Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cookie? Eff you, kid... me want money!

Panhandlers in kid-friendly costumes aggressive, nasty in NYC's Times Square

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NEW YORK -- Cookie Monster stands accused of shoving a two-year-old. Super Mario was charged with groping a woman. And Elmo was booked for berating tourists with anti-Semitic slurs.

Times Square is crawling with entrepreneurs who dress up as pop-culture characters and try to make a few bucks posing for photos with visitors to the big city. But some of these characters are unlike anything you've seen on Sesame Street or at Disney World.

They smoke, they use foul language, and they can be aggressive. At least three of them have been arrested in the past seven months.

"He was using words that were really bad," says Parmita Kurada of Stamford, Conn., who told police she got into a dispute this week with a man in a Cookie Monster costume who demanded $2 for posing with her two-year-old son, Samay.

Kurada says that when she told the Cookie Monster that her husband needed to get cash, the shaggy blue creature pushed the boy and began calling her and the child obscene names.

"It was very scary for us, and I was crying. I didn't want to provoke him, so I said, 'We'll give you the money, but stop yelling!'" she says.

Osvaldo Quiroz-Lopez, 33, was charged with assault and child endangerment. His lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment.

Asked by a WNBC-TV reporter why he no longer likes the character he sees on Sesame Street, little Samay said: "Because Cookie Monster give me boo-boo."

In the wake of the latest arrest, the bustling "Crossroads of the World" was filled Tuesday with performers, including multiple versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Hello Kitty, a Transformer robot, Lady Liberty, Super Mario and Elmo.

Many of them are immigrants trying to eke out a living in what appear to be knockoff costumes.

As street performers protected by the First Amendment, they are free to roam Times Square and work for tips that average between $2 and $5 a photo as long as they don't block traffic, sell merchandise or demand payment, police say. That's a ticketable offence that can cost about $60.

"I don't think they should charge, but if they're unemployed or homeless, and this is the only way they can make money, it's OK," says Lauren Larcara of Oakland, N.J., who posed with a torch-carrying Statue of Liberty.

Laura Vanegas, a 45-year-old native of Ecuador, changes into her Liberty robes and applies copper-green face paint behind the Times Square military recruiting station. She says she picks up $30 to $50 on her eight-hour shift.

Steve Crass, dressed as a robot in fluorescent red plastic panels, says he has made as much as $280 during his six-hour stint in front of Toys R Us. He acknowledged: "Some of the characters are a little too aggressive."

Police spokesman Paul Browne says in an email that the department has had "occasional issues with the 'faux paws' in Times Square, but they're nominal."

The case against the Super Mario charged with groping is still pending. The Elmo accused of an anti-Semitic rant pleaded guilty in September to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to two days of community service.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called the Cookie Monster case "just horrible" and says lawmakers have been looking into how to regulate the characters. But she noted the issue is, well, fuzzy.

"It's very challenging legally because dressing up in a costume and walking around Times Square is, we believe, a First Amendment-protected activity," says Quinn, a candidate to be New York's next mayor.

Disney and the creators of Sesame Street did not respond to requests for comment. Anthony Elia, a New York lawyer in the intellectual-property field, says they probably have a case for trademark infringement, but "the challenge probably would be getting a bunch of self-employed entrepreneurial individuals to stop."

It's not the easiest way to make a living. On days when temperatures push 30 C, they sweat in their outfits, coming out from under their oversized costume heads only to grab a hot dog or a smoke.

When one poses for a photo, two or three others dash over and join in.

"Want to take a picture?" a furry red Elmo asks a tourist. Moments later, he declines to speak to a reporter, saying through his costume, "I no speak English."

A Minnie Mouse offers a toddler in a stroller her hand and positioned herself at the handlebar. A Super Mario rushed over to join her.

"She said, 'Can you give us money?'" says the child's mother, Melanie Somogyi of Hamilton, Ont. "And they grabbed the stroller!"

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2013 C16

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