This is Stanley Mieses, WNYC's "Mr. First Nighter," reporting on openings, debuts and start-ups.
It's been an Ingmar Bergman-like winter in the great indoors for Mr. First Nighter. But last Sunday was such a nice day that I had to respond to the irresistible allure of spring and found the perfect event to celebrate my mood: a season-opener walking tour devoted to the flowering of public surveillance cameras in Manhattan.
About 30 people showed up on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 46th Street. A generally young and bohemian lot, very Williamsburg, Mr. First Nighter would say. Promptly at 2 PM, the tourguide arrived and dispersed pamphlets containing a legend of 129 surveillance cameras within easy walking distance and a key to the five varieties of cameras currently deployed.
The tourguide introduced himself as Bill Brown, who Mr. First Nighter learned is a 40-year old proofreader and founder of a group called the Surveillance Camera Players. They came up with the idea a few years ago to use the subway's surveillance cameras and perform an eight-minute version of Orwell's 1984 viewable on the monitors over the station platform. That experience begat the walking tour, Brown said, which from now on occur weekly on Sundays.
As we strolled up Fifth, peering in doorways and identifying phony light fixtures on buildings, the group also was given some background dope: that there were private security, police and web-cams monitoring the area; that the NYCLU counted almost 2400 public surveillance cameras in 1998, and that the figure, based on Brown's own empirical evidence, may now be closer to twice that-despite the fact that crime statistics are down; that there was now such a thing as Face Recognition software that could sort information out of surveillance camera tapes; and that maybe the whole point was that while taking a leisurely stroll up Fifth Avenue the Fourth Amendment should be on no one's mind.
Mr. First Nighter noticed that among the 30 or so participants there were a good number who had brought THEIR cameras to take pictures of. . . other cameras. They snapped shots of doorways on Fifth Avenue, every doorway along 47th Street, all over Rockefeller Center, and lots of city lampposts. The most noticeable camera on the tour belonged to an ABC-TV network news show, which had dispatched a crew along with on-air talent-a person known as the program's ZANY GUY.
As the tour paused in front of a surveillance monitor mounted over the entrance of a jewelry store on 47th Street, the reporter halted the entourage and asked for volunteers to face his camera and, as he demonstrated, sing the opening lines of a song called "Someone is Watching Me."
The crowd stood and faced the guy in stony silence and even under his camera makeup you could watch the zaniness drain out of him. The tour moved on to St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the ABC crew fell a few paces behind.
The woman walking next to me gazed back at them for a moment and returned with a scolding look. "Why does the media have to be everywhere?" she asked.
For WNYC, this is Stanley Mieses, Mr. First Nighter.
[Note: transcript of program broadcast on 16 March 2001 on WNYC 93.5 FM, New York.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail Info@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998