Friday, August 22, 2014

One awful way to make an awful living

One thing I’ve got to say: there are an awful lot of awful ways to try to make a living out there.

And one of them has to be dressing up like Elmo, Spider-Man, or Cookie Monster and hanging around Times Square, hoping that you can sucker some tourist into taking a picture with you – and giving you a tip.

I am a bit familiar with the posers – or whatever you call the folks who paint themselves verdigris, don robes and diadem, and stand stock still while holding a torch – you see in Battery Park and elsewhere in Manhattan. A while back, I took a picture of my niece Caroline with one of them. I’m not sure if there was an explicit charge, or whether I just tipped her. But I paid up.

Fast forward a couple of years, and there were some gold and black painted posers, representin’ King Tut, hanging out along the banks of the Seine. I think we took a picture of them, but not with them. Did we tip? Probably. I know I would have wanted to avoid any potential for someone screaming “Ugly American” at me in French.

Then in Rome a year or so ago, there were some guys – unpainted – floating around the Coliseum dressed as Roman centurions. They were good-humored, in a creepy kind of way, and Caroline wanted her picture taken with them. (My niece Molly’s creep-ometer was too flashing to want the same.) That, I do believe, cost an outrageous five euro.

Statue of Liberty poser. King Tut poser. Roman Centurion “re-enactor” (hah!).

Each time I forked over a tip I remember thinking “that’s one lousy way to make a living.” I also remember thinking, in the case of the Statue of Liberty and King Tut posers, about the scene in Goldfinger where the girl covered in gold-leaf ends up asphyxiated.

Like I said, it’s a lousy way to make a living.

But I suppose when you’re an artist of some sort, it’s at least something.

Unfortunately, it’s something that must get pretty uncomfortable in less-than-clement weather. And to have to rely on the kindness of tourists to earn your keep. Take it from one who did so as a waitress at Durgin-Park and Union Oyster House…...

Anyway, the news from NYC is that the NYPD has been cracking down on the character portrayers, going so far as to hand out flyers (handily printed in five languages) letting tourists know that they are under no obligation to tip.

The crackdown followed a string of harrowing incidents in which some of the characters assaulted tourists, including children. Others harassed people and groped women. The face-offs peaked last month when a Spider-Man demanding money punched a police officer telling a woman she was not obliged to pay. (Source: Latino Fox News.)

TIme Square characters

Needless to say, the characters are not exactly delighted with this turn of events.

Some costumed characters in Times Square ripped off their mammoth heads on Tuesday, showing their real faces to protest what they call a "hostile move" by police telling tourists they don't have to tip for photos.

And those characters are even organizing. I’ll be in NYC in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll see if I can line up a Joe Hill costume.

More than 130 formed a group this week called NYC Artists United for a Smile to explore how the characters might regulate themselves instead of the licensing now being proposed in the City Council.

Artists United for a Smile, huh?

Maybe it’s just me, but being approached by someone in a sweaty, matted Elmo suit looking for money is not going to make me smile. It’s going to make my cringe, shudder, shy away, and – certainly if I took a picture of one –be completely overwhelmed with pity for their plight, and guilt that I could afford to swan around Times Square taking pictures with my smartphone.

But make me smile?

Maybe if I were a three-year old kid who could look past the sweaty, matted costume and get jazzed at the thought of meeting the “real” Elmo…

This is, by the way, a job that earns around $50-$70 for a 12 hour day. How desperate do you have to be to work for an uncertain $50 a day – an amount that doesn’t come any where near minimum wage? Plenty desperate, as it turns out. Many of the characters are undocumented workers from Latin America.

And just the thought of there being 130 people in NYC alone attempting to make their livings posing as cartoon characters is mind boggling. Although not when you consider that, as I learned when I posted about them earlier this week,  as of 1992 there were some 35,000 Elvis impersonators out there.

The characters are positioning their protest in constitutional terms:

Lucia Gomez, executive director of La Fuente, a pro-immigrant nonprofit that helped organize the performers, said it's their First Amendment right to entertain people.

I hadn’t realized that the “right to entertain people” is a First Amendment right, but there was Lenny Bruce back in the day. And George Carlin. (I know, I know, that wasn’t about the right to entertain, but the right to use the type of language that – as I read the other day – can to this day get you arrested in South Carolina, where the f-word is outlawed.)

In any case, I suspect that the First Amendment doesn’t cover using an Elmo or Spiderman costume for commercial purposes without paying a licensing fee to Sesame Street or Marvel Comics. Or is the licensing fee implicitly incorporated in the price of the costume?

Amazing that the owners of these character brands haven’t cracked down yet. Didn’t Disney actually go after a bereaved family that had etched Winnie-the-Pooh on their dead child’s headstone? You’d think the studios would be all over this.

"Once you start putting forward any kind of regulation on a group of workers, you better be prepared to do it to all workers, because you cannot single out one set of workers and not provide the same kind of regulations for everyone within the performance art industry," Gomez said.

Which, I guess, would mean the Statue of Liberty posers (who in their “real lives”, I suspect, are something other than desperate undocumented workers).

I have tremendous sympathy for anyone trying to hustle up what amounts to a pretty darned awful living in this way. Just thinking about the desperate poverty some of them left if hoping that some tourist will give you a buck for taking a picture of you in your Hello, Kitty outfit is a better alternative…

I wish them well, but the idea of so many characters on the make swarming around Times Square is one more reason for me to avoid that particular neck of the woods when I’m in The City in September.

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