Nearly two decades ago, Charlie Todd boarded a train with no pants. This year, thousands will join him.
Scores of bottoms-less New Yorkers will descend underground Sunday for the 18th annual No Pants Subway Ride, which is expected to cover 10 different subway lines, eventually converging in Union Square. But the sans-slacks ride, which has become as recognizable as SantaCon, has come a long way from its brazen beginnings.
"The real message of the No Pants Subway Ride is to do something unexpected and would give people a laugh," said Todd, 40, the founder of Improv Everywhere, which organizes the New York ride. "You can do something 18 years in a row and it morphs into something that was different that it was first [envisioned].
"I made the fateful mistake of having a second annual No Pants Subway Ride," Todd half-joked. "I love it, but it is funny that you do something and you make the decision to do it twice and you have to be prepared to do it forever."
The first ride featured only seven people, each boarding at a different stop. The second, about 30. Eventually, thanks in part to the rise of YouTube, the event gained tremendous popularity and even started to spread internationally, Todd said. This year, he expects about 3,000 people to show up for the jeans-less jaunt through the city’s subway system.
"It still starts with one person in each car in their underwear and then the second stop a second person gets on and then it grows from there," he said, with a nod to the original ride. But that is where the similarities end. "The event has transitioned [from] being a secret undercover prank into more of a parade, more of a celebration of silliness."
Washington Heights resident Jaime Linn, 35, was shopping in Union Square about a decade ago when she first saw people walking around without pants — she didn’t know what was going on, but curiosity got the best of her. Now, she acts as a "general," or what she said Todd calls people who lead one of the subway lines.
"It’s just become this huge party, people just really want to celebrate not wearing pants," said Linn, who works as an actress and comedian. "It’s liberating for people, it’s kind of like its own holiday."
But the real trick, she said, was pretending like nothing odd was going on.
"You still get those people who don’t know what was going on … you say, ‘I forgot my pants at home’ or ‘They’re at the cleaners,’ " she said. "I play my role and I just read a book. If somebody asks me, I just say I just forgot mine, my reason is XYZ."
It’s getting increasingly difficult to fool people, however, a reality that people who have been participating for years lament.
"I started doing it because it was legitimately funny when it started. It was really smart. It was part goofy, but it wasn’t as many people back then," said Zach Linder, 33, who lives in Prospect Heights. He leads the Park Slope meetup location. "Obviously it sort of took on a life of its own. Since then, it’s become a little bit more like a parade, more like an annual happening than a funny stunt. It’s become a tradition for me more than anything. It’s part of my year in New York, doing this ridiculous thing on a cold January day."
One year, Linder reminisced, the ride was so unknown that people even got arrested. He’s been participating in the ride since 2005.
"I miss that sort of punchline aspect of it. It used to be … a little bit more of a small thing that if people came across it, it would lighten up their day," he said. "But it’s become a different thing as this parade and this happening, more than a little punch line or moment of joy."
Fellow participant Pete Goldstein, 41, has also seen the ride change over the years, but said he finds things to celebrate in both versions of it.
"I enjoy both aspects of it. It evolved into something awesome," he said, but added the underground nature of it is "something you can never recapture, you can never make the No Pants Ride unknown again.
"But it’s turned into something that’s great," he added. "You get a real sense of camaraderie, during and afterward. You have the full range of all possible ages, all possible backgrounds."