By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — For more than two weeks, confused tourists have been stopped in their tracks by a giant blow-up rat and a team dressed in white Hazmat suits standing on the sidewalk in front of two opposing hotels on the same Midtown block.
Some simply shake their heads and look askance as they shuffle past the curious additions to Seventh Avenue between West 55th and West 56th Streets. Some point. Others grab their cameras to document yet another New York oddity.
The props and costumes, as most New Yorkers know, are signs of a union protest.
Local 78, which represents workers who remove hazardous waste, is staging dueling demonstrations. Outside of the Park Central New York hotel, a menacing inflated rat with yellow teeth, a tuxedo jacket and red tie lays his claim to the west side of the block. By his side, union member Omar Vega, 26, from Queens, hands out fliers slamming the hotel’s management for hiring non-union workers to do asbestos abatement at a different location.
On the east side of the street, a duo wearing white Hazmat suits stands outside of the Wellington Hotel handing out fliers warning guests of an alleged bed bug problem and also criticizing owners’ asbestos removal efforts. The protesting there has been going on for months, union organizers said.
But for hotel guests and other visitors to the tourist-heavy stretch, the demonstrations have become a source of confusion, amusement and intrigue.
Alfredo Vellez, 47, a bellhop at the Park Central who lives in the Bronx, said that he gets questions all day long from passers-by who notice the theatrical displays.
"Something weird’s going on," they'll say, according to Vellez.
Some, he said, think they’ve stumbled onto a television or movie set. Others stop to pose, sometimes hissing and curling their fingers into claws.
"They’re taking pictures every day. They’re having a lot of fun," he said. "[But] They have idea what it’s about."
Because of the hotel's policies, Vellez said he and other bellman can't discuss much with those who inquire about what's going on. Instead they have a little fun by fueling speculation.
"It’s a monster movie. It’s a remake of Ben," Brooklyn's John Sullivan, 48, another bellhop at the hotel likes to joke, referring to the 70s horror film about a pack of killer rats.
Other tourists had their own theories.
"It’s a mouse?" guessed Dimitri Stipon, 22, who was visiting from France with a group of friends. "It’s here for tourists to take a photo?!"
Miami’s Daniel Charif, 50, said he didn’t even notice the giant rat when he first checked into the Park Central hotel, but later decided it was likely some sort of advertisement.
Armando Flores, 49, from Los Angeles, said he had "no idea" what the rat meant, but decided to take a picture as he passed by to add to his collection of noteworthy New York sites.
But not everyone was amused by the efforts.
"Of course they bother," said Igdal Parnes, 53, a tourist from Brazil, who was staying at the Wellington Hotel. "They are all the time bugging, asking questions," he complained of the demonstrators, who said they hand out hundreds of fliers every day.
Rumi Bhuiyan, the assistant general manager at the Wellington, said that, despite the length of the campaign, he still doesn’t mind the men and women outside in Hazmat suits warning of bed bugs, since, he said, the hotel doesn’t have a problem with the pests.
"It’s actually helping us more than anything else," Bhuiyan said, explaining that he’s able to educate customers and show them that rooms are bed-bug free.
Management at the Park Central hotel did not return repeated calls for comment on the protests.