The Human Billboards of New York City
With fliers, menus, and business cards serving as their advertising arsenal, these street workers—mostly immigrant men—struggle to survive in America's largest city.
Photo via Flickr user David Tan
For the past two years, Muhammad has stood on a corner in New York City's Times Square, holding a sign. His job is simple: He's trying to get as many people as possible to go to a nearby Irish pub they've never heard of. This means he's on his feet for eight to ten hours a day, five days a week.
This past winter was one of the worst in recent memory. Muhammad, whose name was changed for this article, remembers seeing the temperature broadcasted on a skyscraper's screen above him—0 degrees—for three days straight. Amid polar vortices, Muhammad would order a hot tea from the pub ("Some people need alcohol to stay warm, but I don't," he said); he tried heat warmers for his hands once, but gave those up fast ("I think they cause cancer"). If his feet started to ache, he took Tylenol and lined his shoes with plastic as a kind of makeshift Dr. Scholl's ("It helps with the pain").
On good days, business is good at the bar so he'll be able to work inside cleaning the bathroom and the floors. If not, he has a micro-marketing game plan to fall back on: hand out menus on 47th Street to the morning crowd, and then finish the day out a few blocks down, sign in hand. Once the sign gets dirty, he has a nicer backup sign for the pub that he bought himself. (He proudly shows me the receipt as proof.)
Muhammad doesn't tell me his hourly wage, but he says the more customers, the better his compensation. And that's what's most important to him: sending as much as money as he possibly can back to his family in the West African country of Guinea.
Muhammad is just one of the many human billboards standing on the streets of New York City with fliers, menus, and business cards serving as their advertising arsenal. Most of these people are immigrants deployed by businesses to the busiest areas of the city to snatch up the tourist trade, New York residents being generally skilled in the art of ignoring these people. .
They survive by directing our eyes to nearby chain restaurants or bars, and sometimes their livelihoods depend on whether we pay attention.
"Much like immigrant workers who don Mickey Mouse and other cartoon character outfits in Times Square to make a living wage, the work of 'human billboards' is grueling and lacks security," Thanu Yakupitiyage of the New York Immigration Coalition told me. "Workers rights violations are common for these workers and brings up the broader issue of immigrants, particularly recent arrivals, being treated fairly and humanely."
Most of the human billboards I spoke to were men who just immigrated from Africa to the Bronx or Brooklyn with no employment prospects lined up for them. Africans make up just 4 percent of the city's foreign-born population, yet their numbers have increased by 39 percent, to 128,000, over the first decade of the 21st century. (That's not counting many more who are living here without proper documentation.)
These outdoor advertising gigs don't require experience and usually pay in straight cash, so it's an attractive industry for recent arrivals like Muhammad. "You come to New York and you don't know anything else," he told me. "You can't find other jobs, so you take this."
The hours at Muhammad's last job were too short, so he told his manager he wanted a stable pay. Soon enough he was outside, holding a sign. But he hopes to eventually get his driver's license and maybe even go to school so he can score a higher-paying job. "This is my dream," he says, pointing to his head. "But until then, I work."
That is another part of the human billboard formula: a make-it-or-break-it attitude, a headstrong Horatio Alger mentality that has driven immigrants to New York since the 19th century. Of course, this up-by-your-bootstraps mantra tends to overlook the rough conditions one has to endure.
Take Koffi, a native of Togo. The young transplant spends eight hours a day, seven days a week, selling bus tours. Adorned with the company's green jacket, he wears a sign around his neck that shows off the latest deals and discounts for a ride through Brooklyn. If temperatures drop, he rotates between an hour outside and an hour under some sort of urban shelter (like scaffolding, foyers, or awnings). This has been his life for the past year and a half, so he's used to standing by now.
"If it's an opportunity, I'll take it!" he said to me. "I don't have any other option. But it's not easy: If there's no work, there's no commission."
He's been there before, once spending eight hours out there on Times Square and selling only two rides to starry-eyed tourists, which amounted to $68 in total sales for the day. A quarter commission left Koffi with just $15. Without an hourly wage—which, unlike Muhammad, Koffi does not have—that comes out to less than $2 an hour. And this is his only job, so he has to sell. His life depends on it.
"It's easy enough to stand here," he said. "But being able to communicate is what matters. Being able to sell these packages well. When you sell, there's no pressure on you. Because if I lose it, I can't pay the bills."
I asked New York State's Department of Labor whether all of this is legal, presenting them with the situation: a commission-based job for immigrants, who are presumably working "off the books," that involves standing outside for hours on end with the risk that they might not earn anything at all. But the agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment. (This piece will be updated if I hear back from them.)
"It's unpredictable, too," Koffi said. "On rainy days, I've sold a lot. And on sunny days, I've sold little." He hopes that fortune is on his side every day, because "on lucky days, you're very busy."
When I asked Koffi if he had friends who do this, he listed their outposts: Rockefeller Center, Penn Station, Fifth Avenue, and here, in Times Square. Most of them are immigrants, he told me, who were "eager to work." He had heard about the job himself through a friend soon after he landed in the States.
The means by which these immigrants find themselves in the epicenter of American commercialism varies: From what I was told, it's either via word-of-mouth or through an employment center similar to the ones in Chinatown, where immigrants are siphoned off to restaurants along the Eastern seaboard, as was recently reported in the New Yorker.
Kebba, a native of Gambia, spends his days holding a sign for an Asian restaurant located down the block in the Theater District. Issued with a temporary visa, he's here on his holiday to make quick money, and, like Muhammad, a majority of his income is sent back home, where he works in banking.
"It gets cold out here, and my legs feel tired," he told me one night. "It's bad pay, but I'll continue this." When asked why he doesn't seek an alternative, he said, "I don't believe in sitting around all day, acting lazy."
In September, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a "tale of two cities" narrative that emphasized the unfortunate gap between New York's rich and poor, expanded the livable wage to $13.13 from $11.90 for workers connected to city projects. That, of course, doesn't affect Kebba, Muhammad, or Koffi, but what does is the idea that they're not earning a legit wage.
This is Kebba's second week outside. He works six hours a day, six days a week, in two shifts: one in the afternoon, and one at night. In between, he's given a free lunch by his employers and, for his time, he's paid $9 an hour. That's $324 a week, $1,296 a month, or $15,552 a year.
As of 2012, the median income of the lowest fifth of New Yorkers was $8,993, according to Census data. Human billboards are just a few thousand dollars above that, tiptoeing around the poverty line, which is currently set by the city's Center for Economic Opportunity at $31,039 for a two-adult, two-family home. Nearly half of New Yorkers live near the poverty line, and, for non-US citizens, the poverty rate increased 5.9 percent to 29.9 percent between 2008 and 2012. (The Center for Economic Opportunity did not respond to my request for comment, and neither did the mayor's office.)
When you look at the statistics, the odds are vastly stacked against these guys. But none of that matters to Muhammad; statistics don't really affect his day-to-day grind. Besides, nobody else is willing to do what he does. Hardly anyone wants to be a human billboard.
"In New York, the sign holder is the most bottom-rung job," he told me during rush hour. "People are ashamed to show their face like this. They don't want other people to see them doing this. But me, I don't care. I'm working hard, and I get paid."
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