Thursday, 3 December 2015

In a Santa State of Mind, Part 2, with Cookies - Umberto Tosi

Musings of a undercover Santa: The thing about being a writer is that we're forever superimposing narratives onto our experiences, even the most mundane. Of course, to tell stories is human. Writers just get deeper into that stream of consciousness. Our imaginary hypertexts can seem compelling, even brilliant, until we sit down and try to write them coherently with a semblance of style. Then they jackknife, ideas askew as a wrecked train.

Yours truly, checking it twice
Although I didn't get around to making a story out of them for a long time, my thirty straight days as a Macy's West Coast Department Store Santa Claus in downtown San Francisco a decade ago were like that – mental voice-over video-cams running the whole time, a multi-dimensional theme park ride that stays with me, a Yuletide LSD trip, during which I teetered on the edge of delusion just to see how far it could go. Writing is a kind of madness, after all.

Twas the month before Christmas and all through the store every creature was stirring to the tune of piped-in Xmas muzak and special offers. Silvery tinsel garlands snaked supporting pillars and gaily hued ornaments held forth in not-too-gaudy holiday arrays everywhere, their cheery reds and greens glinting off the glazed eyes of somnambulant shoppers. And there I found myself, the most visible prop of all, a human meme, a living trope in my white faux-fur-trimmed red velvet jacket and baggy pants, white gloves and black vinyl boots: Santa Claus himself, sweating under the track lights, ensconced upon an ornate, gold-leafed, high-backed Father Christmas throne, plastic reindeer grazing nearby, my sleigh-bell wrist band jingling harmonically as I helped parents place their precious peewees on my lap, for the time-honored pagan-Christian-commercial-pan-holiday ritual, regardless of creed or color. From behind my white beard it was just an acting job, show biz – cosmetically rosy cheeks and all. I was the main attraction and photo-op for this year's must-have holiday portrait of your little miss or junior on the jolly old elf's lap, in your choice of festive frame, on sale today. But even as a wizened, erstwhile hardboiled reporter, it was neigh impossible not to be drawn into the archetypal mythology of the role.

As I've explained in my previous installment here, my being there was a fluke. One of the two Macy's regular Santa's took a nip too many and disgraced himself just as the season got underway the last week in November. The store called the “real-bearded Santa” agency that had been booking me for special events, office and private parties and boutique walkabouts and it called me. This was no one-or-two-hour gig like the other assignments. It was seven hours a day, seven days a week through Christmas Eve nonstop. What a ride. I had the day shift from 8 to 3. - a long-time regular – had the evening run from 3 to 10 pm.

SF's Union Square this time of year.
The downtown San Francisco Macy's faces the city's bustling Union Square, lit by a giant holiday tree every year, where the Powell Street cable car line runs clanging towards Russian Hill, adjacent to the venerable St. Francis and other first class hotels, boutiques, eateries, caf├ęs and souvenir shops. I didn't think I'd see a lot of kids the way I would at a suburban mall. I was wrong. Actually, I played Santa to a cross-section of children, rich and poor, local and tourist, even celebrities. An undersecretary of state brought his grandchildren. Sharon Stone brought one of her adopted sons.

Santa's North Pole,” was run by a concessionaire, hired by the store's corporate owners. While I focused on asking kids what they wanted for Christmas, she made her money off selling instant, framed portrait-sized souvenir photos, along with Xmas gingerbread houses, Santa workshop trinkets, holiday cards, Hanukkah dreidels and tree ornaments. It was a bustling business.. Mothers and grownup daughters with baby granddaughters would show up together – an annual ritual – to have their holiday portrait taken, all balanced precariously on my lap with lots of laughs. Whole families would take portraits clustered around Santa – sisters, brothers, parents, cousins. Gay couples posed for holiday pictures, one on each knee.

