Cookie Monster gives change

A bill to regulate performers in Times Square — what do they think?

For War Machine, Cookie Monster, and a Minion, business was good on Tuesday.

Working mostly together and pooling tips, the group of costumed characters was not lacking in customers in their spot on 43rd Street and Broadway at the center of Times Square.

Tourists periodically flocked to them, as when a young woman gathered them close for a selfie. Picture taken, the woman waited for the characters to disperse. Smoothly, professionally, Cookie Monster took the woman’s cellphone and offered to take another picture, prolonging the interaction, by which point the characters were able to make clear that they work for tips. The woman clutched $11 questioningly.

“I give change,” Cookie Monster said.

Soon after, a whole family came by, gestured the characters together for a picture. The trio of characters hopped to it. But there was no tip forthcoming. “We have only credit cards,” the father said curtly. “Sorry.”

War Machine shrugged, his black backpack bouncing. Cookie Monster bowed his head, the white wires of earphones visible beneath his mask. The family walked away.

War Machine, a part-time actor who gave his name as Sean, flipped up his mask to reveal a warm throat garter and sunglasses and made a pitch for the characters’ importance to Times Square.

“It adds something,” he said, “It adds some flavor. Can you imagine walking around without the characters?”

Legislation before the City Council could bring that future to pass, requiring the motley cast of characters, desnudas and Naked Cowpeople who do business in Times Square to stay inside demarcated zones.

Can the Naked Cowboy be contained?

The bill, scheduled for a vote in the transportation committee Wednesday morning and before the full council later this week, would give the Department of Transportation the ability to regulate pedestrian plazas such as Times Square. The department would be able to regulate commercial activity, just like the Parks Department does in city parks.

If the bill is approved, the regulations probably wouldn’t be in place until this summer, says Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance. Tomkins says that the directives wouldn’t stop Times Square from being a place of “spontaneity and commerce” — it would simply make the rules of engagement clear.

But the rules of engagement are already clear — harassment of all kinds is illegal and not particularly easy to miss in heavily-policed Times Square. Signs bearing Times Square Alliance and NYPD logos declare tips optional and explain the rules of interaction in five languages.

Tourists go to Times Square for whatever reason people go to Times Square — to look at the advertisements, go shopping, take in a show, feel like they’re in the big city.

Is a few dollars tip for a picture any more highway robbery than a $15 beer or $30 T-shirt? Is New York really so sanitized that it can’t handle a foul-mouthed Elvis, who might say something unprintable in a family newsletter, or, when the weather gets warmer, some painted women? You can always do what a real New Yorker does, and detour via 8th Avenue.

Hard work

Sean, in his faded War Machine costume, watched a number of tourists gazing wonderingly at a video screen advertisement, noting that he’d seen pickpockets taking advantage of such absentmindedness.

The characters might be pushy from time to time, but they aren’t stealing. They are “working people,” he said, before noticing another gesturing group of pedestrians and jogging in their direction.

But the group only wanted a picture with two Minions. Though Sean had inserted himself into the picture, they wouldn’t give him any money. Briskly, they walked away.

Sean flipped up his visor, waiting coolly for another crowd to pass, waxing philosophical about the various “real issues” that the city might want to pay attention to before getting to the characters: crime, the economy, crumbling infrastructure, to name a few.

As for costumed charactering: “It’s not as easy as you think,” he said.

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Mark Chiusano