Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hell Hath No Fury Like An Elmo Scorned

Don't let the happy photo fool you - this was a WEIRD outing!
Aubrey and I are on "staycation" (that word sickens me a little bit) this week and next, so I've been trying to find fun things for us to do during the day. I had an audition in Hollywood late this morning so as we were driving up towards Hollywood Blvd to head back to the Valley, I thought it would be fun to go to the Disney Soda Fountain, next to the El Capitan Theatre for lunch. 

Hollywood Blvd is beyond bustling with tourists right now. It's a little insane, but since we were't shopping and it was still pretty early in the day, I didn't think we'd have too much hassle. And we didn't...UNTIL... we encountered the man I'll to refer to as GHETTO ELMO.

To go to the Disney Soda Fountain, the only place to get validation is under the Hollywood and Highland complex. For the non-locals, this is the shopping mall (yes, it's a mall with a Pac Sun, Sephora and everything) where they shoot the Academy Awards ceremony every year and it's where the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater and Walk Of Fame are. It's a super touristy place and most locals only go out on the Blvd when they have guests from out of town.

When you walk out of the H&H complex to cross Hollywood Blvd to get to the Soda Fountain, you have to wade through several costumed roving street characters. Right as we emerged, straight ahead of us was a motley crew of Sesame Street characters. Three dudes dressed as Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster. 

Now, I've known for years, that these "characters" are pretty lame. Many of them have worn out, dirty costumes and some of the superheroes look like they're wearing Underoos. I wish I were kidding. But I'm not. For this, they expect a tip in exchange for a taking a photograph with them.

OK, I think a tip is fair for a photo, but a tip is just that. A tip. 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines a TIP as such:

TIP (noun): A gift of a sum of money tendered for a service performed or anticipated: GRATUITY

GRATUITY: Something given voluntarily or beyond obligation, usually for some service

Now, let's get back to GHETTO ELMO. I admit, I may have gotten Aubrey a little excited about the characters, because I saw "Big Bird" - I use quotations because he looked more like Big Bird's 4th cousin from the backwoods of Kentucky. I guarantee this was not an officially certified Sesame Street costume and he was lucky he wasn't lightly dusted and frying in a pan of oil somewhere.

OK, Backwoods Big Bird was really tall and stood out and as we emerged from the H&H complex, I said, "Look! It's Big Bird!" What four year old wouldn't be excited? Aubrey scurried up to the anemic looking trio, shoulders hunched up, sweet and innocent grin, waving her tiny little hand in a friendly pre-K "HELLO!" 

GHETTO ELMO, down on one knee, quickly grabbed Aubrey while uttering a few generic pleasantries in a very non-Elmo-y voice, like, "Hi little girl. Do you like Elmo? Yeah? Do you want a picture?" GE stood her in photo taking position and said "Go ahead mom, take a picture."

It is at this point that:
1) I knew they would want money for this photo
2) I honestly don't know if he said anything like, "This is gonna cost ya, mom," but I KNOW he didn't say it was going to cost me $3. 

I took the photo because, more than anything, I felt the need to rescue Aubrey from the dirty fur clutches of those stanky costumes.
Um...yeah. A picture really does tell a thousand words.

Click with the iPhone 4S (yay!) and Aubrey was back at my side. Just like that. 

As I was taking out my wallet, GE, who was clearly the spokesman for the group, said to me in a hustler tone, "Don't forget, we work for tips. We work for tips." I handed Aubrey a dollar bill and told her to say thank you and give it to Elmo. 

This is where it got ugly.

(Please keep in mind, this is all me talking to a grown African American man in spectacles through a giant Elmo head in front of my 4 year old child. I know because that's how see-through the giant mesh patch on the front of his Elmo head was.)

