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Among the questions you don’t want to be asked by a chipper PTA member when you show up uninvited to an elementary school performance of The Wizard of Oz, “Oh, are you alone?” ranks pretty high, somewhere after “Can I have your number?” and behind “Ma’am, do we need to call the police?” The answer to the question—for me, at least, one night last May at a public school in Brooklyn—was yes. I was alone. Yes, I’d like to donate to the PTA. No, please, no, don’t call the police.
In my defense, “uninvited” is a strong word. Technically I was invited, if you consider scouring pages upon pages of Eventbrite listings in search of free, local things to do that night and landing on a rare gratis opportunity to catch some peewee theater as being extended an official invite. The event page for the performance said, very clearly, THIS PERFORMANCE IS FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY!, after all. Whether the event organizers meant “person who doesn’t live in the neighborhood, has no children, doesn’t even like musicals, and is on a mission to crash as many free events in New York as possible over the course of two weeks” was immaterial.
Even though the entire operation was clearly run by fifth graders, the designated spotlight operator was a trigger-happy 10-year-old, there were three different actresses playing Dorothy, and the Wicked Witch of the West’s broom was downgraded to a Razor Scooter, the play was pretty good. When I left, mere minutes before the grand finale, I had to wake up a sleeping dad at the end of the aisle so I could sneak out undetected. Such is the life of a crasher: in like a ghost, out like a ghost.
Now that some of the biggest events happen online, or at least start there, crashing isn’t exactly what it used to be. Even the term “party crasher” feels like a wistful remembrance of some bygone age of glitz, glamour, and rascally behavior. Do people remember the Evander Holyfield–Riddick Bowe boxing match of 1993, or do they remember the guy who out of nowhere paraglided into the ring during the seventh round? What about the dude who posed as Sidney Poitier’s son to gain entry to Studio 54 and conned Gary Sinise into giving him money? Tareq and Michaele Salahi somehow managed to make it into a White House state dinner in 2009, and their crashing is still the stuff of ridiculous legend. In a sense, all hopeful celebrity social climbers were once crashers, in that the real celebrities could find themselves wondering the next morning, “Who invited the girl who organizes Paris Hilton’s closet to this club?”
Crashing calls to mind a time when things were worth crashing, a time before armies of women dressed in black began wielding iPads at the door, before Sweetgreens, Apple stores, and “pop-up experiences” became as ubiquitous and numerous in New York City as rats with gout, and before anyone with a social media following above 5,000 began to seem as well-known as Barack Obama. Fidgeting in a stiff wooden auditorium seat while plucky 10-year-olds sing “Over the Rainbow” off-key might not seem like crashing, but it—along with the several other free events I attended unannounced—was one of the best ways to feel alive in a New York and a world where we increasingly confine ourselves to the same bars, same neighborhoods, and same bubbles.
Want to break free from your Instagram algorithm? Want to get to know your neighbors better? Want to feel more connected to the world around you while also eating for free?
Might I suggest crashing an event?
There were a limited number of sources I could use to find free events that I might not have otherwise heard about, save for the act of walking down the block and seeing what was going on with my own eyeballs. (I also did that, and ended up at a pop-up for an ice cream brand where there was—mystifyingly—no ice cream.) Scrolling my Instagram feed was too safe, as everything was tailored to encourage my seeing the same art that everyone else was seeing; concerts listed for me on Spotify were just as narrowly focused. Twitter barely even makes sense anymore, so that was out. Sites like The Skint, Time Out, and Brokelyn were good but they were also hand-curated, so I worried I’d miss out on the full scope of New York’s goings-on. If I looked there, I may not have learned about the photography scavenger hunt that I went to hosted by B&H Photo, where I was given not only a free Sandisk memory card for my nonexistent digital camera, but a big ol’ bagel, too.
I found out about the B&H scavenger hunt through Eventbrite, which—in addition to listings on Facebook—ended up being the exact wild wild west of uncurated, anything goes event listings I was looking for. If the event itself is free, organizers can list them for no cost on the platform, so that leaves room for a lot of batshit, boring, and perhaps too personal functions. I had to stop myself from attending a publicly listed but clearly private baby shower, even though I know I would have brought a really sick gift.
In a past life, the current CEO of Eventbrite was an intern for the television show Friends. “My job was to hold the phone, and if it rang, I had to answer it and go find the person who was wanted,” Julia Hartz told the New York Times this year. “I’d be standing there, and the phone would ring, and it would be like, ‘Hey, it’s Brad, can you get Jen for me?’” The job didn’t suit her, Hartz explained, because she craved “human energy.” So when she met her now husband Kevin Hartz, an early investor in PayPal, they decided to launch a company that would become an indie contemporary to Ticketmaster, to bring people together. That was in 2006, and in 2018, Hartz became one of a very limited group of women to have taken a company public, filing for a $230 million IPO.
