Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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As the Church Lady once pointed out, SANTA is an anagram for SATAN

I spent one December of my life working as a department store Santa. It was actually two Santa jobs with two separate Santa costumes and two separate sets of instructions for how to go about my job. One was at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where I was ensconced in a palatial setting surrounded by hundreds of poinsettias. The other, and far more interesting one was in the atrium outside Crowley’s department store in the middle of Detroit (at West Grand Boulevard and Second Avenue in the New Center area, for you Detroiters). I’d like to share a few snapshots of the job, and to ask all of you, in this season of charity, to be kind to those less fortunate (by which I mean department store Santas everywhere!).

  • One Saturday afternoon, the line of children was very long. I went for a solid couple of hours without a moment’s respite. At some point, I became aware that an elderly couple had moved themselves around just behind me to my left. Their clothes were shabby but neat. When I glanced over at them, they had the most beautiful smiles on their faces. It seemed likely that they had grown children of their own, and they were drinking in the sight and the sound of one little angel after another perching on Santa’s knee and pouring out their Christmas wishes. A moment finally came when the line thinned out and I could take a breather. I glanced at the couple and saw that the old man was holding out a dollar to me. I smiled and shook my head. “No, you take it; you’ve earned it,” the old man said, but I refused. “They pay me just fine here, but thank you,” and the man retracted his dollar. In fact, they were paying me a modest $10 an hour. Frankly, if he’d been offering me a ten or a twenty, I might have taken it, but for a dollar, I can afford to look like a good guy!
  • It was the first year they’d ever had a Santa outside this Crowley’s and they weren’t sure what the schedule should be, so while most of my working hours were during the day, they decided to experiment with having me sit there until closing time on Thursday nights. This turned out to be a bad idea. Thursday nights were dead, dead, dead. The few shoppers who came out then rarely brought children with them, so I had to sit on my throne for 3 hours with no one close enough to have a conversation with. There was a guard booth about 50 feet away, but its occupant was generally busy either checking out the half dozen monitors in front of him, doing paperwork, or dozing off. One Thursday night, as I sat there utterly alone, a very thin and very “street” looking man approached me. He was holding a brown paper bag. “Hey Santa Claus,” he called out. He had the sort of cadence to his voice that made you think there was a portable rhythm machine playing inside his head at all times. “I brought something for you to share with the little boys and girls.” He reached into his bag. You can imagine the range of possibilities that raced through my mind in those two seconds as to what he might pull out of that bag, but never did I expect what he actually pulled out. It was a box of popsicles, still unopened, almost certainly bought from the liquor store a block away. I was flabbergasted and more than a little relieved. “Well as you can see,” I said, motioning about, “there aren’t any kids here, and I’m afraid those would all melt while I was waiting.” He looked about and perceived the truth of my statement, but he instantly brightened. “Well then, why don’t you and me polish them off?” He began to unwrap a couple of popsicles. I had to do something. I decided it was time to drop the Santa persona and voice. I leaned forward and said in a low tone, “Listen, I’ll get in trouble if they see me eating in the Santa suit (which was the truth). I’ll bet there are a lot of folks across the street in the Fisher Building. You should try over there.” He got the hint and took off, thought not before offering me a popsicle one last time and shaking my hand in a 3 or 4 part ritual that he knew far better than I did. And I heard him exclaim as he strolled out of sight, “Merry Christmas! Who wants a popsicle? Y’all have a good night!”
  • On behalf of all who ply the honorable trade of department store Santa, let me say that there is a time when you need to stop bringing your children to see Santa. There’s a wide gender gap in how little boys and little girls handle the knowledge that this guy in the chair cannot be Santa because there is no Santa. Little girls, I am happy to report, will often play along, albeit listlessly, while little boys will all too often just become a pain in the ass. They will try to rip the beard off, rip the wig off, and try to impress their buddies with how cool they are by being rude to Santa. Some of them will play along while they’re in line and climb up into Santa’s lap as if visions of sugar plums are dancing in their heads. And then when Santa gives them their opening (“And what do you want for Christmas?”) they spring into action. “So what do you do when you’re not playing Santa?” asked one boy. “Did that kid pee in your lap?” asked another. “How much do they pay you to do this?” asked one. “That beard is so fake!” opined another. All too often, the only person having a good time in this situation is the parent, who is chuckling and cooing and composing a photograph, while the child and Santa sit there in a swamp of misery.
  • Ahem. Having said that, the job has its moments. When you get a child who is still a True Believer, the wonder in their face and their voice can make your whole day. Some of them have the humblest of requests and the shortest of lists and have been waiting for weeks or months for this moment and it’s all you can do to keep yourself from either crying or spending every last nickel you’re earning to make their wishes come true. I don’t know whether I’d ever be a department store Santa again – I had three colds back to back to back that month, probably because every germ in town sat in my lap. And it is hard work, especially if you have pride in what you’re doing. But I’m ever so glad I did it once, and I recommend it to you should you ever be asked to don the costume yourself.

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