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Being a Times Square Elmo (New

Last Saturday, a few blocks north of Times Square, a nineteen-year-old named Virgilia Reyes was wearing a red Elmo costume, with a drawstring bag slung across her back and an Android phone in her hand. She was moving up and down the block, and had been texting her shifting coordinates to me for half an hour. It was 4:30 P.M., and the streets were jammed with tourists. On each corner, and everywhere in between, a swarm of characters, Reyes-as-Elmo among them, tried to pose for photos with the passersby, then relieve them of a few dollars in tips.

On the median strip at Forty-fifth Street and Seventh Avenue, a woman stood naked from the waist up, her bare chest painted the colors of the Brazilian flag. Statues of Liberty, swaddled in spray-painted silver gowns and perched on stepstools, held plastic torches and called out to each other in Spanish. A man with a ponytail sold tickets to a comedy club, while guys in green vests hawked tickets for a bus tour. The crowds inched past. In the interstices of the mob were a Power Ranger, a Spider-Man, a Woody from “Toy Story,” Minnie Mouse, two Cookie Monsters, a Super Mario, Hello Kitty, two more Elmos, and a Batman.

Reyes summed them all up in a word: competition. “There are too many characters out here,” she told me. The streets were full of easy marks, but also too many hucksters. She fixed her stare on the topless Brazilian. “Who does that? I have too much respect for my body for that.”

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