Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Back to Times Square

Above you see a photo of a family doing one of the few things you can do besides shop for tchotchkes and dodge other tourists in New York's Times Square.  Grandma and the kids are posing for a picture with Minnie Mouse and Elmo.

Since everyone here already knows there is no tooth fairy, I will reveal another shocking fact:  That is not really Minnie Mouse and Elmo in the picture.  They are entrepreneurs, immigrants usually, who have bought costumes and pose for pictures in return for "tips" as Minnie's sign says or, more benignly, donations.

The picture-posing business has low barriers to entry, and so more and more people have got into it. This summer, you can find as many as 10 Elmos (see above) in Times Square at any given moment.  Times Square is a big place, but not that big.

With competition has come tension.  There are only so many people who want Elmo photos, and so the characters want more money for each picture.  Some of the characters have proved not to be nice people -- shoving children, making remarks not consistent with their characters' images and inserting themselves in people's pictures and then demanding "donations."

In short, it has become too much of a good thing.  The NYPD has hauled some of the malefactors off to jail, but it is difficult to justify devoting a lot of police time to problems like these.

I can see two ways to resolve this matter.

First, the companies that own the rights to these characters could assert those rights and license people to represent their brands. The Hello Kitty and Elmo people already have expressed concerns.  And, if you think about it, Hello Kitty would sic its lawyers on you immediately if you published a book or posted an advertisement using her character.  What's the difference here?

Second, the Times Square Alliance could get involved.  This chamber-of-commerce type organization promotes the area and has an interest in keeping it peaceful.  Plus, it has money -- $10 million in assets and an annual budget of more than $15 million.  Couldn't it deploy private guards during the peak summer months to mediate between costumed characters and their marks -- sorry, donators -- and to call the police when necessary?

Because this happens in New York, naturally a less than ideal solution is being proposed.  A state legislator has introduced a bill to establish a new bureaucracy to regulate the characters. There would be criminal background checks and inspections of photo identification, then issuance of official permits allowing people to wear costumes and hit up strangers for money.  This law would go into effect in January 2015, when the city will begin making free photo IDs available to all comers, including undocumented immigrants.

What would the bureaucrats do if 100 Elmos came in to register themselves?  Approve only the ones deemed to have the best costumes?  Issue schedules and hours so as not to crowd the market?  Hire agents to be sure no characters migrate to Rockefeller Center or the long lines of tourists outside the Empire State Building?

What's next?  A squeegee man bureau?  Photo IDs for the panhandlers who troll the subways and commuter trains with hard luck stories and their hands out?

Are shakedown artists in cute costumes better than ones in street clothes?

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