(via Being a Times Square Elmo : The New Yorker) and I have to say today is the day I re-subscribed to the New Yorker.
"The characters in Times Square work for themselves. They do not have employers and do not belong to a union. The characters pocket their own earnings, up to two hundred dollars for eight hours, on a good day, but usually less than a hundred dollars. They buy their own costumes, which cost anywhere from two hundred and fifty dollars (for a standard Elmo getup) to four hundred dollars (for a souped-up Mickey Mouse, with a moving mouth and eyes that open and close). Reyes sends away for hers, paying by cash, from a designer in Lima. (“See those superheroes?” she asked, motioning toward a threadbare Batman. “They’re not from Peru. They look like Halloween costumes. Like, from Party City!”) They also set their own hours, which, for Reyes, typically amount to eight-hour shifts five days a week, with breaks on Tuesday and Wednesday, when there’s a lull in tourist traffic.
If their autonomy is a point of a pride, it’s also a liability. A few days earlier, at Forty-second Street, I had discussed this with Emer, a fifty-year-old Peruvian, who was dressed as Woody and didn’t want to provide his last name. “I don’t work for anybody,” he boasted. “I’m free to do things my way.” Emer had been there almost five hours, and had earned about fifty dollars; it was already dinnertime, though, and he was about to go home, to New Jersey. Ebbs in traffic and a glut of competition mean diminished returns. “Normally, with work, you know how much money you’ll get based on the hours,” Reyes said. “Here, there’s no telling.” She had spent eight hours on the same corner a week earlier and came away with fifteen dollars; she was still distraught about it, and told me that she’s started looking for another job.
To hear Emer and Reyes tell it, they suffer all sorts of indignities. There are daily torrents of verbal abuse (most of them variations of “You illegal Mexicans!”) and constant struggles to find public bathrooms and places to have lunch without being turned away. Reyes used to dress as a minion from “Despicable Me,” but she “kept getting beat on by people, kids and older guys, just knocking me around.” A wayward punch broke her nose several months ago. She chalks up some of it to malice, and the rest to Disney-influenced confusion: “In the movie, the minions are always beat on. I think some kids just think it’s part of the game.”
When the Times Square characters do shed their masks and make the news, it’s usually not for their acts of endurance. Earlier this month, two Statues of Liberty got into a fistfight over disputed turf, and one was arrested. A judge, two weeks ago, found a Spider-Man guilty of harassing a family that had allegedly shorted him money while taking a picture. The police have a loose policy of begrudging acceptance toward them, with the occasional lashing out. (“You can’t stand there!” “Move along!” “How much money did he just give you?”) The police lord it over them that so many are immigrants without papers, Emer said. He was in the middle of a story about a policeman when two teen-age girls walked past. Emer’s mask was up, and his flushed face was exposed. “Hey, baby,” he called out, in shaky English. “Want to take a picture?”