Ep 06: Times Square Hustle

Spiderman and friends snatch tips for pics with Midtown tourists

On our family’s first foray into Times Square together in 2015, we couldn’t help but notice the colorful superheroes and Disney characters prowling among the tourists and civilians. Our daughter, who loved all things Japanese at the time, decided that she would like a picture with Hello Kitty to share on Instagram. It was almost as if Hello Kitty smelt the money as a shark would smell a drop of blood in the water. She nearly lost her big, furry head in a rush to get over to us. 

Navigating crowds with restricted eyesight and no regard for the outer edges of her cat headpiece, Hello Kitty seized my daughter by the coat and pulled her into a pose. Within seconds, Mickey Mouse, Cookie Monster and Super Mario were flanking her on either side and our petite 13-year-old was dwarfed by a pushy pack of furry characters. After the photo was taken, she timidly proffered her dollar bill to Hello Kitty and tried to exit stage left. Obviously we didn’t know the protocol. 

The other three characters whipped up their headpieces so that they could make eye contact and held their palms up as if begging for alms. I was overwhelmed by the surreal nature of the scene. Super Mario was a small Latino woman, pleading with liquid eyes. As I fumbled for my purse, the furry characters edged in closer. In trying to fish out some dollar bills, I accidentally pulled out a five, but three voices assured me: “It’s okay, it’s okay”. While I worried how they would share it, Mickey Mouse unceremoniously yanked it out of my hand and turned tail – off to find a new victim. Cookie Monster and Super Mario followed suit. 

While wondering how we had just lost $6 in a matter of a minute, I felt something touch me on the shoulder and realized that a life-sized Elmo had his arm around me, guiding me to his band of brothers. Lurking on the corner, looking shifty as drug dealers, the gang of Elmos came alive at the prospect of a prospect.

Furry arms outstretched, googly eyes waggling, they tried hustling me into a group photo. Losing all my resolve, I escaped not by firm resistance, but by running away shaking my head and apologizing profusely.

On our next visit to Times Square, we came armed with our camera and a fat stack of dollar bills. It was our turn to approach the furries and the superheroes and find out what made them tick. Getting right into the spirit of it, I was waving dollar bills like a businessman at a strip bar: “If I give you a dollar will you answer a few questions?” 

We quickly realized that a large number of the costumed characters didn’t speak any English. I was impressed with the resourcefulness and spirit of these entrepreneurs. When all communication is pantomimed and the language of an outstretched hand is universal, there is no job discrimination. One clever Smurf answered humbly, “No sorry, no English,” and plucked the dollar bill from my hand with a rueful smile. 

Before long, the checkbook journalism paid off and we found our story. A sweetly innocent young man, dressed as The Flash, told us how he was just learning the ropes, mentored by his friend, Spiderman. He told us that he gave all his earnings to his mom, as she put food on the table.

We asked The Flash if we could take him somewhere quiet and pay him for a proper interview. He couldn’t leave his post at the most lucrative hour on a Saturday evening, so we tried to set the interview up for the next day. The only problem was The Flash didn’t even have a phone. Excited by the prospect of appearing on YouTube, Flash called Spiderman over to help out. Visibly irritated at being called while he was on the job, Spiderman quietly schooled Flash on the ways of maximizing a prospect. 

“We’re not going to talk now, we don’t have the time. Give them my number, okay?”

The next day, in weather just over four degrees Fahrenheit, we met up with Spiderman – aka JJ. The Flash had stayed home for the day because he was too cold to hustle. 

With relief, JJ/Spiderman quickly steered us to a deli just off Times Square that he used as a home base. For 20 dollars he told us his story and shared with us his dreams of starting his own fashion label and starring in a YouTube series.

Our film is a small introduction to a fascinating story of New York grit and ingenuity. The hustlers of Times Square are paying their way through college, feeding their families and starting empires one dollar at a time. 

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