You might guess that finding a 5-foot tall woman dressed in a red-and-white Minnie Mouse costume would be easy. But, in this case, you'd be wrong.
The Minnie I wanted to talk to is named Andrea. I'd talked to her once before, but she was busy and told me to find her later. A day or two later I went to Times Square. The first Minnie I approached just shook her head. I walked up to a second. "Andrea?" I asked. "No soy Andrea, usted es Andrea?" she said, laughing. "I'm not Andrea, are you Andrea?" I'm pretty sure she was making fun of me.
I didn't find Andrea that day.
I finally did catch up with her, and we made plans to meet at a small home she shares with a bunch of other folks in Passaic, New Jersey, a working-class town about 40 minutes by bus from Times Square. We sat at a table in a cramped kitchen. One of the Mickey Mouses-in civilian clothes— as there making soup.
The Mickeys, Minnies, Elmos, and Winnie the Poohs scattered across six or seven blocks in Times Square are mostly Latino, and mostly undocumented. On a typical day they'll spend seven or eight hours waving hello and posing for pictures with the throngs of visitors who fill Times Square, asking for small tips in return.
Mohammed Rahman has worked at a nearby newsstand for four years, and says he's noticed a big increase in the fuzzy characters recently. They come over and buy sodas from him, sometimes he'll talk business with them. He actually had his picture taken with one of the Mickeys; he put it on Facebook for his family back in Bangladesh to see.
"I have a little sister, they're curious about this. You know the Mickey Mouse, so they're looking like this and they're feeling interesting and nice, that's why."
On a typical day, Andrea says they'll make 50 or 60 dollars, minus about 10 dollars for bus fare. Alfredo, who lives in the house and is one of at least four Elmos working Times Square, says that in the summer they make less because they can only work for about four hours a day.
"Ah it's so much, like 115 degrees, it's so hot inside. Right there we're cooking inside."
Jorge-the one making the soup—started dressing up as Mickey about a year-and-a-half ago; Andrea's been Minnie for about five months. Alfredo has been at it for about two months.
All three also work odd jobs through an agency: cleaning homes and offices, some factory work-but that's slowed down a lot. Alfredo lost a job at a pizza restaurant when a new owner found out he didn't have papers.
I asked him why he chose Elmo.
"Everybody loves Elmo. I love Elmo too, because he helps me. I don't know but I like Elmo."
Any money he has left over after he pays his bills he sends back home to his mom and sister in Cholula, Mexico.
Andrea has four children back home in Arequipa, Peru. Her face brightens when she talks about how being Minnie puts her in touch with kids.
"Porque tambien me gusta mucho los niÃ±os…"
"Because also I like children a lot. My kids are in Peru , and so it makes me happy to be around children."
They also take some satisfaction from the acting chops they've developed. Andrea has gotten better at playing to the older audience members.
"'Que linda' dicen…"
They'll say "How pretty," and she'll go to pose for a picture with them. They'll demur, and she'll pretend to be sad.
"'Aye, pobrecita' dicen, y 'una photo' dicen"
"Oh, you poor thing" they'll say, and she gets the photo.
It's not, of course, all Disney endings. There's some beefing over turf-a couple of Elmos often chase Andrea, Alfredo, and Jorge away from their preferred spot at 42nd Street and Broadway. And they say cops sometimes make them leave when Times Square gets really busy toward the end of the day.
All three of them have been in the U.S. about seven years. They say it's been a lot tougher than they'd imagined; money's been a lot tighter. Andrea and Alfredo both told me they want to go back to their countries soon.
You might not guess any of this, though, if you saw them waving and posing and hamming it up for the cameras in Times Square.
"Okay" Child: "Bye Mickey Mouse!" Woman: "Bye Bye Mickey Mouse"