Day 1. 7:00 a.m.
Bleary-eyed and stiff, I ride the subway from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, to the Volunteers of America headquarters. The organization, which has been feeding the area's homeless for over a hundred years, is best known for its Sidewalk Santa program, I am its newest recruit. Today I will join the other prospective Santas for a costume-fitting, and then it's off to Madison Square Garden for "Santa School," where we will learn the finer points of our new profession. The class, which is essentially a media event, will be taught by the actor portraying Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, who this year is none other than Tim Curry.
I am late, and when I arrive everyone is already decked out in full regalia. The assorted group of makeshift Santas consists of men and women alike, black and white, in all shapes and sizes. At present, everyone is being led through some sort of training exercise, reciting cryptic slogans in unison, which has an eerie effect. The similarity of the words Santa and Satan is not lost on me. As I watch the spectacle from the hallway, I begin to have doubts as to whether I want to participate. The whole thing appears so cultish, like a Disneyfied Moonies. Before I can change my mind, however, I am spotted by one of the coordinators, who immediately finds me my own costume and orders me to get dressed.
After suiting up, we shuffle onto the school buses that will take us to the Garden. The mood on the bus is light, and various Christmas carols are attempted. Most of these are abandoned just as quickly as they are begun, as the second and third versus are generally unknown. The only song that makes it all the way through is "On the First Day of Christmas," although all the days over five are lost to the group. Melodic mumbles are used in place of "ladies dancing" or "lords a leaping" or what-have-you, until the fifth day arrives, where everyone, loud and sure, bellows out "five gold rings." Several times during the song I am on the brink of falling asleep, but each time we hit that particular phrase I am jarred awake.
Eventually we arrive at our destination. After a quick search by security, we're ushered into a large room behind the Christmas Carol set, which has been turned into a makeshift classroom. In my haste to get dressed I have forgotten my boot covers, and my jeans and sneakers are clearly visible, so I am told to sit in the back row. My seat is at the extreme right, and by the time all the Santas have settled I am virtually obscured. Again I almost doze off, but the man sitting next to me, who is something of a talker, will not be denied a conversation.
He introduces himself as Dan, and tells me through a mouth of missing teeth that he's really looking forward to hitting the streets, that he took the job because he wanted to meet people and make people happy. He asks me why I chose to be a Sidewalk Santa, and for a moment I can't reply - why did I sign on? Because I'm between jobs? Because I thought it'd make a good story? Finally, I tell him that I took the job for kicks, that I thought it would be interesting. He tells me that that's a good a reason as any, and then asks me what I plan to do when we get off. I tell him I plan to sleep. He tells me matter-of-factly that when he goes home he will be enjoying himself over a crack pipe. I nod, as if this is a completely normal thing to do after one gets off work, and then, unsure as to where our conversation is headed, look up to discover that class is about to begin.
First, bells are passed out, which everyone immediately begins ringing, sending the room into a dinging, jingly cacophony. Thankfully, we are immediately ordered to place the bells under our chairs. Next, we receive our "lesson plans," which in actuality are scripts. Our lines, which are highlighted for us, generally consist of "Ho Ho Ho's" and "Merry Christmases." The good lines all go to Scrooge, as well as to Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim. Once we're all equipped with bells and scripts, we are told that Scrooge will be out momentarily. This is a good thing, as some of the Santas are getting restless. One in particular, a large gentleman who will need no extra padding in his costume, is overly anxious. He cries "Bring out the transvestite!" more than once, until he is finally shushed by one of the coordinators, a harsh-looking woman who comes off as a cross between Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmatians and Scrooge himself.
Finally, the cast members of A Christmas Carol arrive, and a hush blankets the room. Everyone is at once excited and nervous. First comes Tiny Tim. "Look at him - he's so cute!" one of the women announces. "And so tiny!" says another for good measure. Then comes Cratchet, and, finally, the man of the hour, Scrooge. Only, he looks nothing like Tim Curry. Granted, it's been a while since I've seen him in anything, and at present he's wearing an astronomical amount of makeup, not to mention tremendous sideburns and a hat, but I'm pretty sure it isn't him. Noting our confusion, we are told that because of some kind of rehearsal emergency, Mr. Curry couldn't be with us today. Instead, we will be schooled by his understudy. Schooled is right.
