Fifty strangers meet in a public park. Many have never met before, some have. They are dressed variously in matching outfits, funny wigs or hats, or just colorful sunny day clothing. They have come for a singular purpose. However, what exactly that purpose is none are certain—except one. They have placed their faith in a leader. This leader, a sprightly woman, short, young, with twin feathery poofs emerging from her brunette hair, and dressed in a festive old west leather skirt and cowboy boots, assembles the convivial horde. The mob slowly quiets.
Megaphone in hand, pointed in no particular direction, she announces her name is Monica. She is turning thirty. Cheers. Welcome to her birthday! she says. Cheers. Much commotion and fumbling in pockets and, shortly thereafter, a blast from the megaphone. Even greater commotion. Another signal tone, a pause, much clapping and yet more cheers, then ebbing to silence, as the crowd seems to contemplate their plight. No one knows where to look so everyone looks everywhere. Two minutes pass, and the group is silent. Except for some minor fidgeting, the fifty party-prepped people together on the green grass stay still on this bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in the park. But then, inexplicably, with no cue from Monica or anyone else, the crowd begins to cheer again.
This is when some sort of magic starts to happen. Over the next half hour, with no apparent direction, revelers flap their arms and pretend to fly around in circles, play tag, dance at random intervals, engage in staring contests, hum the theme from Super Mario (more or less), go hide elsewhere in the park, form a spontaneous line to spank their beloved leader as she crawls between their legs, and finally, carry her bodily to her waiting birthday cake, where they summarily deposit her butt-first into it… and of course, must then sing “Happy Birthday.” Maybe just one more dance party, the crowd seems to decide. Much applause follows for super-special birthday-girl Monica who has rightfully earned it by pulling off this ridiculous, puzzling, and joyful spectacle. Then the magical shenanigans are over. One by one, people in the crowd pull out their earbuds.
You knew there was a big reveal, didn’t you? Well, of course—San Francisco is quite a magical place, but not that magical. It does have a lot going for it, though, such as a great many people who are willing to assemble at, say, a pre-determined location at a certain time carrying necessary props, just for the promise of fun. It has a lot of tech-savvy individuals who can coordinate over the internet, a lot creatives amongst them who can think up fun things to do. It has a viral culture that spreads ideas fast. The inevitable combination of qualities like these has been called the Urban Playground movement, although I’d say it’s less of a movement and more like “something humans have wanted to do since *at least* the industrial revolution but have just gotten around to acquiring the technology and inspiration and freedom to do so.” Zombie mobs, sidewalk pie fights, lightsaber duels, riding the subway in one’s underwear, gigantic pillow fights (on Valentine’s Day, no less), all are things that have been a long time coming.
A great heap many other factors made Monica’s awesome birthday party awesomely possible when it happened in Dolores Park this Saturday, February 9th:
- The ubiquity of MP3 players, to start with. Sure, everybody might’ve had a Walkman in the 80’s but in the past five years it’s become normal for anyone and everyone to be wearing earbuds practically anywhere, all off in their own musical world.
- On the website set up by Monica and Co. they credit inspiration to fellow, uh, “playgrounders” vis-à-vis Improv Everywhere’s MP3 experiment. Quote: “you’ll be part of a group of people obeying a shared voice in your head.” Coincidentally, Improv Everywhere is affiliated with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv group with a show on Comedy Central in the 90’s—to my knowledge the first to try this sort of just-for-fun situational public pranking.
- One can certainly give credit to Maer, Monica’s DJ friend, putting together the MP3 track by such recently available tech-wizardry as having access to editing software and a library of music.
- I’m sure her boyfriend Jason is owed some due, seeing as how he put together the website and, with her, hosts regular swap meets in San Francisco. The self-taught promotion skills and network of acquaintances they set up couldn’t have hurt either.
- Quicker now: the shared modern urge to discover entertainment which is participatory, engaging, and/or doesn’t require spending money.
- A continuing societal obsession with youth and youth culture (since the boomers actually) now manifesting as a growing hole between the walls of childhood and adulthood; call it “kidulthood.”
- The Victorian invention of the civic public park that preserved spaces of open land in cities for recreation (told you it went back to the industrial revolution).
- The western traditions that place value on an individual, combined with
- the near universal superstitions of astrology that place such weight on the stars of an individual’s birth.
- Also, the many inspiring bands of 1978, all those thirty years ago.
The most important reason, of course, being… hello, party! An oversimplification, surely. Perhaps not an unwelcome one. Hope this has been an educational experience for you all.
And you, Monica… thanks for having us… 😉