Santa was for free. Parents could let their kid sit on my lap and talk to Santa without having to buy anything. Often, a mom or dad would take a mobile phone photo. The woman who ran the concession tried to say no pictures, but Santa pulled rank. I couldn't see how that would hurt her business, which was booming. Not everyone could afford a portrait. The manager glared at me, but couldn't risk a confrontation with Santa in front of all those kiddies waiting in line, and she wasn't going to fire me – not for that anyway. Finding a last minute real-bearded, background-checked, non-substance-abusing substitute would have been a hassle frowned upon watchful Macy's management.

Me at Macy's
The portrait sales issue became moot on those mornings when preschoolers from the Tenderloin showed up. Dozens of the tykes would be await me as I started my shift, herded into zigzag lines by their watchful teachers. The children, most of them Southeast Asian refugee offspring from one of the poorest districts of San Francisco just blocks from yuppie-posh Union Square, where much quieter than their more affluent counterparts. I would announce my presence with some bell ringing and a few hearty ho-ho-hos, then sit on my throne. The babysitter-teachers would march the kids up, one-by-one, place each on my lap, step back and snap a photo for their parents, then hustle the kid off with barely enough time for me to ask what they wanted Santa to bring them at Christmas. Mostly this would elicit a blank stare. I realized that most of these kids didn't speak a lot of English, and my little Spanish wouldn't help either. So, we just tried smiling and gentle pats on the shoulder. That seemed to work. An hour of this, class after class, and they'd be done, and gone.

Kids who are dreamers. Kids who want. Kids who are kind: Listening to what children wanted from Santa was new to me. I didn't get much of that on my party appearance jobs prior to Macy's, when I would show up and spread gifts – provided by the client – and good cheer, and everybody paid more attention to refilling their drinks than to me, once I'd made my jolly old entrance. As an officially enthroned Santa, expected to give all good children what they most desired, I discovered the range of that to be much wider than popular legend suggests. Maybe half the kids asked for popular toys and video games. Others teased, pulled on the beard, asked questions about the reindeer and the elves and invented fantasy presentations, like a live dinosaur, or bringing them a magic carpet.

I was taken by how many asked me to bestow something upon someone else – help for a brother or sister, or grandparent, an ailing or out-of-work mother or father, or step-parents, or half siblings. One little girl asked Santa to make her “better at math,” when it seemed obvious by her passion that her wish could well be self-fulfilling. What does a rent-a-Santa say to requests like that? The Santa manual says to fudge it, deflect to the most gently encouraging platitude you can muster and smile a lot. They'll forget about you shortly – at least you as this “Santa helper,” not, as they'd be told, “the real Santa.” Some kids were shy and standoffish. Most kids – whatever they wanted – communicated something genuine of themselves, in little moments of truth, just out of their harried parents' earshot. A few showed up in a couple of novellas I wrote later – “My Dog's Name” and “Milagro on 34th Street” namely.

I suppose the trick of playing a meme successfully is to dissolve into the role – much like Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman become the characters they play, except without their talent. And except that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, St. Nickolas, Pere Noel and the Jolly Old Elf are as much caricature as character. Santa Claus, of course, is an anglicized version of the Dutch Sinterklass, who gave out gifts on December 6, the name day of the original St. Nicholas, an Anatolian Greek bishop known for helping the poor. Over the centuries St. Nick, of course, became conflated with popular myths along with the Christianized pagan Yule Log and Christmas tree. White bearded Odin, who would ride across the wintry night sky to Hel – the land of the dead – on an eight-legged horse each year at Yule time melded into white-bearded, with his eight reindeer, who in turn was popularized as a North Pole elf in the 19th century poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by New York divinity professor Clement Clarke Moore. The modern Santa look – beard, red outfit, boots, hat, reindeer – derived from the great, Bavarian-born American newspaper caricaturist Thomas Nast's illustrations of the Moore poem in the 1860s. In 1890, one James Edgar dressed up in Nash's image to entertain holiday shoppers and their children at his Brockton, Massachusetts emporium, thus starting what became the department store (and shopping mall) Santa tradition in the United States. (According to several recent reports, however, the Greed Grinch has been cutting the number of Santas at malls who want to attract more upscale, adult shoppers instead of penny pinching working class parents and with sticky fingered kids in tow. Brockton, after all – 50 miles south of Boston – remains a blue collar town, once a center for shoe factories.

