Hardcore Puppets

Overwhelmed by the quasi-religious ambiance, tourists receive the messages from the great corporate powers at Times Square, the greatest capitalist enclave, pinnacle of consumer’s spirituality celebrated through spectacular display.

We know that capitalist forces have such creative energy. M&M’s world’s store  proves that no matter the usefulness of a product, a brand concept can be successfully marketed in multiple forms: M&M’s colored characters make the theme for two floors full of toys, pencil cases, key holders, buttons, backpacks, eyeglasses, small size plastic characters, human size furry characters and fountains with a huge variety of presentations of the product.

In that universe of absurd fantasy, real needs fade away as people  start navigating the immense waters of the capitalist imagination. There´s little promotion of any other kind of activity that does not involve an economic transaction: whether it is drinking at the sports themed bars or finding a souvenir to take home, it´s all about shopping and living the Branded City.

But life is mysterious and Times Square has generated endemic species from the habitat’s conditions:  cartoonists, ticket vendors, religious messengers, musicians with improvised drums, flyer handing people, body painted models and countless hustlers take the street stage, making a living from the peasants flow.

Costumed characters embody Disney Fantasies by wearing furry outfits or uniforms. Behind the masks of superheroes like Batman, Spiderman or Superman (all white, strong, morally and politically perfect creations) here they are portrayed by folks who barely cope with the competitive environment and the shortcomings of immigrant life.

Being a costumed character isn’t fun or easy. In one occasion, I approached a group of 4 guys featuring two “Elmos” one “Buzz Lightyear” and one “Frozen”.  I interviewed Buzz, who was surprisingly open and fascinated with the idea of sharing some of the experiences lived day to day.

He told me this was a great job because they could get there anytime of the day (no boss must be awesome, I thought) and,  if he had to pay the rent of the month he would work every day maybe two shifts starting early in the morning for the whole week. As we spoke, many other characters approached laughing and playing, Elmo was a bit worried because he had been thrown out of his house and he had to find a place ASAP,  he seemed to be having a bad time with his roommates. He said he needed a beer, so we went to their favorite dinner where they took masks off, pulled the money out and started counting the tips of the day:  80 dlls each.

That’s good money– I said,

You should come work with us-said Elmo.

Yes. I have a costume I can lend you if you want to come tomorrow-said Frozen.

I said yes… probably thinking I would regret as soon as I went out the place. But next day Times Square’s forces dragged me in, and I arrived around 6:00pm.

It seemed like they had been drinking all night. Elmo had already moved into Buzz’s house. Buzz was happy that I had come and they took me to a parking lot where they usually change (and keep the costumes).

I was a bit nervous but took courage and put the costume on. It was huge, a bit smelly and very difficult to walk with, nonetheless, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see the world from that little window which was Frozen´s mouth.

Once in the street everything felt so different, people looked at me as if I wasn’t a person… kids were very responsive to my presence. They were so happy to see me that they pulled their parent’s hand to reach me and all of a sudden I felt their hugging or pushing  (feeling is not the word, because it’s all numb inside).

Soon I started learning how this guys make a living and what I thought was a fun job it was completely different, because they are in the fiercest competence to fight for space and grab people’s attention. Characters distinguish very well between New York residents and tourists; they already know that kids must be approached first to excite them with a photo, then parents have no choice and as soon as they accept, more costumed characters approach to be in the picture, asking 5 dollars each.  We continued “working” which meant harassing as many people as possible, and I also realized there were very clear limits regarding space and the people I could talk to… not all of them were exactly friends.

Suddenly  Elmo arrived with his head off yelling and sweating, the police had come to separate two characters that were fighting, we all went to see what was going on… one of them was bleeding.

Two hours later, Elmo said he was not feeling well and wanted to leave. We went to the diner and split the tips… I got $60.

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