NEW YORK (AP) — In the heart of Times Square, a grinning 2-year-old boy is flanked by a pair of strikingly posed, topless women, wearing only red, white and blue paint over their breasts, thongs, feathery headdresses and high heels.
Click. His mom takes a picture for the family album and hands the women a dollar bill.
It's one of dozens of interactions that take place every day with a growing legion of bare-chested ladies who seek tips by posing with passing men, women and, yes, children. Facing what they see as a cringe-worthy crisis after decades of scrubbing Times Square's once-sleazy image, some city officials are now proposing to confine both the topless women and the costumed characters working alongside them to designated "activity zones."
But several of the painted ladies who spoke candidly with The Associated Press this past week made it clear that, restrictions or not, they're not going anywhere.
"They can't do anything unless they change the Constitution," insisted Saira Nicole, 29, who works the square as part of a topless trio. She said she'd defy any move to relegate the women to a specific zone.
"You're not putting a stop to me, period."
The presence of the topless women over the past year has shaken the Crossroads of the World in ways that the similarly photo-hawking costumed characters who came before — Elmos, Spider-Men and Sponge Bobs — never did. It reached a peak this summer with reports of some of the women aggressively accosting passers-by, grabbing their arms and urging them to stop and pose.
"I would say, as a human being and a parent, I don't think it's appropriate in the middle of one of the busiest squares in New York City that women should display themselves that way," Mayor Bill de Blasio said recently, acknowledging he'd given serious consideration to a short-lived idea of addressing the problem by ripping out Times Square's popular pedestrian plazas entirely.
Tim Tompkins, president of the influential Times Square Alliance business group, told a WNYC radio interviewer this summer that "one of these naked ladies literally made a woman cry" by threatening to punch her when asked to cover up. Tompkins cast the issue as aggressive solicitation for money, not in toplessness in itself.
Others see the problem as congestion, not indiscretion. City Councilman Corey Johnson, a member of a hastily convened city task force that has proposed the "activity zones," says the city must ease pedestrian crowding by setting some restrictions — whether on topless women, costumed characters or tourist bus rides.
"We're not saying these people can't be in Times Square, but for congestion and public safety reasons, they would have to be in designated areas," he said. Still, he acknowledges he expects any plan to face litigation.
Legal experts say the quandary is whether the women's activity amounts to a street performance protected by the First Amendment or a form of commerce that can be regulated. Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby noted that there's nothing illegal in New York City about going topless or asking people for money.
As many as a dozen topless women were counted roaming Times Square at any one time this summer, often making tips of $10 to $20 per photo — more than the costumed characters appeared to pull in.
"Batman hates us," said 23-year-old Amanda Roman. Like the other painted ladies, she refused to discuss how much money they make daily.
The woman appear equally split between Americans and immigrants from Latin America who call themselves "desnudas" — Spanish for naked women. Some say they got the job after answering online ads for "body paint models." Others say they were unable to find normal jobs.
Their bare chests are thickly painted with patriotic colors, brushed on outdoors in the square by male managers who hold onto the women's cash. One of the men, Roman's boyfriend, Chris Olivieri, says he also sticks around "to make sure the girls don't get touched."
Olivieri says he sets clear rules for the women: No touching people. No shaking butts. No demanding tips.
"Times Square is our stage," Nicole said. "I love the fact that I'm part of people's experience across the world, when they take home photos of us, and that's their memory from New York City."
Toni Torres of Newark, New Jersey, got just that kind of unusual keepsake from her 2-year-old grandson's interaction with the topless women, even though she could understand how some people might have a problem with it.
"If they were completely naked, with a little kid like that, I wouldn't like it," said Torres, who watched the whole scene play out. "But the painted body is a work of art. When I first saw them, I said, 'Oh my God, that's really nice.'"