ninjaturtle

I Spent a Day as a Times Square Mascot

Who knew that dressing as a Ninja Turtle for seven hours could be such a miserable slog?

My regular comics shop is in Times Square, so I end up passing through there fairly often. Whenever I do, I can’t help but notice the notorious Times Square mascots. To be honest, I’ve never had much love for these guys — their costumes always look kind of shitty, they seem overly aggressive in their efforts to get pictures taken with them and they’re constantly taking off their giant mascot heads, which bothers me because I’m worried that seeing a decapitated Minnie Mouse will seriously fuck with my four-year-old’s perception of reality. 

But aside from my own personal assumptions and a handful of extremely disturbing news reports, I must admit that I don’t really understand them — who they are, why they do what they do and the rest. So in an effort to broaden my horizons, I decided to spend a day in their fuzzy shoes.

I knew immediately that I was going to be a Ninja Turtle — that much was easy — but deciding which one took me a moment. I’ve always been a Donatello guy, but this didn’t seem like a job for the studious, tech-minded turtle — instead, Michelangelo seemed like the way to go: he’s a party dude, and Times Square is kind of like a giant party! Sadly, though, I made the mistake of ordering a Mikey costume from China, and as I’m writing this — over a month since ordering it — Mikey is still somewhere over the South China Sea. Thus, I decided to get the costume that was easiest to find, which turned out to be Raphael. Ultimately, this ended up being the most suitable, because the whole costume fiasco pissed me the hell off and I was going into Times Square with a real attitude — definitely a Raphael state of mind.

As for the task at hand, I can’t imagine that these guys get dressed in Times Square, so I decide to simulate commuting in by taking the subway in costume. First, I return to familiar territory: the restroom of Grand Central Terminal — where I once lurked to observe male urinal spitting habits — and get changed into my Raphael costume. It’s tough to do in a tiny stall (I hear a seam pop as I struggle to get the costume on), but eventually I’m ready, emerging from the restroom in full Raphael gear.

Basically emerging from a sewer.

Immediately, my discomfort and embarrassment sets in, but I soldier on, encouraged by the happy faces of strangers outside the restroom. People are delighted to see Raphael, and a French tourist even shouts “Superman!” at me.

I head for the subway terminal within Grand Central, nearly falling to my death on the stairs at least three times. It’s pretty fucking difficult to see in these things, so I’m already understanding why the mascots take their masks off so much. 

Yes, I should have bought this in advance, I know.

I finally make it to the subway in one piece and buy my Metrocard, which of course doesn’t swipe, so I have to go to the ticket window and get a new one. 

This shit is way hard with a mask on.

Finally I get through and proceed to the shuttle train from Grand Central to Times Square. I’m already sweating like a motherfucker in this thing, but I’m grateful that I’ve chosen to do this in November and not July. As I enter the train, the crowd’s reaction varies from complete indifference to cheery excitement over my costume, though I quickly decide to stay completely silent while I have my mask on, rather than acknowledge every annoying joke that people want to shout at me. Yeah, Guy on the Subway, I know the shell is too small to fit my head inside, you need not say it six times. 

I arrive in Times Square and exit the subway station. I’d remembered hearing something about “activity zones” in my lead-up to this adventure, which basically means that there are designated places that mascots are allowed to be in Times Square, so I decide to set up camp near to other mascots to be sure I’m in the right area (and to learn some of their techniques as to how to make a buck at this).

Designated Activity Zone.

The first mascot I observe is Captain America. As opposed to the aggressive shouting of “Photo!” that I’d so often experienced in Times Square, Cap is much friendlier: He targets families, primarily, and offers them to come over and take a picture in a variety of different languages. He’s also accompanied by the Hulk, a guy in an eight-foot suit that’s totally immobile but for the arms.

Both Cap and Hulk are surprisingly welcoming. I’d decided to approach this as though it were my first day on the job, and Cap is as kind as you’d hope the real Captain America might be. We don’t talk for long, but he asks me if I’ve done this before — I admit that I haven’t and am just trying it out.

I also quickly find out that there’s a regular group of mascots that come day after day to Times Square, and they all pretty much know each other. The NYPD that are stationed there also know them, with one remarking to my photographer that they’ve “never seen that Raphael before.”

Making my first dollar is easy — deceptively easy, as it would turn out. A woman in a nightgown, who Cap says is some kind of an actress, comes up to us and has a photographer take pictures with me, Hulk and Cap one at a time. She makes all kinds of silly faces and pretends to cry for the camera. She gives me two bucks, and I feel like I’m off to a pretty good start!

My first buck, via a strange woman in a nightgown.

