An Elmo character poses for photos in New York's Times Square, Tuesday, April 9, 2013. A string of arrests in the last few months has brought unwelcome attention to the growing number of people, mostly poor immigrants, who make a living by donning character outfits, roaming Times Square and charging tourists a few dollars to pose with them in photos. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
NEW YORK (AP) — Cookie Monster stands accused of shoving a 2-year-old. Super Mario was charged with groping a woman. And Elmo was booked for berating tourists with anti-Semitic slurs.
Times Square is crawling with entrepreneurs who dress up as pop-culture characters and try to make a few bucks posing for photos with visitors to the big city. But some of these characters are unlike anything you've seen on "Sesame Street" or at Disney World.
They smoke, they use foul language, and they can be aggressive. At least three of them have been arrested in the past seven months.
"He was using words that were really bad," said Parmita Kurada of Stamford, Conn., who told police she got into a dispute this week with a man in a Cookie Monster costume who demanded $2 for posing with her 2-year-old son, Samay.
Kurada said that when she told the Cookie Monster that her husband needed to get cash, the shaggy blue creature pushed the boy and began calling her and the child obscene names.
"It was very scary for us, and I was crying. I didn't want to provoke him, so I said, 'We'll give you the money, but stop yelling!'" she said.
Osvaldo Quiroz-Lopez, 33, was charged with assault, child endangerment and aggressive begging. His lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment.
Asked by a WNBC-TV reporter why he no longer likes the character he sees on "Sesame Street," little Samay said: "Because Cookie Monster give me boo-boo."
In the wake of the latest arrest, the bustling "Crossroads of the World" was filled Tuesday with performers, including multiple versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Hello Kitty, a Transformer robot, Lady Liberty, Super Mario and Elmo.
Many of them are immigrants trying to eke out a living in what appear to be knockoff costumes.
As street performers protected by the First Amendment, they are free to roam Times Square and work for tips that average between $2 and $5 a photo as long as they don't block traffic, sell merchandise or demand payment, police say. That's a ticketable offense that can cost about $60.
"I don't think they should charge, but if they're unemployed or homeless, and this is the only way they can make money, it's OK," said Lauren Larcara of Oakland, N.J., who posed with a torch-carrying Statue of Liberty.
Laura Vanegas, a 45-year-old native of Ecuador, changes into her Liberty robes and applies copper-green face paint behind the Times Square military recruiting station. She said she picks up $30 to $50 on her eight-hour shift.
Steve Crass, dressed as a robot in fluorescent red and white plastic panels, said he has made as much as $280 during his six-hour stint in front of Toys R Us. He acknowledged: "Some of the characters are a little too aggressive."
Police spokesman Paul Browne said in an email that the department has had "occasional issues with the 'faux paws' in Times Square, but they're nominal."
The case against the Super Mario charged with groping is still pending. The Elmo accused of an anti-Semitic rant pleaded guilty in September to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to two days of community service.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called the Cookie Monster case "just horrible" and said lawmakers have been looking into how to regulate the characters. But she noted the issue is, well, fuzzy.
"It's very challenging legally because dressing up in a costume and walking around Times Square is, we believe, a First Amendment-protected activity," said Quinn, a candidate to be New York's next mayor.
Similar cases of misbehavior by costumed performers have been reported in Hollywood.
The Walt Disney Co. did not respond to a request for comment, while the Sesame Workshop, the organization behind "Sesame Street," said it has not authorized such uses of any its characters in any city and is looking into what actions it can take.
Anthony Elia, a New York lawyer in the intellectual-property field, said the entertainment groups probably have a case for trademark infringement, but "the challenge probably would be getting a bunch of self-employed entrepreneurial individuals to stop."
It's not the easiest way to make a living. On a day when temperatures pushed 80, they sweated in their outfits, coming out from under their oversized costume heads only to grab a hot dog or a smoke. When one posed for a photo, two or three others dashed over and joined in.
"Want to take a picture?" a furry red Elmo asked a tourist. Moments later, he declined to speak to a reporter, saying through his costume, "I no speak English."
A Minnie Mouse offered a toddler in a stroller her hand and positioned herself at the handlebar. A Super Mario rushed over to join her.
"She said, 'Can you give us money?'" said the child's mother, Melanie Somogyi of Hamilton, Ontario. "And they grabbed the stroller!"
AP reporters Colleen Long, Karen Matthews and Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.