The understudy, sensing our disappointment, immediately begins prancing around in front of us bombastically and cracking a series of jokes, none of which are very funny. We have little time to stew in our misfortune, however, as school is now in session.
We are told to open our books to a particular page, where the faux Scrooge dramatically recites a list of Dos and Don'ts. The Dos include: Do put on your best smile for the prospective contributors. Do pepper your conversations with a round of hearty "Ho Ho Ho's." Do thank your contributors for their donations. The Don'ts are more practical: Don't smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or eat anything that would stain your beard. Don't handle the money yourself; let those who wish to contribute place the money in the proper receptacle themselves. Don't claim to be the real Santa Claus; explain that you are simply one of his helpers, and that he is busy in the North Pole. Later, we learn how to correctly ring our bells - up and down, not side to side - and how to handle questions by wily children. If a child asks for an excessively impractical gift - for his parents to get back together, for example - remind him that you are only Santa's helper, and that you can only pass along requests, no more.
At the end of the session, we are told to stand up and file out of the room, only to re-enter within minutes. Unbeknownst to us, this was merely a rehearsal, and now it is time for the real deal. While during the run-through we were photographed and filmed by a number of people, as we again take our seats, the true media circus begins. There are photographers galore, and several cameras, some bearing the emblems of CBS, FOX and NY1 scan the room. It is hard to concentrate, as flashbulbs are going off left and right, and every few seconds one's gaze is obscured by a bright camera light. But we manage, somehow, going through the entire thing again, the Dos and Don'ts, the bell-ringing, the bad jokes.
Finally, it's graduation time. One by one we march to the front of the class to receive our diplomas, given to us by Tiny Tim. I am the last to get one, and after shaking hands with the adorable little Muppet I wander throughout the room, where various Santas are giving interviews to the press.
I watch as Dan speaks to two young women, one with a microphone, one with a camera, presumably from a cable access channel. They have to keep starting the interview over because he refuses to stay in character, acting more like Jack Nicholson than St. Nick. Before I leave the room, the last thing I hear him say is: "Would you two ladies care to join me later this afternoon?" I can only wonder if he will appraise them of his planned itinerary.
After the press has been satiated, we re-board the buses and drive back to headquarters, where we're treated to a free lunch. As I prepare to head home, I'm stopped by one of the coordinators. She tells me that there is a new policy this year, and all the working Sidewalk Santas are required to have I.D. cards. To get one, I have to go to the other Volunteers of America branch, located further uptown. There are a few others also lacking the cards, so together we ride the subway to the center. Our group consists of two veteran Santas - eight and four years respectively - as well as a tall, willowy man who does not speak, two women and myself.
When we arrive, we're told that they're not ready for us, and are asked to wait. The four-year vet introduces himself to me as Charles, and then launches into his life story, which is peppered with problems - with alcohol, with the law, with women. He then talks casually about his time spent in jail, much like Dan before him with his recreational habits. I am equally impressed and unnerved by the ease of which these men speak of their questionable pasts and presents. Also impressive is Charles' simple yet effective way of keeping a listener involved in the conversation. What he does, every so often, usually at a lull, is to address the listener by name. Thus, no matter how distracted, one's attention is instantly captured.
"So yeah, so prison was a drag, a real drag," he says. "But that's in the past now. Ain't it Russ?"
"I got bigger problems to deal with now," he continues. "Got me this girl. And she's always giving me a hard time. Never getting off my back. Know what I mean Russ? Know what I mean by that?"
Again, I nod.
