It started in a dank, foul-smelling mechanical room wedged between some low-end clothing store and a record shop – actual records back when they made the 33 RPM vinyl Frisbees, this being the year that fourteen-year-old girls were lining up for Bay City Roller albums. That was Santa Central – that’s where you changed into The Suit.
The Suit had the coat, of course, the usual red velour with the fake white fur piping. The Suit had this dingy hospital gown type thing with a stomach sewn into it that you wore under the jacket. The Suit had the beard – a complex contraption of wire mesh and stringy polyester that you could mold to your face as you strapped it on, getting it plastered good and tight so it didn’t come off easy – and so that you had a pretty good idea of what the Santa on the last shift had for lunch. And The Suit had four pairs of pants, at least one of which was out for cleaning at any given time. Some kids squeal with glee in Santa’s lap. But some kids pee.
I’d seen the ad on the job board in the Beloit College commons – the Beloit Mall wanted drama majors to play Santa. I forget what the pay was exactly, but it was a multiple of the usual minimum wage offer, so I played a drama major in the interview. No one checked.
Beloit Mall was low-rent even by late 70s standards. An outdoor mall. The Santa Shack was really a gussied up Sears garden shed painted, probably by under employed art majors, in a blue and white quasi-Arctic motif. The usual assortment of head-nodding, nose-blinking reindeer, a couple of cheesy looking plastic elves. Back in the days when Santa was a free perk, not a profit making enterprise, so we didn’t have the fancy camera rig and the hot looking elfettes in the short skirts that flirt with Daddy and try to get him to pop for the Santa Special, the one with two 8x10s and enough wallet photos to fill a gross of Holiday Cards. The floor of the shed was covered with fake snow, and there was one of those electric coil space heaters under Santa’s throne that kept Santa just this side of hypothermia while also damn near melting his cheap plastic boots.
It was the last hour of my last night, and it was slow. I often had a few minutes between customers, so I had a copy of The Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics over the arm of the throne – 30 more minutes of Santa, philosophy final in the morning, then it was time to blow town.
The door to the Santa Shack popped upon. A mom, you’d call her a MILF now, waist length fur jacket, tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, some version of the Farah haircut that was just at the tail end of its run in the fashion spotlight. And a boy, a kid at the upper end of the Santa believing range. Maybe eight, maybe nine.
He popped up on Santa’s lap, and we ran through the usual spiel. I was just about to give him is candy cane and coloring book and send him on his way when mom piped up.
“Billy, ask Santa how he can be here and in Janesville at the same time?”
I’m thinking what the fuck? Is Billy getting has ass kicked on the playground for promulgating the Santa Gospel to the non-believers or something? If you don’t want Santa in your kid’s life lady, you break the news. Crushing the final remnants of youthful innocence is not in my job description.
“Magic,” I tell him.
“Billy, ask Santa how reindeer can fly when they don’t have wings.”
“Magic,” I tell him again. And, for a kid who had suspended disbelief hard enough to buy the garden shed and the cheap-ass elves and a 180 pound college kid in a fake suit, magic was enough.
Mom took on a kind of a pout. She really wanted to nail the fat man, and Santa had beat the beef. Billy finished his Spartan list, but Santa had had enough.
“My elves tell me you’ve been exceptionally good,” said Santa. “That can’t be all you want.”
Billy added an item or two.
“Is that it? My elves tell me you are actually one of the best children they’ve watched all year. Surely you’ve forgotten something.”
Billy, swollen with Yuletide bonhomie now, and youthful avarice, kicks his list into overdrive. A couple of hyperventilated minutes later, he’s asked for everything a boy could want.
I give the kid his candy cane and coloring book, assuring him that a good boy like him would likely find everything he asked for under the tree. He says “Thanks, Santa,” and bolts out the door like Rudolf on ramjets.
Mom stands, slack-jawed. It’s my last shift. I’ve already picked up my check. I figure I’m not gonna need the Santa gig on my resume.
“Ma’am,” I say. She looks back. “Never fuck with Santa.”