"Who the fuck," shouted a dreadlocked man in Manhattan's Union Square on Sunday, "deemed this day No-Fucking-Pants Day?"
The answer was ImprovEverywhere, an NYC-based collective known for causing "scenes of joy and chaos in public places." (You may recall hearing about the Black Friday dollar store campout, or the redhead protest over the Wendy's logo; those pranks were all them.) Enlisting the help of interested civilians, ImprovEverywhere has launched over 100 of these "missions," and the No Pants Subway Ride is easily the most famous. NPSR, as it's referred to and hashtagged, began in New York City back in 2002, and this year it took place in over 25 countries around the world. Over 4,000 pantsless riders participated in NYC alone, including me and BuzzFeed designer Chris Ritter. Luckily, the day was unseasonably warm.
When I arrived at the designated meeting spot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, there were way more women than I'd expected. I'd anticipated this would be a dude-heavy event (maybe because men's underwear is a lot more pants-like than women's), but the male attendees only slightly outnumbered the female. Everyone was still fully-clothed.
It was clear that the soon-to-be-pantsless had put a lot of thought into their outfits. A number of guys were dressed in suits and ties. Two more were wearing a fringed vest and a cowboy hat, respectively. One man wore a fuzzy horned hat, one wore goggles, and one girl wore a fedora covered in feathers (which I soon realized wasn't actually supposed to be a costume). Two people took swigs from Viking-style drinking horns, and two high-school-aged boys without winter jackets rocked Santa hats. Apart from a grinning woman dressed all in red who looked to be in her sixties, everyone appeared to be under thirty years old.
A teenage girl had been ditched by the friend she was supposed to meet, and seeing her distress, a nearby gaggle quickly adopted her.
"Man, your friend sucks!" said Feather-Fedora.
The boy in the cowboy hat told me that he was wearing three pairs of underwear. He and his friend in the fringed vest swapped horror stories about people getting arrested, although it turns out that was back in 2006 and things have been quiet since. A nearby couple argued whether the correct term was "tighty-whities" or "whitey-tighties." (I kept my opinions to myself, but anyone who says the latter belongs in jail.)
Under my jeans, I had on grey Gap Body boy shorts. I'd gone underwear shopping the day before for unrelated reasons, but once there it seemed like a good idea to invest on a pair specifically for the NPSR. I knew I wanted something full-coverage and somewhat inconspicuous, although it seemed kind of like cheating to wear bike shorts or boxers or anything that I wouldn't actually wear in real life. Before leaving my apartment I made sure that my winter jacket was long enough to sit on; I was excited for the ride, but I did want some kind of layer between me and the grimy subway seat. Chris wore bright pink underwear along with her black leather jacket.
A bearded guy with a megaphone, the only person who seemed to have even the vaguest idea what was going on in the crowd of hundreds, called for our attention. "If you're not here to take your pants off today, you're in the wrong place," he shouted. He explained that we'd be divided up into teams and would board subway cars according to our numbers; once aboard, designated members of each team would take their pants off at each stop. We'd disembark at the following stop, catch the next train, and everyone would reunite in Union Square. When he announced that the after-party was 21+, at least a quarter of the crowd groaned.
In our car, the disrobing went off without a hitch. Participants were largely good at feigning nonchalance; they chatted quietly with their friends, listened to music, and read. (Although since I've lived in New York I've never seen so many actual physical newspapers being read on the subway.) They ignored the pants-wearing civilians taking Instagrams and answered any questions about what was going on with the agreed-upon answer: "I just felt warm, so I decided to take my pants off."
Mostly, it was just plain low-level funny. If you've ever hooked up with a guy, you're probably familiar with that hilarious, awkward, ever-so-slightly endearing moment when they're wearing nothing but socks and boxers. It's dorky and it's vulnerable. Now multiply that by 500 and add winter jackets. But self-consciousness seemed to evaporate once everyone realized just how many of us there were; even though we'd boarded together, it was difficult to remember who was in and who was not. I had a jolt of terror when it came time for me and Chris to de-pants, which was quickly replaced when the next group a few feet away started shuffling and unzipping. The only hard part was getting our shoes back on.
"I wish someone had told me about this!" a pants-wearer sitting next to us moaned to her boyfriend.
We disembarked at the agreed-upon stop and waited for the next train. When we got back on, a trio of elderly singers boarded. They didn't bat an eye at the bare legs that greeted them, just belted out a three-part harmony of some song wishing everyone a happy new year and made their way through the car collecting money. They were excellent, but there was also something charged and jubilant in the air that made everyone, pantless and pantsful alike, donate in much greater numbers than I was used to seeing.
"Darn!" said a guy wearing nothing but Batman boxers and a t-shirt. "I'm sorry; I didn't have anywhere to put my wallet!"
We got off at Union Square and headed aboveground. It felt electric and ragtag, nobody quite sure where to go and not really caring one way or another. There were dozens of photographers, hundreds of people snapping pictures with their phones, and pantsless participants rose to the occasion, mugging and sashaying around like street style subjects. A girl sauntered past wearing a fur coat, bright pink lipstick and a sock bun — she looked like a human Pinterest pin (minus, of course, pants).
The only remotely creepy moment was when I realized just how many fully-clothed people there were taking pictures; one guy followed us for a minute, taking pictures of the two of us whenever we turned his way. And of course when you ride the subway with no pants you're totally putting yourself out there to be photographed — the documentation of the day is part of the fun — but the dividing line between the pantsed and the pantsless felt so cleanly drawn that I felt a tiny bit uncomfortable. It seemed only fair that anyone there for the express purpose of recording should have to come over to our side. However, it's basically human instinct to want to Instagram such an absurd sight, and overall the whole exercise felt conspicuously free of creepiness or leering. It's not really about any one butt; it's about a whole bunch of butts en masse.
Chris and I shimmied back into our jeans (it had grown too cold to comfortably hang around outside anymore) and parted ways. It felt odd to be clothed again, to leave that world of the pantsless and rejoin the pantsed. My subway pulled up and a couple dressed in matching boxer-briefs got off, clearly stragglers who hadn't caught the train the first time around. They saw me looking — they didn't know that I was one of them — and smiled at each other as they headed up to the outside.