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Free CDs on 42nd Street? A Joke In Search Of A Punchline

Come Back Paula, We Want Your Money





















I don’t spend a lot of time wandering around Times Square. Who wants to shuffle along with swarms of tourists through an obnoxious gauntlet of naked cowboys and pathetic faux cartoon characters? However, last week I had a crew of family visiting from California, and was therefore obligated to take them to Times Square. I also experienced a double-decker bus tour for the first time, but that’s another story.

While weaving through the crowds down Broadway, we passed a table of guys handling out CDs. Normally I follow all the rules associated with guys handing out CDs on the street (“Don’t make eye contact!” “Pick up your pace!” “Act like you don’t hear their pleas to accept their CDs!”). This goes for Hollywood Blvd. and Venice Beach, as well as Times Square. But for some unknown reason, one guy’s bright smile made me reach out and take the CD from his outstretched hand.

I tried to keep on walking, but it was like a trap door had sprung. He grabbed me by the hand and asked, “Do you like hip hop?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I like all kinds of music.”

He snatched the CD back and started signing it. “No money!”, he said loudly to me. I stared back, bewildered.

“NO MONEY! NO MON-EY!”, he enunciated carefully. I was still confused.

“I think he means the CD is free,” my niece offered helpfully.

“Oh!”, I said, “I figured that.”

“Oh!”, he said. “You speak English!”

I’ve been hearing that all my life (I speak English perfectly unaccented, having been born and raised in southern California, but some people can’t hear the impeccable pronunciation coming out of my Asian-looking face), and it’s always irritating. “Yes, I just told you that I liked all kinds of music.”

“I didn’t hear you,” he said, and his approach quickly shifted. “So, we’re asking for donations for our fine CDs.” Huh? What happened to “NO MON-EY”?

I shook my head. “Sorry, I’m not going to do that.” He gave me a quick sob story about needing rent money.

Disgusted, I set the CD back on the table and told him, “I don’t have time for this.”

So what was that all about? When did free CDs (meant to promote a band) stop being free? Would he have given it to me if I had been the non-English speaking tourist he took me for, or would he have tried to shake me down in some non-verbal way? How is this a viable business model? What is the point of passing out your CD in Times Square (to make an actual living? to gain exposure? in the hopes that some music industry mogul will just happen to be passing by the Hard Rock Cafe?)?

The experience felt like some lame joke, but I’m not sure of the punchline.

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