Whimsy is not a flavor that goes down easy during a pandemic. Between the coronavirus crisis, the election, the country's economic woes, racial injustice, climate change and all the rest, the national mood is too serious for joking around about things like Wes Anderson riding a CitiBicycle. Whimsy? In this economy? But that of course hasn't stopped some from trying to bring a little surreal joy to their fellow New Yorkers during this difficult period. The question is: does anyone really want it?
Enter Buddy the Rat, a.k.a. the Subway Rat Costume Dude who has gone viral in recent days thanks to a series of videos scurrying across TikTok, Twitter and Instagram in which he does typical subway rat things like cosplaying Pizza Rat and putting his feet on the subway seat. Is he spreading joy to beleaguered straphangers, or is he just irritating everyone he encounters? Are you not a real New Yorker until you've cursed a performance artist?
Buddy is the creation of Jonothon Lyons, 38, a trained dancer who works in theater and puppetry, and who previously performed with Sleep No More and Blue Man Group. Lyons told Gothamist that he first came up with Buddy back in 2009, but he recently shot a short film as the character with director Todd Strauss-Schulson (Isn’t it Romantic, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas), which will be put online around Thanksgiving.
"We shot in SoHo just before the election and obviously mid-pandemic so the streets were abandoned and the windows all boarded up," he said. "It was a very surreal and uncommon vision of New York and we think our film captures that moment in a beautiful way."
Lyons, who moved from Arizona to New York in 2005, has taken to wearing the costume around town after that shoot, leading to the numerous videos which he's posted on his own YouTube channel. He says his only goal when he wears the costume is "mischief, of course," and that people tend to react with "joy, fear, or radical indifference" to his antics.
He's been particularly happy with the response he's gotten on TikTok: "[It] has a function called dueting where you record a video of yourself watching something side by side. People are doing this with mine all around the world in many different languages. I have no idea what they’re saying but most of them are smiling so I think it’s good."
Asked whether he's worried about blocking people from getting to their train, he said, "Not at all. Literally nothing can stop a New Yorker from making their train." Notably, asked whether he is familiar with the work of notorious subway prankster Zardulu, he responded, "no comment."
At least he is promoting proper mask usage:
My coworkers at Gothamist, bless their jaded hearts, were mostly not impressed with Buddy. Here's a sample of internal Gothamist reactions to the videos (all names have been redacted):
- "Thinking the wannabe Tik Tok star with the rat suit who is now actively blocking people's ability to get on the train deserves a takedown...but maybe I've just lost my sense of wonder"
- "Damn I put this in XX but you guys want to elevate this art huh"
- "No punching down, except for freaks in rat costumes blocking traffic"
- "It's been a little while since we've had anyone actively trying to bring some of the old subway weirdness magic back"
- "Counterpoint: it doesn't really take much to put on a costume and clown around in the subway"
- "Big deal, you put on a costume and go on the subway to get attention"
- "All the videos of New Yorkers blissfully ignoring him...I miss ignoring weird shit"
- "There's a sense that he's trying really hard to bring some weirdness, but also it's too manufactured so people just ignore it, and I like that dichotomy"
- "I started typing 'is this too dumb for us to cover'"
- "I appreciate that he's trying"
Over on Twitter, where the reposted videos of Buddy have been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, there's more allowance for some enjoyment: one person called these vids an "unexpected salve on for my soul," while NY1 host Errol Louis said it was a sign NYC was getting back to normal. On the other hand, some worry that Buddy could inspire others to do viral stunts that could "make essential workers have a shittier commutes during a horrible pandemic." One person blamed "adult theater kids" for being weird, while another asked, "how has nobody beaten this dude's ass yet."
Locals are of course no strangers to attention-seeking performance artists interrupting their commutes, or passively observing the busy lives of subway rats as they intersect with ours. The ability to ignore these things while going about our daily routines is one of the defining characteristics of a hardened New Yorker. But the subway system is still down well over 60% of pre-pandemic ridership levels, and seeing Buddy's videos show up in all my various feeds this weekend was a reminder that millions of people are missing out on the communal and social experience of taking the trains. Mass transit forms the main artery for the city, and the ability to commiserate and complain about it while trying to go from Point A to Point B is a defining part of urban life here.
Ultimately, your mileage may vary on whether Buddy is a refreshing reminder of pre-pandemic times or emblematic of everything you dislike about "adult theater kids," but there is clearly an undisputed hero here: the guy who is walking down the subway steps, sees Buddy doing his thing, and decides to climb over the railing rather than deal with him. Ice-T gets it.