Here is a photo posted online a couple weeks ago by a tourist in New York's Times Square. You can see a worried-looking Elmo looking on as two of New York's finest wrestle with a person in a Spider Man costume.
Spider Man eventually was subdued, arrested and charged with shaking down tourists for $10 each for posing for pictures with them. According to the police, people in costumes may seek only tips, not charge a set price.
If you have visited Times Square anytime in the last 10 years, you have seen the characters: Elmo, Minnie Mouse, Sponge Bob Squarepants and, more recently, action figures like Spider Man.
I always assumed that the characters were sponsored by the relevant production companies, like Jim Henson's Muppets organization, say. But I was naive. The characters are individual operators, often immigrants, who buy costumes for $150 or more and then go into business, posing for photographs with tourists and collecting tips from them.
For many years, the usual toss was a buck or two. More recently, in addition to Spider Man, it has been reported that a man in a Statue of Liberty costume was charging $10 to stand beside your kid while you shot a snapshot of the two of them.
Over time, the appeal of this sort of work has increased. On any given day, you can encounter several Elmos, and multiples of other characters.
My guess is that this is off-the-books work, like more and more commerce in big cities.
The whole business started getting new scrutiny last month when one of the characters threw a punch at somebody -- maybe a cop, I can't remember -- and now the police are hauling in more of the Muppets and action heroes.
Another entrepreneur was the steel drum guy. Twelve years ago or so, I went with the younger person to the Times Square TKTS booth to buy discounted seats to a Broadway matinee. The lines were long, and a steel drum musician had set up to entertain the waiting crowd and, I'm guessing, to collect tips.
As we waited, a pair of policemen approached the steel drummer, who reached into his bag and pulled out a very thick roll of cash, presumably singles from his tips, and handed it over to one of the policemen; both cops then walked away. I followed them for a while to ask what the deal was, but they hopped quickly into a waiting cruiser that set off down Seventh Avenue.
Thirty years ago, Times Square was a sleazy, scary place. It has been cleaned up a lot since then -- MTV, CBS, Virgin and ToysRUs stores are there now -- but it still has con artists, albeit generally in more family-friendly uniforms.