December 13, 2001
Santa in the City
A New York Jew pursues his dream of playing Kris Kringle.
Enjoyable, unique experience, totally different type of job, mostly outdoors, great fun, good pay. Santas needed. Holiday spirit a must.
I called the number listed at the bottom of the ad, and a few weeks later, I got a call. The boss (I'll call him Mr. Green) had only one question: "Are you fat?"
"No," I replied.
Despite my lack of girth, I got the job that I had coveted for years. After an unorthodox path, I was finally Santa.
As a Jewish kid growing up in a cramped New York City apartment, I never experienced a true Christmas. You know, like the ones they show in those Budweiser commercials. In fact, Christmas was usually a melancholy time for me. In grade school, the role of Rudolph was unjustly taken away after I was accused of disruptive behavior unbecoming of a reindeer.
My family tried, but never quite could pull off the Christmas thing. Instead of a tree, we had a cactus, albeit one draped in lights. (From lighting the menorah, my folks were quite adept with lights.) They even put wrapped presents underneath that cactus. But whatever they did, however hard they tried, that damn thing was still a cactus. When other kids came over, they would bring sand instead of presents and usually ended up throwing it on one another.
The final Christmas crisis came one Christmas Eve. I was attempting to trim the cactus when I caught a thorn and had to be rushed to the emergency room. That marked the end of Christmas in the humble Hart home.
But two Adam Sandler songs later, I still wanted to be St. Nick. I applied at Macy's, but they were only hiring elves. The Internet only featured material on child-molesting Santas. My last resort was the classifieds.
Before I could start, Mr. Green said I needed to buy a Santa suit, so I headed to a costume store in Corona, Queens, to get one. My $80 ensemble was composed of a red suit, a white wig and beard and boots. Well, they were not truly boots, they were actually vinyl pullovers.
When I arrived at the tree lot, which took up an entire block in Soho, Mr. Green was unimpressed. Mr. Green said that clearly I was a bulimic Santa. Mr. Green emphasized his disgust by threatening to sic Roscoe, his off-duty cop employee, on me. "Do you want to deal with Roscoe?" he yelled maniacally.
To make matters worse, Mr. Green's aides, the aforementioned off-duty cop and a fanatical tree-cutter, repeatedly shouted, "You're the worst Santa I've ever seen!" Before Mr. Green or one of his goons could order me to climb down a chimney or a sewer, a cable television crew requested an interview. Mr. Green primped himself for the camera. But the television people wanted the man in red, Mr. Chanukah Cactus. Mr. Green ordered me to fetch a pillow from an unkempt bed in the back of the trailer. With the soiled pillow stuffed under my red, fluffy shirt, I headed for the camera.
"What would you like to see in the New Year?" asked the reporter, holding the microphone in front of my scraggly artificial beard. "I'd like to see Bert Reynolds get a new hair weave." Mr. Green told me he wants to bury Santa.
Back on the street, well-dressed strangers pass by Mr. Green's virtual forest in Soho, and I approach them, attempting to act jolly. "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!" I belt out.
"From your gut!" interrupts Mr. Green. "From your gut!" Not that he has any Santa experience. Regardless, I take his advice. Babies turn away. Some even cry. The Tree-Cutter gives me dirty looks as he trims with his conspicuous sharp knife. The Cop looks like he wants to cuff me on the spot. Worse, my pillow keeps falling out of my shirt.
"Have you written out your wish list?" I ask a kid in my best soft Santa voice.
"I don't believe in Santa," she replies, walking away.
Several men walk by and ask if I'm pregnant. "Yeah," I respond. "And you're the father." Christmas in New York City.
When night falls, I head to the corner and spot a shiny red Corvette slowly coming toward me. It comes to a halt. The window rolls down. Perhaps I have generated a tree sale. "How do you get to Broome Street?" With my morale hurting, my feet frozen, I decide to pack it in. Dejected, I slump through Soho as shoppers gawk at me. I bump into a former roommate and, thankfully, he does not recognize me.
I consider quitting when a friend offers to cast me in his movie. Well, it wasn't exactly "Miracle On 34th Street" -- more like "Maiming in the East Village." I'm glad to land the role of a stalking Santa.
As I attempt to harass the protagonist (a television star), people walk by in disbelief. "You are not a good Santa!" one man yells in a Hispanic accent. A homeless man embraces me. When the cameras roll, I grab my groin and yell, "Eat me!" to the protagonist. The natives smile. East Villagers appreciate this kind of Santa.
The next day, back at the tree stand, however, is not so terrific. It's sunny, but the streets are empty. And I've lost one of my vinyl pullovers. As I try to greet the few customers, I attempt to hide one foot behind a tree. When I head to the trailer to stay warm, Mr. Green continues to taunt me about Roscoe. I go to the back and remove my Santa suit.
"Let me ask you one question," says the Cop.
"Shoot," I respond. Considering the circumstances, I guess that was a poor choice of words. "Go ahead."
"Are you Jewish?"
Next year, I'll be a Chanukah bush.