Times Square Hustlers

On our first day in New York we literally stumbled across Times Square. I have no sense of direction and Danger never wants to be seen with a map, so we were just kind of ambling.

Cool kids and native New Yorkers will tell you to avoid it at all costs, but I enjoyed the energy and sensory overload, the way I don’t enjoy it when it’s somewhere like the Easter Show or anywhere else that involves crowds. Go figure.

After getting ripped off and hustled within minutes of arriving, a little niggling feeling of resentment was itching at the back of my mind. But later that night, as we started laughing about the experience over pizza and beer, I decided that I wanted to make a mini documentary about the Times Square Hustlers. We had our camera kit with us so that we could shoot interviews for our Warm Feelings documentary, so it was no hassle to go back and get some footage of the Super Hustlers.

The weekend that we shot was one of the coldest that New York has experienced in a long time. The first day it was snowing and magical. The second day it was just unbearably freezing. Danger was a trooper and he stayed out getting amazing footage while we ducked into Starbucks and Toys’R’Us to defrost ourselves.

Because it’s a fun subject with a human interest element, we are hoping to get the video up on some websites like Reddit or Buzzfeed or Huffington Post. Below is an excerpt of the story that I’ll be sending out with the video.

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 children are thirteen and fifteen, so we didn’t pay much attention to the costumed characters, but before long my daughter spotted a plush Hello Kitty and she decided she wanted a photo with her. Understanding the basics of tipping, we gave our daughter a dollar bill to pay Hello Kitty and nudged her gently towards the Kawaii cult-figure. Like a shark will notice a drop of blood in the water, it was almost as if Hello Kitty smelt the money. 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.

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 2 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 below is a small introduction of what could be 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.

We will be hosting the video on YouTube soon, so I’ll replace this link when it happens and everyone will need to watch it again so we can get as many likes as possible.

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