GE: You don't have two more dollars? There's three of us working here.
Me: That's what I have. Thank you very much.
GE: Hey there's THREE people here. One-Two-Three. You can't just give us two more dollars?!
Me: No, sorry (I start herding Aubrey through the crowd to get away from him)
GE: (LEAVING HIS POSSE TO FOLLOWING US! SHOUTING AT ME!) That's the way you gonna be? Just walk away? Here lady, just take your dollar. We don't need it. 
Me: Just take it. I don't want it back. Just take it.
GE: (Following us, following us) No! Here take it. I have NO USE for this. How am I supposed to share this with two other people?! Just take it! (waving it in my face)
Me: (he's holding a giant WAD of cash in his left hand and a plastic trick-or-treat bucket full of cash hanging from his forearm) You don't split your tips at the end of the day? Don't you pool them and split them, give me a break. 
GE: What?! Split a dollar? 33 cents each?!! Just take your dollar lady!!
Me: It's a tip and that's what I have to give you. 
GE: Yeah it's a tip and I told you there was three of us and that's how it works. Three dollars!
Me: You never said that. 

OK - pretty sure this is illegal in some way at this point. If he expects $3 then he should put out a sign that says: "Pictures with us in our dirty, shitty costumes: THREE DOLLARS!!"

This was about the end of the conversation. I really don't like confrontation and especially since Aubrey could be recognized, I don't like mixing things up, but I wasn't about to give this guy anymore money and I certainly didn't feel he deserved any more because he was harassing me, he manipulated the situation to take advantage of us and he was scaring my daughter. 

I managed to wave him off and escape without getting my dollar back but I did have to have an odd conversation with Aubrey about what happened. She knows that those are people in costumes, but she's used to the Disneyland variety. The kind who are loving, gentle, clean and mute. I had to let her know that the man in that costume wasn't very nice and he wasn't being mean because of anything she did. We made a LARGE loop, through the crowd, around the freak show and arrived at the Soda Fountain where we then received the worst service ever for the most mediocre over-priced lunch in town. The only other time I have been there was on Mother's Day earlier this year, and it was horrible then too. Such a shame because it has AMAZING potential for being something really special. But it's just not. :(
Safe at last in the Disney Soda Fountain, that we will never go back to.
So much for fun. Well, Aubrey did have fun. In fact she had a ton of fun because she was with mommy and there was Disney stuff all around her as she gnawed a hot dog and fruit. She sat next to a giant stand of monster sized lollipops, and really that's all you need for a fun outing when you're four.

I'm grateful she managed to enjoy the day after that bizarre incident and even more grateful that we made it out of Hollywood alive. Or at least without an arrest for assault. I was pretty close to punching GE in the face. I just hope he gave that 33 cents he had no use for to Backwoods Big Bird and Cousin Cookie Monster so they could each have no use for 50 cents.

One last note: apparently I'm not the only one who has had this sort of encounter with the "cartoon characters". Even Zorro is on my side. For your Only-In-Hollywood reading pleasure:

Hollywood Blvd Characters Booted From Walk Of Fame

Judge Says Costumed Characters Can Perform On Hollywood Blvd

And Jimmy Kimmel has done a fine job at exploiting these characters on his show and has some pretty funny clips of them on YouTube. I only found this one with the Ghetto Elmo of which I speak and surprisingly he's the only one who seems to have a preschool education (yes, Aubrey studied the answer to this question last year and again this year), but this will give you an idea of where I'm coming from:

Have you ever had an encounter like this? Do you think I should have handled it differently? Honestly if there had been a police officer near by, I would have reported it immediately. 


  1. You need to print out a copy of your exchange with that nasty hustler and send it to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. You are correct - if that is what they expect they need to post a sign saying that a picture costs $3 ...
    That guy was an idiot. You take the dollar and when two others give a dollar then they three of them each get a dollar. Its not like they have a polaroid camera and are paying for the picture they give you. What that did was wrong and he needs to be reported. Just because you didn't do it then doesn't mean anything. Send a complaint to the Mayor of Hollywood or that districts congressman - My name is Michael Gabriel and this crazy software makes me choose anonymous

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am the executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District and we are embarrassed that these characters continue to taunt, assault and shake down visitors. We have been trying for over six years to find an enforcement mechanism to curb this behavior. You are correct to include information about the lawsuit. We have the ACLU-trained attorney to thank, who took the case of four of the characters after we, in combination with the valiant efforts of our LAPD, enjoyed a "summer of peace" from these problems during 2010. Your story gives us ammunition to keep pressing on - as what happened is wrong and illegal. Thank you for taking the time to spread the word.