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For Times Square Costumed Characters, a Cottage Industry Faces a Crackdown

By Maya Rajamani | March 14, 2016 7:21am
 Several costumed characters say police officers harass characters and prevent them from earning money.
Times Square's Costumed Characters
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TIMES SQUARE — Francisco Cardenas wakes up each morning and takes NJ Transit into the Port Authority Bus Terminal just like thousands of other commuters on their way to work.

But instead of heading to an office wearing a suit and tie, Cardenas — already dressed as Woody from “Toy Story” — dons a giant mask and joins his colleagues Spider-Man, Minnie Mouse and Iron Man to take photos with tourists in Times Square.

“I have my son, 3 years [old]. I need [the money] for my rent, for food,” said Cardenas, who was employed in a warehouse for a few years before he realized he could make more money in less time working for tips as a costumed character in the Crossroads of the World.

As the City Council prepares to review a bill aimed at reining in costumed characters and topless “desnudas,” who the legislation's co-sponsor Councilman Dan Garodnick maintains have “taken over Times Square,” Cardenas and other performers say they are just trying to make a living.

New Jersey resident Giovanna Melendez, who has worked as a Minnie Mouse in Times Square for the past six or seven years, said conditions for performers have grown increasingly difficult in recent years.

“Today, more people [are working as characters], more complaints, more tickets, more police harass[ment],” she said.

After moving to the United States from Peru a little more than a decade ago, the 40-year-old mother of four worked in a factory for several years before coming to Times Square.

“I like it here, I like the costume. It’s beautiful to me,” she said. “My country has little work, little money.”

Her job flexibility allows her to take English classes at Passaic Community College and care for her 7-year-old son when her babysitter isn’t available.

But she has also been ticketed twice by police in the past year, after she asked those who took photos with her for tips.

“I ask, ‘Excuse me, what is the problem? What is this ticket?’” she said. “It’s no good.”

Midtown North Deputy Inspector John Hart said the precinct couldn’t provide statistics for the number of costumed characters who have gotten into trouble in Times Square in recent months, but he noted the amount of arrests and tickets issued “ebb and flow.”

“There will be individuals who act out or are aggressive … we make a few arrests and collectively their behavior becomes more appropriate,” he said.

At least five costumed characters — including a man dressed as Spider-Man who is accused of holding onto a man’s son until he tipped him, and three people dressed as Minnie Mouse, Olaf the Snowman from "Frozen" and Cookie Monster — were arrested in Times Square for harassing tourists in January and February.

Meanwhile, a man dressed as Batman was accused of snatching $50 from an Irish tourist after she snapped a photo with him at the end of last month.

In addition, tickets issued to street vendors quadrupled in the months after Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton asked police to increase regulation of Times Square's pedestrian plazas to deal with the performers.

Like Melendez, many of the costumed characters are immigrants, said Oscar Rodriguez, 31, who works as an Iron Man impersonator and hails from Colombia.

“Colombia, Peru, Mexico …” he said, listing off many of the performers' native countries.

Another Iron Man who gave his name as Raphael moved to New Jersey from Peru a decade ago and started coming to Times Square after the cafeteria he was working in laid him off.

“Today, [business is] so-so, but summer is very good,” the 36-year-old said last week.

While the colder months would seem to attract less outdoor activity, many performers said police have been clamping down this winter, as evidenced by the spate of arrests.

During an interview late last month, Rodriguez and a man dressed as Spider-Man claimed that a select few police officers harass them “every day” as they take photos with tourists in the pedestrian plazas.

“They’re exercising power against us,” said the man dressed as Spider-Man, who declined to give his name.

The performer said he’d been arrested while working last year, but declined to elaborate as the charges were still pending.

“I’m not going to get into my arrest, but I’m just going to say that they are harassing characters,” the Spider-Man said.

“It’s discrimination,” added Rodriguez, who worked as a personal training coach in Spain for several years before moving to the United States. 

“It’s my own business,” he said to explain his career choice. “For me, if it’s a day off, it’s a day off — and then tomorrow I work.”

The man dressed as Spider-Man, meanwhile, said he started coming to Times Square out of necessity a few years ago.

“At the time, I didn’t have a job, but I had a couple dollars left over so I did buy a costume,” he explained. “It helps me take care of my children and my family.”

(It’s not clear if he was the same Spider-Man who was arrested less than a week later on charges of fraudulent accosting.)

Some performers feel the men and women arrested by police have garnered a bad reputation for those who are just trying to make a living without causing trouble.  

“I myself try to stay away from the bad behavior,” said a 24-year-old named Lu, who dresses as Cookie Monster to support himself and his family, including a 2-year-old daughter.

He said some performers get into hot water for demanding specific amounts of money from tourists.

Inspector Hart noted that the rules governing costumed characters in Times Square aren't “an exact science.”

“They are allowed to ask but not demand … not allowed to demand a specific amount and not allowed to coerce tips by surrounding people,” he said. “[But] it is a judgment based on what the complainant relays or what the officer observes.”

The Midtown North precinct did “extensive outreach” on the issue and met with the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, Susan Herman, several times last year to come to a consensus about problematic behaviors, he said.

Lu said if tourists “give me a tip, they give me a tip. If they don’t, they don’t.”

