to the residents of the dead end street behind the stores.
We clustered around our maestro, Charlie Todd, the bearded and plaid-shirt wearing founder of Improv Everywhere. With the cameras rolling, we raised our keyless entry remotes in unison. On his downswing, we all pressed our buttons at the same time.
We repeated the first bars of the score. A horn or two sounded. Charlie told everyone to put the key fobs under their chins and try again, because doing so turns your head into an antennae and boosts the range. We all dutifully placed our keys our chins, opened our mouths and pressed the button. NYT says this works because it "capacitively couples" the fob to your head, using the fluids in your skulls as a conductor. (This blogger tested it and said he could double his range by holding it right over his head). In any event, two or three horns went off this time.
Was this moment, a semi-circle of mouth-breathing dorks frantically pressing malfunctioning gizmos while following the orders of a self-proclaimed leader we met online the epitome of everything wrong with the Internet? Had we — Rosalyn, the frizzy-haired middle-aged woman who worked in publishing, and John, the college student holding a calculus textbook and wearing rainbow socks with sandals, and the young actress types, and the older dads, and the guy with the t-shirt replacing the "Coke" in the Coke logo with "Cock" — dragged our asses out to Staten Island from the Tri-State Area for an experiment in mass failure? Were we lured out from our computer lairs, blinking in the sun, only to crash into the hot asphalt of reality? Yes. Our collective twee quirky force was no match for the facts. It didn't matter how many of us were working together if we were doing it wrong.
Then, like a clarion call from the darkness, a lone voice rose from the crowd. It was a bespectacled youth in a robin's egg blue shirt. "There's too many going at the same time. It's overloading the frequency!" he said. Could it be? Too many of the fobs used the same frequencies and were canceling each other out? It sounded plausible.
Charlie started calling out birthday months. Only when you heard your month were you to press your remote keyless entry button. He came to this idea so quickly it seemed he might have used it before to quickly divide up crowds. You could hear the results of the new tactic. The horns rose and rose into a droning wail that crescendoed, percolated and modulated like a mad traffic jam. Then Charlie motioned for silence and we cut them off. Texted reports from the stage manager in parking lot told him that the piece was quite audible this time. There were so many cars going off that it was disturbing the prize giveaway in front of Kohl's. A ripple went through the crowd. "I think I heard my car." "We definitely got it." "Sounds like my commute!" Then Charlie got texts that we could be heard chattering backstage from the parking lot like giddy children before their first talent show. He shushed us. Even with the excitement and new tactics, a lot of people's cars hadn't gone off. Mine didn't. It was just too far away. The kid with the Durango seemed to be having the best results.
An old woman came out of her house and sat down on her porch to scrutinize us. Someone went over to tell her we were on a church scavenger hunt and would be done shortly. Yeah, the Church of Chaos. A cop car slowly cruised by, surveyed us, then sped off.
At a photographer's suggestion, Charlie arranged us in discreet sections to look more orchestral. January-March were the "woodwinds." April-June was the "brass." July-September were the "strings." Etc. We tuned up and did the piece again while Charlie gestured with mock grandeur to each section in turn, activating us like we were the Staten Island Key Fob Philharmonic. Our car alarms wept and chimed and wailed as we plied them like the virtuosos we had become, or at least pretended to be for the cameras' benefit.
We moved onto the last movement of the piece. The grand finale called for a natural re-entry to the parking lot where we could try to blend in until 4:45 when everyone would activate their cars from just a few feet away. At this distance there would be no issues. All of our alarms would go creating a massive, unexpected wall of sound, like the canons in the 1812 overture. Afterward we were free to drive home or meet back at the rendezvous point in Barrett Park.
We all found different ways to look normal. Some people browsed through Kohl's. One woman joined the line at the giveaway booth and took a spin on the prize wheel. I decided the best way to blend in was to buy a bunch of sliders from White Castle and eat them.
I made my way back through the parking lot, a bag of sliders looped around one hand holding my iPhone, battered key fob in the other. It felt so light. I examined the icon of the unhinged padlock to make sure I hit the right button. The seconds ticked down on the iPhone clock. Was it weird that I was looking at my phone? Was it weird that a bunch of people, my fellow undercover agents, were all moving through the lot and looking at their phone? No, I told myself, everyone looks at their phones all the time. It's cool. It's cool. It's time. I hit the button.
Alarm after alarm erupted all around me. It was like Philip Glass composed a symphony entirely of car alarms and someone was cranking the stereo at full blast. Dozens and dozens of car alarms from every make and model trilled through the air. They warbled up and down, the sound of countless potential emergencies colliding. They honked. They brayed. They came in and out in arpeggios of warning. WAH A WAH A WAH A WHA A HONK! HONKA! HONKA! WEE-OOO-WEE-OOO-WEE! Times twenty.
This was an acoustic barrage so overwhelming I couldn't move. I felt like I was shambling forward, pushing through the brambles of a sonic forest. The audience of shoppers gazed around with bewildered smiles. They looked from car to car, unable to figure out why so many alarms were going off at once.
"What's going on?"
"It must be the heat."
"This is like that video I saw on YouTube where everyone freezes in Grand Central!" said one of the Lowe's garden supply workers.
"I'm going to need you to turn that camera off," said a Lowe's shopping cart attendant to one of the cameramen.
Then, with the unlatching and slamming of doors one by one, each alarm was silenced as we got into our cars and quietly drove away.
We gathered back in the grove. Someone tossed a frisbee. Slices of pizza were handed out. War stories were swapped. We took a group photo. Finally, the temporary break from our more or less mundane Saturdays was over and we headed back to our cars. A few moments later, everyone spontaneously set off their car alarms. We had arranged as strangers, and left much the same, though for three hours we had all been bonded together in witness of a layer of unreality being ripped back.
I'd like to think that if I should see any of the other agents down the road, crossing the street, queued up at the DMV, if we found each other reaching for the same avocado at the supermarket, that we might pause and exchange a nod, maybe even whip out our key fobs and clink them together. I would sneak a glance over my shoulder to see if other recognizable agents were lurking. Perhaps I'd stumbled into a scene that was just about to start.
Every square mile of this planet is carved up into boxes. Each box has its own rules. There's an inside voice and an outside voice. You can take pictures on the sidewalk but not inside the store. In one box you can only tell the truth, but in another, you can only lie. There's no written rule against it, but strip mall parking lots are for placing your car inside a box while you go inside another box to stand in the right box to sign your name in the box so you can buy more things in boxes. They are not intended to be makeshift concert halls for car alarm opuses.
We had thumbed our nose at one of the boxes and gotten away with it. The revolution was minor, but it struck me like a tuning fork, and I'm still vibrating.