In our household, New York is not a city – it’s a religion. Life is great in Sydney, Australia but it’s got nothing on New York.
Last month, my husband and I took our two teenaged children on a pilgrimage to New York in order to baptize them into our religion. As writers and filmmakers, we are plotting to move our life and careers over to New York so that we can be at the epicenter of Western culture.
On our first foray into Times Square we couldn’t help but notice the colorful super heroes and Disney characters prowling among the tourists and civilians. Our daughter, who loves all things Japanese, decided that she would like a picture with Hello Kitty to share on Instagram. It was almost as if Hello Kitty smelt the money as a shark would smell a drop of blood in the water. She nearly lost her big, furry head in a rush to get over to us.
Navigating crowds with restricted eyesight and no regard for the outer edges of her cat headpiece, Hello Kitty seized my daughter by the coat and pulled her into a pose. Within seconds, Mickey Mouse, Cookie Monster and Super Mario were flanking her on either side and our petite thirteen year old was dwarfed by a pushy pack of furry characters. After the photo was taken, she timidly proffered her dollar bill to Hello Kitty and tried to exit stage left. Obviously we didn’t know the protocol.
The other three characters whipped up their headpieces so that they could make eye contact and held their palms up as if begging for alms. I was overwhelmed by the surreal nature of the scene. Super Mario was a small Latino woman, pleading with liquid eyes. As I fumbled for my purse, the furry characters edged in closer.
Being unfamiliar with the money (to an Australian, it all looks the same), I pulled out a five-dollar bill. Realizing my mistake, I tried to fish out some dollar bills, but three voices assured me “It’s ok, it’s ok”. While I worried how they would share it, Mickey Mouse unceremoniously yanked it out of my hand and turned tail – off to find a new victim. Cookie Monster and Super Mario followed suit.
We were left scratching our heads wondering how we had just lost $6 in a matter of a minute. As we continued on our way, running the gauntlet of Times Square hustlers, it became apparent that we would need to be on guard – or flush with dollar bills. I felt a little dismayed by our ignorance and determined not to be suckered again.
But before long I felt something touch me on the shoulder and realized that a life-sized Elmo had his arm around me, guiding me to his band of brothers. Lurking on the corner, looking shifty as drug dealers, the gang of Elmo’s came alive at the prospect of a prospect. Furry arms outstretched, googly eyes waggling, they tried hustling me into a group photo. Losing all my resolve, I escaped not by firm resistance, but by running away shaking my head and apologizing profusely.
Our next visit to Times Square we came armed with our camera and a fat stack of dollar bills. It was our turn to approach the furries and the super heroes and find out what made them tick. Getting right into the spirit of it, I was waving dollar bills like a businessman at a strip bar while my husband caught everything on film.
“If I give you a dollar will you answer a few questions?”
We quickly realized that a large number of the costumed characters didn’t speak any English. I was impressed with the resourcefulness and spirit of these entrepreneurs. When all communication is pantomimed and the language of an outstretched hand is universal, there is no job discrimination. One clever Smurf answered humbly “No sorry, no English” and plucked the dollar bill from my hand with a rueful smile.
Refining our technique, we first asked whether they spoke English before offering to pay. Before long, the checkbook journalism paid off and we found our story. A sweetly innocent young man, dressed as The Flash, told us how he was just learning the ropes, mentored by his friend, Spiderman. He told us that he gave all his earnings to his Mum, as she put food on the table.
We asked The Flash if we could take him somewhere quiet and pay him for a proper interview. He couldn’t leave his post at the most lucrative hour on a Saturday evening, so we tried to set the interview up for the next day. The only problem was The Flash didn’t even have a phone. Excited by the prospect of appearing on YouTube, Flash called Spiderman over to help out. Visibly irritated at being called while he was on the job, Spiderman quietly schooled Flash on the ways of maximizing a prospect.
“We’re not going to talk now, we don’t have the time. Give them my number, ok?”
The next day, in weather just over 4 degrees Fahrenheit, we met up with Spiderman – aka JJ. The Flash had stayed home for the day because he was too cold to hustle.
With relief, JJ/Spiderman quickly steered us to a deli just off Times Square that he used as a home base. For twenty dollars he told us his story and shared with us his dreams of starting his own fashion label and starring in a YouTube series.
The video above is a small introduction into a fascinating story of New York grit and ingenuity. The hustlers of Times Square are paying their way through college, feeding their families and starting empires one dollar at a time.