Sunday, August 3, 2014

The lives of Times Square cartoon characters

Before stepping into the Times Square hurly-burly of Elmos, Minnie Mouses and Batmen who pose for photographs and then coax customers for tips, Mr. Rodríguez spent a week studying the competition. He analyzed tourist behavior. He calculated potential earnings. And in the absence of anyone masquerading as a certain Nickelodeon star, he spotted an opportunity.

Thus was born SpongeBob SquarePants Rodríguez.

On his first day he made $80 in five hours, a better rate — and more interesting work — than the series of temporary jobs he had held since immigrating to the United States from Ecuador in March. ...

In recent years, these costumed characters have become ubiquitous, replacing the more sordid denizens of decades past. To some critics, they are little more than colorfully attired panhandlers and a chronic nuisance at the Crossroads of the World. ...

Most of the performers are immigrants and many of them are undocumented...

Earnings can vary wildly, from lows of $30 for eight hours of work to highs of over $200. But the rates depend on numerous factors, including the day of the week (weekends generally top weekdays, though they also draw more performers) and the time of the year (as tourism peaks, so does business). ...

Many of the performers live in working-class neighborhoods in New Jersey, a significant cluster of them in the city of Passaic.

“Next door there are five Elmos,” said Miguel Lezama, a 27-year-old Mexican, as he stood in the kitchen of a small apartment in Passaic that he shares with two other immigrants. He pointed in another direction: “On that side, a Cookie Monster and a Minnie. In front, a Winnie-the-Pooh and a Minnie. Up on Main Avenue, there are lots more.” He paused. “I live with a Cookie Monster.”

At certain times of the day, he said, there might be a dozen street performers standing on a corner of Main Avenue with their bulky costume sacks waiting for a bus to take them to Midtown Manhattan. ...

A vaguely defined ecosystem seems to exist within the community, with subspecies divided by costume type: The Disney, Pixar and “Sesame Street” characters gravitate toward one another, and the superheroes hang out with other superheroes. ...

The cartoon characters blame the superheroes for ruining the community’s image. The undocumented immigrants say the American citizens, not worried about deportation, arrogantly flout the law. And the veterans blame the newcomers, calling them money-grubbing arrivistes with no respect for the trade.
--Kirk Semple, NYT, on the humans behind the hustle