But the company began to underperform fairly quickly, and if I had to put on my investor hat and guess why, it’d be because people like me are using it to find free events with free food, shifting it away from the kind of prestige that’s associated with platforms like Ticketmaster, which provide entry to “official” events featuring legitimately famous people. Brownies at a church in the West Village, meatballs in Williamsburg, doughnuts in Jamaica Bay—in one marathon day of event crashing, in which I attended seven free events, I paid for nothing and was never hungry.
Showing up uninvited to events—whether elementary school musicals, animal blessings, or big ship tours—can be fraught, especially if you’re alone. But if you’re up to the task, it’s perhaps the best and only way to really see New York. Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert, says that the most important thing to do if you’re showing up to an event that was publicly listed on Facebook, Eventbrite, or any other platform, and you don’t personally know the organizers or the hosts, is to politely go up to them and thank them for having you, telling them where you heard about the event. Because of the effort that goes into throwing events in New York (or elsewhere, for that matter), hosts would always like to know that their efforts as promoters are paying off.
“I do think we’re seeing people utilizing social media to find something to do more now,” Swann explained. “It’s good to do that, but it’s important to show up with grace and dignity, and remember that transparency is important. I think you have to be honest about your presence and what brought you there.”
When I arrived at Pier 88 for a free tour of a battleship during Fleet Week, I asked a finance teacher from New Jersey what brought him and his students there. “They’re bad students,” he said, after locking the three high school boys into a combat vehicle on display as a “joke.” I repeatedly thanked the many Navy men for their willingness to give us a tour of their boat, only later registering that they had been correcting me each time—it was a ship, and they were Marines.
At a shop that was handing out free slices of gluten-free pizza made from cauliflower, a door greeter was being paid to shout “free pizza” at people as they passed him on the street, so I didn’t feel that I had to announce why I had shown up. But I decided to make polite conversation anyway. What did he think of this newfangled cauliflower pizza? He hadn’t tried it yet—he was fasting for Ramadan.
At smaller gatherings, where perhaps there is no public listing proclaiming THIS PERFORMANCE IS FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY! showing up uninvited is a no-go, except in very specific circumstances. “It’s in bad form” to crash a proper party, Swann said. “If people are hosting an event, a lot goes into the logistics of finding food and beverage, incidentals, party favors, gift bags. People put a lot of thought into it. The only time when party crashing is acceptable is if you know your presence will be welcome.” For example, if you suspect you were left off a list. “Maybe you weren’t invited by mistake. Make sure there is someone you know who was invited to be in cahoots with you, and you could orchestrate your attendance as a surprise.”
No one was more surprised than me to be holding a live horseshoe crab in Queens last month at the annual Horseshoe Crab Festival at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. While I couldn’t believe that a couple dozen people had shown up at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning to ogle the mating rituals of creatures that have been roaming this earth for over 450 million years, the event’s organizers seemed unfazed. “The horseshoe crab has always been my passion,” I overheard one attendee tell another. A third admired the nature walk leader’s necklace—a test tube filled with horseshoe crab blood. Several of the people I spoke with had heard about the festival through various nature newsletters they subscribed to, while one or two had happened upon it just like me, looking for weird things to do in New York on various event listing sites and forums.
Those kinds of people, I learned, were my people—including my friend who schlepped it to Jamaica Bay with me (the following weekend, he went bird-watching with some random group he’d heard about through, yes, a nature newsletter). There is an intimate but widespread community of crashers who often show up to events like the crab fest, whether motivated by free food or free companionship, both of which are in short supply these days. An elderly woman at the animal blessing had crashed just to hang out with some friendly dogs; another woman at the photo scavenger hunt attended so she could make friends with other photographers. There is such a wealth of free and open entertainment in New York that the joy of going anywhere but a bar with $8 Miller High Lifes is the kind that can sustain you for at least a month.
In only a few short weeks, I had critiqued a fifth grade play; eaten pizza, doughnuts, meatballs, and brownies for free; held and caressed a horseshoe crab; gone down a very public slide and struggled to emerge from the ball pit; failed at doing even one pull-up in a Naval (or was it Marines?) aptitude test; witnessed a flash mob; and watched a priest bless some very old, very sick looking dogs. I had even participated in the more benign of the free experiences the world has to offer: hang out in silence in the library, in silence at the park, and in silence in a church.
At the wildlife preserve, one particular woman kept close to three elementary-school-age kids, who were sloshing around happily in the horseshoe-crab-infested waters. What had brought her and the fam here, to middle-of-nowhere Queens, to watch these prehistoric creatures pork?
“I homeschool them,” she told me. “I take any opportunity I can to get them out of the house.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.