Also a New Jersey resident, he worked at a K-Mart and a ShopRite before spending a day donning a costume in Times Square on a friend’s recommendation.

“I made $80 in two hours, so I quit the K-Mart job,” Lu said. “But it’s sort of slow now,” he said of the winter months.

Police officers often make it hard for characters to earn money, he noted.

“[The tourists] have the camera ready, and [the police are] like, don’t give them tips. That f---s us up. We lose money," Lu explained.

“I do understand, the cops have a point, I try to put myself in their shoes,” he added. “[But] they look at us like criminals. I think that’s discriminatory.”

The “vast majority” of costumed characters are compliant, but arrests are made when “the small few act inappropriately,” Hart said.

Some characters, however, feel the arrests and scrutiny are unwarranted.

Jose Escalona-Martinez, 42, who has been arrested on two occasions while working as a Batman in Times Square — including a February arrest for allegedly stealing $50 from a woman’s purse — claimed the woman lied to police about the theft, and that video footage from a nearby store would prove it.

“The newspaper[s] [are] lying about me. I am a human being, you know?” he said after being released on his own recognizance following the arrest. “They really hurt my heart and my reputation, and I feel like s--t.”

Like Lu, Escalona-Martinez said police officers often tell tourists not to tip characters for photos, but added it was “not the police’s job to tell them whether to tip or not.”

“How can you legislate freedom?" he said. "I have the right to be here."

An Elvis impersonator who was arrested for aggressive panhandling in August claimed the arrest was uncalled for and said police officers “won’t leave [costumed performers] alone.”

“They don’t go around arresting the homeless people for panhandling, and that’s more illegal than what we’re doing,” said Stephen Clark, 43, who worked as a personal assistant to well-known performer the Naked Cowboy before setting out on his own.

“All of us need to get a lawyer, sue the city and get a restraining order against the cops,” he added.

Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for vendor rights and has also worked with costumed characters over the years, said many of them have felt “unfairly targeted by police.”

“Of course, we don’t know what happened in any particular case of alleged wrongdoing," he wrote in an email. "But we know very well how immigrant workers (be they costumed characters, vendors, pedicab drivers, etc.) are targeted by the NYPD for questionable violations at the direct lobbying of corporate interests in Times Square."

Organizations like the Times Square Alliance, which focuses on improving Times Square, as well as theater owners, have sought to “control who gets to be in Times Square,” Basinski claimed.

The Alliance brings in money by renting Times Square’s pedestrian plazas for corporate events and has a “close relationship” with the NYPD,” he added.

In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a task force to examine the possibility of eliminating Times Square’s pedestrian plazas, in light of what he described as a “lot of problems” with performers there. 

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said harassment by costumed characters and issues with comedy club ticket sellers duping tourists into buying tickets for shows by using big names like Tina Fey and Louis C.K. have increased in the past three years.

“We never had an issue with Naked Cowboy or the Statue of Liberties in the past, but there are some who have consistently been aggressive in the way they approach and chase down people, where people don’t have a choice about whether they’re interacting with them,” he said.

As is proposed in the City Council legislation, the Alliance wants the city to designate zones in Times Square where costumed characters, performers and others can carry out their business.

“We think that the [costumed characters] that are operating legitimately, it won’t affect them,” he said. “The ones who are being really aggressive or inappropriate, then that will affect them.”

He denied Basinski’s claim that the Alliance wanted to control the plazas, pointing out that the Alliance has called for “greater restrictions” on the number of commercial events in Times Square.

The Alliance receives a “small fraction” of the money the city brings in when it holds a commercial event in Times Square, but it also spends a “couple million dollars” a year maintaining Duffy Square and the pedestrian plazas because it is contractually obligated to do so, he said.

The organization has received numerous tweets and letters recounting negative interactions with costumed characters in Times Square, Tompkins added.

“We are focusing on something that is a genuine problem,” he said.

Basinski, however, said he felt the city should be working with the costumed characters rather than cracking down on them, as the majority are performing a “great service” to tourists.”

With the weather reaching into the 70s last week, crowds passed through the pedestrian plazas, with many stopping to take photos with the costumed characters who were out in full force.

New Haven, Connecticut, resident Lindsey Mattei brought her 6-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, to Times Square on a birthday outing.

“She’s obviously going to ask Elmo for a picture,” said Mattei, as Nevaeh spotted the character across the plaza after posing for photos with some of her favorite Disney characters, including Olaf, Minnie Mouse and Winnie the Pooh.

“I guess because we’re just visiting, [the characters are] not something that’s bothering us on the regular,” Mattei said. “I think it’s fun for little kids. As an adult, you get kind of cranky.”

Subash Patel and his wife, Meera Patel, who were visiting from Oregon last week, came upon the characters serendipitously last week. Their son and daughter stopped to smile for photos with an Olaf.

“They were super excited,” Subash Patel said. “We were here to go to Madame Tussaud’s, and we just happened to see them.”

Now, as the proposed legislation wends it way through City Hall, Basinski maintained that any restrictions on Times Square's performers would veer toward limiting First Amendment activity in a public space.

“The plazas should be shared by everyone," he said, "whether they are dressing up as Elmo, playing a guitar for tips, preaching the end of the world, or just sitting on a bench, taking it all in."