After a while, I ask him why he wanted to be a Sidewalk Santa. His answer, much like Dan's and some of the others I spoke to during the day, is this: for the people. For community. To give something back. To listen to this man who has been pushed around his entire life - and has pushed back just as hard - telling me how important it is for him to do something good for others, to make them smile, is truly touching. My own sense of self-preservation and cynicism seem terribly out of place. Perhaps there is a real purpose to my involvement after all. Perhaps, much like Scrooge, I'm here to shed my spoiled selfishness and false sense of entitlement and learn to give to others unconditionally, without any thought for my own well-being. Perhaps.
Soon they are ready for us, and we get our pictures taken, which are quickly developed and laminated into I.D. cards. While I try to take my new direction to heart, to embrace a life of selflessness, for the entire subway home I am overcome with one nagging, pervasive thought: I look like a dork in my picture.
Any visions of sugarplums dancing in my head are soon eradicated by the harsh tones of my alarm. In some kind of cruel joke, I and the other Santas are requested to be at the VOA headquarters at the brink of dawn, so as to have ample time to suit up and head out to our various functions. These functions include a spot on Good Morning America, followed by a makeshift parade with the Rockettes down Fifth Avenue, and then a press conference of sorts at Brooks Brothers, the official sponsor for the Sidewalk Santa Kick-off. Of course, I am late.
When I get there, everyone is already in full costume and about to board the buses. I am rushed inside, where three employees get me dressed and ready within minutes. They even hold the buses for me during this procedure, as if I am some kind of star Santa. And in fact I am. As I'm getting dressed, I'm told that after the morning's events I will be working outside of FAO Schwartz, the prime spot for any Sidewalk Santa. Why they are giving this to me, someone without any kind of experience who's consistently late I'm not sure, although the fact that I am not any kind of addict with no priors probably has something to do with it.
The bus, once again, becomes a virtual traveling choir. This time, however, the longer, more complex carols are not even attempted; everyone obviously learned their lesson during the previous ride. We sing "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." We sing "Frosty the Snowman." When someone begins "Good King Wenceslas" he is booed.
As the buses pull up to the Good Morning America building, we are met with deafening cheers from the large group of tourists outside. Their noses once pressed against the glass, they are now surrounding us, offering up that instant, unconditional love that only people from the Midwest seem able to muster. After a series of pictures and hand-shakes, we enter the building, where we are asked to remain in a large, bare room adjoining the studio. There, a woman quiets us and tells us that we are going to say a line on national television. The line is: "We are the Volunteers of America Sidewalk Santas. Good morning America!" Over and over we practice the line. Once we've got it down, we are led into the actual studio.
A good number of the Santas, upon arrival in the studio, spontaneously muster the phrase: "Holy shit." And holy shit is right. The room is lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, with all manner of white hot lights upon us. The Santa suits, which were once our friends in the cold outside air, are now our enemies. Within minutes, all of us are uncomfortably hot and sweating, bunched together in front of a makeshift assemblage of toys and holiday decorations. The tourists have again returned their noses to the glass, and a large number of them are inside the actual studio, showering us with more looks of love.
Soon another woman arrives to prep us. She too tells us that we're going to have a line on the air. The problem is that her line is different than the one we just learned. Her version is: "We're the Sidewalk Santas from Volunteers of America. Good morning America!" Before anyone can correct her, she makes us repeat the new line. While most of the Santas quickly jump to her version, many, perhaps out of some sense of loyalty to the other woman, or perhaps out of laziness, go right back to the old one. Even after a few tries, no one can agree on which one is correct. Ultimately it doesn't matter, as time constraints cut the line anyway.
Instead, we are asked to simply stand around in a messy group, while the two hosts exchange some Santa Claus banter and interview our coordinator, the Cruella/Scrooge combo. While she tries hard to be affable, her smile is as fake as we are. When she hands the male host an official Volunteers of America sweatshirt, which he takes half-heartedly, I have to try hard not to burst out laughing.
