Times Square is a long, long ways away from the seedy-but-allegedly-charming den of sin and hustle it used to be back in the good bad old days. The Midtown neighborhood is now an almost frightening strip of LED lights, gigantic video ads, and schlocky theme restaurants through which thousands of tourists stream every day.
And on Thursday, the mayor's office announced that a task force is being created to crack down on the last element of Times Square life that has even a hint of disrepute: the bare-breasted women and costumed performers who pose for photos with passersby in exchange for tips.
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These characters are a "growing problem," according to a press release announcing the task force, and there have been some high-profile incidents of these panhandling entertainers run amok, like the man in the Elmo costume who was arrested for shouting an anti-Semitic rant. But some of these people have become locally famous, like the Naked Cowboy, and ordinarily they are nothing worse than a nuisance. As for the topless bodypainted women, it's legal to go shirt-free in New York City regardless of your gender. (Although a state senator from the Bronx is trying to make being bare-chested illegal for everyone.)
A study of the effects of these performers will be released by Mayor Bill de Blasio's office on October 1, but on Friday there was nary a topless woman to be found in Times Square—despite an abundance of media members looking to find some for interviews—although the costumed characters were standing their ground.
One of these characters was Jose Escalona-Martinez, who moved to New York from Cuba 14 years ago. After working a series of unsatisfying construction jobs and failing to find another gig, he decided to go into business for himself. For the past four years, he's been the Batman of Times Square—and Batman is fucking pissed.
"We have a right, and no one can write over the Constitution of the United States," Escalona-Martinez told me as his very young son stood behind him. "Times Square is not a property of Donald Trump or Rockefeller. It's a public place where everyone can perform and do what they want. Anyone who tells me [to leave], I will press charges."
The 42-year-old wasn't the only costumed crusader who chose to remain despite fears of a crackdown. There were Elmos and Hulks and Spider-Men—and, of course, the Naked Cowboy, a.k.a. Robert John Burck, who was standing near 46th Street, strumming his guitar, and wearing his signature briefs as a gaggle of cops stood right nearby. He seemed unconcerned, and said that nudity was not the target of DeBlasio's task force, an initiative that he seemed more at peace with than Batman did.
"If you just let the people come to you, like I've been doing for year, it's not a problem," he said. "But it's a quality of life issue. Now everyone who comes here is attacked by people who want money. That's the only thing [the city is] concerned about."
Minutes later, a Spanish-speaking Spider-Man with frayed tights and Converse sneakers jumped out in front of an unsuspecting tourist and made her nearly jump out of her skin.
While the city hasn't done much to kick out these aggressive panhandlers just yet, it has succeeded in making Times Square nearly nudity-free overnight. The Naked Cowboy told me there were 22 or 23 topless women panhandling there last Saturday and they have basically evaporated since.
"There were a lot of naked women, so now they want to get rid of all of us," added his wife, Patricia Cruz, who performs (in a bikini) as one half of a Naked Cowgirl double act with her sister. "It's sad, because they only came here for summer, but we are here all year." The married couple are rare among performers in that they have licenses to be there, they said, and they only ask for donations rather than a set amount because otherwise they would have to charge sales tax.
As we're talking, a man interrupts by flinging himself on the ground. "Marry me, or lose me forever!" he yelled at the Naked Cowgirls. The pair giggled, then wiggled, and finally took a photo for $1.
The man wasn't the only one who fell for the cowgirls' charms. Nicholas Zaharakos, who is 35, felt the need to yell out "Muy bonita!" as he passed by in his I [Heart] New York T-shirt. Originally from East New York, a rough part of Brooklyn, he's never been further than Jersey, and can actually remember when Times Square had much bigger problems than manic Minions or painted-over breasts. Back in 1991, when he would roam the place as a teenager, it was full of prostitutes, sex shops, and peep shows, he remembers.
To him, it was better back then. "I think America needs to be desensitized a little bit as far as nudity goes," he told me as he paused to ogle the Naked Cowgirls a second longer. "The body is a beautiful thing. And underneath the clothes, we're all naked."
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