Quickly, though, I begin to get discouraged. While I had planned to stay silent, I soon realize that’s a completely ineffective way to earn money out here. I allow myself to shout “Picture!” through the mask at passersby, about 95 percent of whom completely ignore me. Honestly, I find getting out of my shell — so to speak — to be more than a little bit difficult. As a former resident of New York City, I have a finely tuned ability to completely ignore people, especially those who wanted to hand me a flier or buy their CD or something like that, and now I have to hustle out here with the rest of them.

Being in a costume like this, I naturally find myself targeting children and families, which is more than a bit creepy, but that’s how the job is done. I start shouting “Picture!” at every family that walks by, which is pretty ineffective. I notice a pattern, too — while a kid might happily wave at Raphael and try to come toward me, parent after parent just pulls their kid along, usually outright ignoring me and occasionally offering a polite “no.”  

After about an hour, I move to another designated activity zone about a block over. Much to my surprise, the cops are super nice to the mascots there, and I’m regularly regarded with a manly nod or a, “Hey Ninja Turtle!” from them. Less nice, though, is the Naked Cowboy, which surprises me a little. While Cap had welcomed me, the Times Square Naked Cowboy never even acknowledges my existence, not a nod or anything. I guess he probably hates the mascots even more than most New Yorkers do — after all, he was the OG Times Square mascot, and he probably resents Elmo and the rest for stealing his thunder.

Naked Cowboy does not like turtles.

Here’s the thing that I realize pretty early on: Being a Times Square mascot is boring as fuck. All you do is pace back and forth and shout at kids all day long. There’s nothing to do, it’s excruciating. For the next hour, the most exciting thing that happens to me is when I accidentally step out of an activity zone and a cop politely redirects me. Come on, can’t you like, arrest me or rough me up a little? I’m just begging for some excitement here.

So fucking boring.

The tips are pretty scarce, too. By 2 p.m. I’m almost two hours into the day and all I have to show for myself is that original two bucks. Lots of people are excited to see a Ninja Turtle out there, but whenever I say “Picture!?!?” people emphatically decline. A couple of times, they do take pictures, but they fail to tip afterwards, despite the fact that I held my hand out. Perhaps I needed to be more aggressive, but I just didn’t have it in me to demand cash from children. I totally get why Mall Santas don’t work for tips, because it just fucks the magic of the whole thing. If some kid is that excited to see a Ninja Turtle in Times Square, well, the sappy, nostalgic dad part of me just won’t allow myself to wreck the moment, even if that’s what I’m supposed to do as a mascot. Apparently, I’m just too soft for this fucking job.

This kid literally told me he loved me, so I wasn’t about to wreck his moment with Raphael by making it seem like I was hard up for pizza money.

I reason that I need to be more like the other mascots I’ve since relocated to be near. Unlike Captain America, who was excited and friendly, the other people dressed in mascot costumes are pretty rude — they give me little more than a nod to acknowledge my presence, despite my efforts to ingratiate myself with them. I guess I must be on their turf or something, but there’s no way I’m cutting into their profits, because I’m making dick out here. I try talking to them a few times and they ignore me nearly as much as the tourists did. I even join them in a group photo for a kid, but they fail to include me in the profits — everyone got a cut except for me! Such bullshit.

Raphael, completely excluded.

Ironically, it’s all the nicest icons who are giving me shade — Elmo, Mickey and the three Minnie Mouses won’t give me the time of day. (Which, by the way, kind of bugs me — why are there three Minnies? Couldn’t they sort this shit out amongst themselves and one of them be Daisy or something?) I finally make some more money around 2:30 p.m., from a family who has two awesome kids. Shortly after that, a woman gives me a dollar for no reason. No picture or anything — it feels amazing.

Literally shed a tear here — shut up.

I’m up to $5 now — enough to get pizza from a nearby $1 pizza joint that I frequent. I’m so fucking bored that I’m nearly sleepwalking, so I just have to break up the monotony. Plus, there’s no better way for me to be in character than to have an extended pizza break.

Pizza power.

After the pizza, I decide to drop the “first day on the job” approach with Captain America and simply go interview the guy. After all, I’m certainly not learning how to rake in the dough from doing this myself. It turns out that Captain America is really named Marco, and he’s emigrated from Peru. He shares that this is his “regular job,” doing it for about six to ten hours a day, five to seven days a week, having done so for several years. While how much money he makes varies from day to day, Marco explains that December is when things get more lucrative for him, as he might pull in $200 on a good day. 

When Marco asks me what I’ve made, I admit that I’ve earned just five bucks — all of which has since been spent on pizza for me and my photographer — and he tells me that you have to hustle here in New York. “I try to be friendly and talk with the tourists,” he says. Part of the reason for this, he explains, is the competition: “There are more than a hundred of us that come out here,” he says — with so many mascots, the approach is everything. That said, he does lament the more aggressive style of some of his compatriots. “Some others out here go, ‘Take a picture! Take a picture!’ It’s not my style,” he explains.  