About a minute later, however, the inanity of the whole thing - the rough-and-tumble Santas, the smarmy hosts, the lights, the tourists - begins to get to me, and I do start laughing. But it doesn't matter, because the cameras are no longer on us. They are now exclusively on the show's next guests, who have just entered the studio and are already signing autographs. The assorted crowd goes wild, especially the young girls in the audience, who are screaming and screaming. All of the attention is for the newest boy band on the scene, O-Town (Oxy town?), who look as if they're about to perform. Before they do, however, we are thankfully led outside, back onto the buses, for round two.
Our next stop is outside the Brooks Brothers on Fifth Avenue, where we're asked to line up two-by-two for the parade. Excitement is high, and the various octaves of "Ho Ho Ho's" and "Merry Christmases," not to mention the constant bell-ringing, are deafening. Once everyone is paired up, we are off.
The parade, at best, is amusing; at worst, it is depressing. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that we aren't marching down the center of the street, but on the sidewalk. We even have to wait for the lights to change at each block. More than once, due to abrupt halts, all the Santas almost go down like dominoes.
In addition, we were told that we'd be marching with the Rockettes, who are nowhere to be found. Their absence can be seen in many long faces, particularly among the males.
"I want to see some damn Rockettes," a burly, gold-toothed Santa announces after a while. "A player's gotta work."
To add to our malaise, we are not parading independently. We are being ordered around by a variety of handlers, including our evil stepmother, everyone aggressively barking out various commands. "Smile! Stand up straight! Stay in formation! Don't leave your partner! Keep up those 'Ho Ho Ho's!'" The effect borders on the humiliating. I make a comment to no one in particular that I feel like a sheep, and several Santas echo the statement.
Even the barrage of press, way more numerous than at the Garden, is more of a nuisance than anything else. The reporters too have their own agenda, trying to get us to walk or talk in a certain way, to say one thing or another, to give them a perfect sound byte, manufactured or not.
After parading for several blocks, we are told to turn around and march right back to the Brooks Brothers. When we arrive, a curious little van is parked out front, out of which emerge six girls in green, Christmasy outfits: the Rockettes.
"'Bout freakin' time," says Player-Santa, who tries to push his way to the front of the crowd that has already formed around them. Several other male Santas follow suit. I have a pretty good vantage point from where I'm standing, so I don't have to get any closer, not that I'd want to. My theory about the Rockettes had been correct: great legs, but way too much makeup. Maybe, beneath it all, they are beautiful. But at present they look like they should be in Madame Tussaud's.
The Rockettes meet-and-greet is short-lived, however, as we're told to line up again, only this time to march inside the Brooks Brothers. We're split into two groups, where we're to occupy the large, twin staircases at the front of the store. Beneath us lies a podium, on either side of which stand the head honchos of Volunteers of America and Brooks Brothers, the six Rockettes, and the newly-arrived Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Cratchet.
Just before the ceremony is about to begin, the Santas are all given little cartons of Parmalat milk. We're told not to drink them however; just to hold them up. Another sponsor. The ceremony is brief, and focuses mainly on the Sidewalk Santa program, the food vouchers that will be purchased for New York's hungry with all the money raised. When it ends, and just before we march out of the store, we're asked to pass back the Parmalat containers. Those who are off that day board the buses back to headquarters; all of us working Santas are to take our posts.
I'm handed a VOA placard and a backpack containing my lunch, and am told that my chimney - the organization's answer to the Salvation Army's kettle - is already there waiting for me. Before walking the few blocks to FAO Schwartz, I find a payphone and call everyone I know in the area to come and visit me. During my various conversations, my picture is taken by a bevy of photographers, all of whom seem to think that a man dressed as Santa Claus using a public payphone is the greatest thing they've ever seen.
When I arrive at the massive toy store, the line of people waiting to get in circles the block. There is, however, no sign of my chimney. With a little flourish, I tell an important-looking man with a walkie-talkie that Santa Claus is here. He stares at me blankly. I then explain to him the organization I'm with, and how I'm supposed to be working outside the store. I also ask him where the employee lounge is, as it was my understanding that I'd have access to it, and - Ho Ho Ho - Santa's gotta pee.
