Passing Strange


Our Daily Correspondent


Photo: Alan Light

Earlier today, the New York City Council voted to restrict the antics of the various costumed characters in Times Square. As the New York Times delicately put it, “After an uproar last summer over nudity and aggressive tip-seeking in Times Square, city officials said they were aiming to restore order to the plazas. The rules could go into effect by the beginning of the summer.” 

You may recall that part of said uproar involved the groping of women, the pushing of children, and a fracas between a dancing giant baby and a man dressed as a pot leaf. The characters and desnudas (women in body paint) have proliferated at such a rate that they’ve quickly become, if not an institution, a part of the landscape: tourists pose with Olafs and Buzz Lightyears as readily as they do the Statue of Liberty or the cops from the local precinct. It’s there, so why not? And for those who mourn the Disneyfication of Times Square—those who are always howling about lost grit and cheap rents—surely this must serve as some sort of grotesque, ironic palliative?

I feel we’re living in a unique moment. Beyond the obvious and real ways, I mean. Five years ago, these characters were a novelty. In another five years, I’m betting they’ll be a thing of the past. One of the few virtues of Birdman, to my mind, was the fact that it managed to capture that moment in history: as Michael Keaton’s character runs through Times Square in his underwear, he’s observed by a phalanx of leering, looming toons at the height of their numbers and power. I have not yet seen them committed to the pages of fiction; I would urge novelists to work fast. Their days are numbered.

A friend of mine works in the area, and as we walked across Times Square and he rebuffed the hugs of several characters, he said, “It makes me feel bad every day. Not just that this is their lives but that these immigrants have come to America and have to make a living this way. Also, it doesn’t help that I’m only ever approached by the really second-tier characters. This morning I was hugged by, like, a Luigi and a Robin.” 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.