Marco (Captain America) and Xavier (Hulk), both from Peru.

Not wanting to cramp Cap’s style, I decide to bid him farewell and try my luck over by the Minnies again. During my walk over, though, I notice that my costume is beginning to smell a bit. It doesn’t help that I opted for greasy pepperoni on my pizza, so my horrible breath and burping has made the mask worse and worse. I also feel my back sweating from the shell, as is my whole crotch area. I still have another two hours to go, though, as I’d resolved to stick it out for at least six hours.

When heading back over, I discover that I may have been wrong about these other mascots — at least the Minnies, anyway. One of them asks me how I’ve done and comments that today seems slow. She also compliments me on my Ninja Turtle costume. Another Minnie asks me if I speak Spanish (I do not), which makes me realize that what I may have taken as rudeness earlier was likely just a language barrier. Like Marco, pretty much all of the mascots I encounter come from Latin America, and while Marco seems to speak at least three or more languages, several of the mascots don’t seem comfortable speaking English.

But while two of the three Minnies seem nicer now, the third Minnie remains unfriendly, and soon pulls the other Minnies away from me. I get it: This is a tough game, I’m on their turf and, theoretically, I could be eating into their profits. Queen Minnie is just looking out for her crew — it’s cool.

Financially speaking, though, I present zero threat to their haul for the day. While people are occasionally excited to see Raphael, basically none want a picture and I don’t earn a single dollar past that initial five I scored before my pizza break. After a while, tired of shouting “Picture!” over and over again to strangers, I decide to give up on that. Instead, I just try to score high fives for the next two hours and see how high I can get.

Sadly, my ratio of high fives isn’t great, either: I’d say about one in 20 people actually slap me five when I raise my hand in their face. All told, I reach 43 high fives over the next hour or so. Not bad all things considered, I think, feeling successful for the first time all day.

Around 6:30 p.m., I’m ready to call it quits, figuring six hours in costume is plenty. It’s then, however, I face the day’s greatest challenge: Deadpool.

Raphael vs. Deadpool

When the sun goes down and Times Square becomes dark, dozens more mascots flood the area. Now there are even more Mickeys and Minnies and plenty of Frozen characters. Superheroes come out of the woodwork too, and one in particular rubs me the wrong way. A guy dressed as Deadpool sets up shop like a foot away from me, and his approach is the exact opposite of the friendly Captain America: He literally grabs women by the arm and just yells, “Photo!” While I’ve since given up on earning cash hours ago, Deadpool starts to put a serious cramp in my high-five game. 

Still, I can’t back down. I’ve been out here all fucking day, and now Deadpool just shows up and starts grabbing people? Nuh-uh. Plus, Raphael certainly wouldn’t back down from this chump, so I can’t either. I have to stick it out, so I decide that I’ll remain in this section, near Old Navy, until Deadpool retreats.

For the next half hour I stand my ground rather admirably. To get to the tourists before Deadpool, I shove my three-fingered, bright green hand out and try to block them from the annoying X-Man, although he’s already alienating plenty of people on his own thanks to his aggressive style. Finally, after a heated bout of competition that Deadpool turns out to be entirely unaware of, he turns to me and says that he’ll “be right back.” He thinks we’ve been working together this whole time! No way, man — you are my sworn enemy.

After he leaves, I stay for a few more minutes, just to get some more high fives and end things on a good note. As luck would have it, that’s when I meet a few really enthusiastic Turtle fans and get my count all the way up to 50 high fives. 

This guy definitely had Turtle Power.

Finally, I decide to call it a day. I’ve spent seven hours in this sweaty, disgusting suit and have nothing to show for it but the heartburn I got from that pepperoni. I let my photographer go and remove the mask for the last time, then head to a bar to change in the bathroom and treat myself to a burger and a beer, reasoning that I’ve earned it after a hard day of mind-numbing boredom.

DONE.

What did I learn from the experience? Well, I think there were a few things. From Marco, I learned that a friendly, dedicated, hard-working guy is more than worthy of the Captain America costume he wears. From the Minnies, I learned that I’m often too quick to judge the Times Square mascots — after all, they’re just people trying to make a buck for themselves and their families, and if they can do that and make a kid happy, I guess that’s not so bad.

As for Deadpool, well, to my surprise, his “be right back” wasn’t the last I’d see of him. When I get into my Uber on my way back to Grand Central, I notice him asleep on the sidewalk just outside the burger joint I ate at. Of course, now I feel like a total dick: Here was this homeless guy trying to earn a bit of money, and all I did was make some stupid game out of the whole thing. Obviously I don’t think he should be grabbing people and pressuring them for a tip, but it does make me realize that despite my jaded, cynical attitude toward the Times Square mascots, I truly don’t know shit about the people behind the masks, even after a day in their fuzzy shoes.