Nast's iconic 1862 elf
Given this, I can well understand the “Santa terrors” that about half of babes between 18 months and three years when mama or papa first take them to see St. Nick. I was an alien being, an animated simulacrum from the uncanny valley. It must be like a cartoon or a stuffed toy come to life in the form of what they can plainly see is a strange old man. TV cartoons and bedtime story elves don't have stray hairs, skin imperfections and odd twitches. They don't breathe visibly and smell of this morning's shower gel and shampoo. SSOP – Standard Santa Operating Procedure – calls for Santa to back off gently when Santa terror erupts. Never try to “get through it.” I used to bring a small bag of baby-safe toys that I could pull out and hand to the child, then encourage the parent to just let the kid play around the Santa display area while I took on the next couple of children, then let the parent try again. If that failed, well... But once in a while a determined mom or dad, bent on getting that Kodak moment, would plop an apprehensive child on my knee and step away. Talk about evoking primordial fear. To the kids it was like being giving away to strangers. Egad!

Santa Sam” – the evening shift St. Nick who showed up daily to relieve me at San Francisco Macy's – had the look down perfectly. He was a retired lumberjack in real life who came down to San Francisco to play Santa every Christmastime from his home near Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He actually resembled the Coca Cola Santa epitome, to me anyway, but maybe I had beard envy. He showed me a few tricks of the trade, for example, that clown-white was the best touch-up to banish stray black hairs in my otherwise snow white beard and eyebrows. He also tipped me on wearing ice bags. I'd be a steamed lobster in my heavy velvet Santa suit after a shift under the hot track lights otherwise. I'd bring half dozen cold packs from my freezer and slip them strategically under my Santa jacket before each shift. They at least got me to lunch hour, during which I'd go to an employee restroom, take off my jacket, hat and shirt and soak head under cold running water a while. That scene also made it into Milagro on 34th Street, by the way.

Virginia and the 1897 editorial writer
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” So goes the famous editorial response to 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlan's letter that appeared in an 1897 issue of the now long-defunct New York Sun. The editorial went on to make the case for Santa being the embodiment of generosity and cheer that makes its appearance during the holiday season and that this world of cynicism and war needs aplenty. We hope so anyway.


And so, these many years after my Macy's tour of duty, I added “Milagro on 34th Street” to copious canon of holiday stories, poems, songs and movies in hopes of adding to that spirit. The novella a tale grounded in some of the harsh realities of immigration today encountered by a woefully unprepared department store Santa with allergies. But it does include magic cookies. 

4 comments:

Lydia Bennet said...

We have a varied bunch of writers in Authors Electric, but I'd never expected to have a Santa Claus! Some fascinating insights Umberto, I"m reading Milagro at the moment - I wonder where it's going! A privileged glimpse into a magical lifestyle altogether!

Dennis Hamley said...

I was a Santa Claus once, for a strange afternoon at a girls' secondary school Christmas party. The girls weren't actually allowed to sit on my lap. However, one of the helping Mums expressed a wish to, which I strategically, though reluctantly, turned down. I enjoyed the experience and wondered whether I had found a potential second career after early retirement in case the writing didn't work out.

Mari Biella said...

The perfect post to get us all in the Festive mood, Umberto! It's interesting that, despite all the behind-the-scenes glimpses into what life as a Santa Claus is like, the strange glamour of it all remains. I suppose the myth is just too strong. In any case, thanks for this - and I'll look forward to reading 'Milagro'

Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks to all - Mari, Dennis and Lydia: I still have my Santa suit, and don it on rare occasion for friends' holiday gatherings. I did so for a reading of Milagro as well, but no more department stores. You're right about the myth being robust enough to withstand any and all interpretations, uplifting, magical, maudlin or comic, including my own. Happy holidays!