Again, he gives me a puzzled look, and tells me that he's never heard of the Volunteers of America. He adds that he can't let me in the building anyway, as they have strict rules about catering to any particular religion.
"I'm Santa Claus, not Jesus Christ," I tell him. "Besides, I'm Jewish. Does that make a difference?"
Apparently not, as the guy will not be swayed.
Meanwhile, wide-eyed children of all ages are beginning to descend on me from all directions. I muster up a few "Ho Ho Ho's" for effect, and then, right before I'm completely surrounded, hightail it around the corner, in search of a bathroom and a telephone.
The first place that looks accommodating is a deli, and when I walk in everyone stares at me and grins. "Santa Claus!" cries the row of clerks behind the glass counter.
"Yo, Santa Claus! Where's my present?" asks a man at a booth.
"Have you been a good boy?" I reply. He assures me he has, and I make my way to the back of the deli, shaking hands and waving. I find the bathroom and immediately relieve myself, having to peel off several layers to do so. After putting everything back in place, I adjust my wig to cover up any stray hairs, and make sure my beard is on correctly. Except for my black eyebrows, I really do look like the guy.
After some more handshakes, I leave the deli and scour the street for a payphone. I'm sure someone at headquarters will be able to straighten this all out. Suddenly, I hear a deep male voice calling me. "Santa, hey Santa Claus, over here!" I don't want to look, fearing the worst. But the voice continues, growing even more urgent, and so I finally look over. And there, unbelievably, is a man from my program, who is standing on Fifth Avenue, next to my chimney.
This is Martin, the eight-year vet I'd met while getting my photo I.D. I'm so glad to see him I almost hug him. I tell him as much, and then explain the fiasco with FAO Schwartz.
"You're a Sidewalk Santa, remember," he says. "This is as close as we're allowed to get."
He takes the Volunteers of America placard from me and attaches it to the chimney. Then he lifts the thing up and shoves my backpack inside. Finally, he unlocks it from the mailbox it was attached to, and moves it a little down the block, so as not to be too close to the Salvation Army representatives already there.
"Well, you're all set. Guess I'll be off then," he says, shaking my hand for luck.
But I don't want him to leave. I begin asking him questions, anything I can think of, just to delay the inevitable: "What if someone tries to steal the chimney?" ("They won't," he answers.) "What if someone pulls off my beard? ("Put it back on.") "What if I need to take a break?" ("Take one.") Eventually, he tells me that he has to go. He's got other Santas to check on.
And then I am alone. One Santa, where before there were scores. I am terrified.
But I try not to let this get to me. I have a job to do. After some stretches and a silent prayer, I begin. And for a while, amazingly, I almost enjoy it. The kinetic bell-ringing, the haughty "Ho Ho Ho's," the grand, bombastic "Merry Christmases," the inquisitive, paternal "Well hello there little boy/girl. Have you been a good little boy/girl this year?"
I soon notice a pattern emerging. While random passerby's occasionally come over and drop money in the chimney, they seldom do so without children present, and almost never part with their cash unless the children want to meet me and/or get photographed with me. The children are generally sweet and shy, hiding behind pantlegs and approaching me cautiously with downward eyes and I love them all.
By noon, having been at my post for good two hours, with the crowds growing exponentially, the first signs of my downfall set in. The initial energy I felt, the thrill, is gone. All that is left is exhaustion. I can feel the three hours sleep I got the night before, as well as the three hours from the night before that. All of a sudden, I can't stop yawning, and my wig will not stay on properly. It keeps slipping to one side, and each time I adjust it I'm sure that I've dislodged some hair underneath. I'm beginning to slip.
