What would you do if a stranger on the street grabbed your daughter or sister in a bear hug? What if he insisted on taking a photo with her, then demanded money?
Call a cop? Punch him in the mouth?
Now, what if he were disguised as Cookie Monster, Elmo or Spider-Man?
According to statistics from the Times Square Alliance, the number of costumed characters in the area has skyrocketed in the past few months. And the scenario described earlier happens often, according to my on-hand observation last Thursday.
Most of the characters behaved responsibly. But in the hour I was there, too many acted inappropriately, including a Spider-Man manhandling teen girls who passed by. Later, Spidey and Elmo counted stacks of 10s and 20s they’d finagled from intimidated tourists.
But the issue isn’t just costumed characters. Two guys sold CDs by requesting a tourist’s name, writing it on the CD, then growling, “I can’t sell this with your name on it; you owe me $10.” And virtually nude “Vegas showgirls” targeted a group of teen boys for photos.
One Cookie Monster approached a tourist family with a hearty, “Hi! Welcome to New York!” Many of the tourists believed the characters are hired by the city — not independent operators shaking them down for cash. (A Cookie Monster was arrested in April after he allegedly grabbed a teenage girl’s breast.)
One scam repeated more than once: Minnie Mouse corralled a visiting family for a photo, Mickey rushed over to take part, then they demanded $20 each.
I saw one dazed tourist break away from a predatory pack of costumed characters, fuming, “They forced me to pay all of them.” Another cried to a Cookie Monster, “You didn’t give me enough change.” Perhaps it’s time to drop the “Cookie” part of his name.
“I have no issue with people asking for tips, but aggressive solicitation and intimidation is something else,” Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, told me. “There are hundreds of people a day being made to feel uncomfortable or worse, and it’s just not being dealt with.”
Is this how we want NYC visitors treated?
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.