The parents, of course, see it first. They notice the tiredness in my eyes, the lackluster "Ho Ho Ho's," the sardonic eye-rolling with each generic gesture. And if it were only New Yorkers, it would be fine. Some of them, in fact, are winking at me knowingly, tapping me on the arm and grinning, as if to say, "Tough job man. Hang in there, Santa." But of course it is not just New Yorkers. It is tourists. And these tourists want to be entertained. They want a show. And, try as I might, I just can't give it to them.
Luckily, the children have no idea. But it is with them that my lack of coherence really starts to show. A boy asks me if I'm really Santa Claus and I tell him that I am. A girl asks for a unicorn and I tell her she'll have it. And then it gets worse. A darling young girl approaches and tells me she loves me, even though she doesn't celebrate Christmas.
"What do you celebrate then?" I ask her.
"Chanukah," she says bashfully.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret," I tell her, whispering in her ear. "I celebrate Chanukah also."
The girl's eyes widen and she rushes over to her mother. "Mommy, mommy," she cries at the top of her lungs. "Santa's Jewish! Santa Claus is Jewish!"
All the parents and children in the immediate vicinity turn to me. They are all giving me strange looks, some bordering on the unkind. The latter are coming from a few of the parents, visitors to our fair city who do not want their children leaving with some nonsense about Santa being Jewish.
Something needs to be said, something to quell the situation. A joke, an aside, something to let everyone know that it's just a girl with an overactive imagination, something to the effect of, "No, I'm not really Jewish. But I am in spirit," or "We're all the same under God's eyes." Something like that.
Instead, in my infinite genius, the best I can do is to cough up some "Ho Ho Ho's." Several rounds of them in fact, not even looking at the people around me anymore, looking beyond them, as if their time is up, and I am now searching for new people to give Christmas cheer to. One by one the families leave, but not without some measure of disgust.
By one o'clock, I'm leaning on the chimney for support. By two, I can barely stand. It's time for a break. I lock up the chimney, grab my backpack from underneath it and walk to a little park across Fifth Avenue. I take a seat on the only bench that isn't covered in pigeon poo, strip off my beard, wig and hat and begin eating one of the sandwiches I've been given. After devouring the entire thing, as well as a bag of chips and a can of juice, I am even more tired than before. I am so tired that I can't get up. I sit there for maybe twenty minutes, during which time no less than five families ask to take my picture. I oblige them all. Even without the full get-up, I am in demand.
From where I'm sitting, I can see my chimney. The surrounding area is littered with tourists. The Salvation Army people are cleaning up. And so would I be, if I was there. But I'm not. And I don't want to go back. I had no idea how hard this would be. I thought it would be a lark, a breeze, but it isn't at all - it's work. All the smiling, the handshaking, the grand gesturing, having to be so happy and chatty, so on - how did a moody bastard like me think he could do this? So much for my Scrooge-like transformation.
So then, in what will no doubt go down as one of my worst moments, I locate a payphone, call the VOA and find myself telling the woman on the other end of the line that I can't go on, that I've come down with something and need to go home. I apologize profusely, and after she's accepted my apology, although begrudgingly, she says something to the effect that she'll have to find a way to have the chimney picked-up, that she doesn't want to leave it there all day unattended. I tell them not to bother - I'll drop it off.
As I wheel the thing the twenty-plus blocks to the center, everyone I pass waves at me. Cabbies honk their horns. Bike messengers jingle their bells. But all I can think about is what a schmuck I am. I also think about the money they've lost because I abandoned my post, money that would be used to feed the less fortunate. It occurs to me that I may have cost people meals. So when I arrive at the center, I tell the woman there that I don't want a check, that whatever I've earned I'd like donated back to them. That way, at least, they will be covered for what they would have made, had I stayed on. I also tell her that I won't be back. She nods, knowingly, as if this comes as no surprise, and then wishes me luck.
On my way to the subway, back in my regular clothes, something it amiss. It takes me a little while to figure out what it is, and when I do I'm embarrassed at the obviousness of it: no one is looking at me. No one is smiling or waving. I am once again an ordinary, nondescript soul in the city. At that moment, I miss the Santa suit.
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