by John Del Signore
The P.A. system at Saks played a twenty-minute loop of holiday music, providing ample opportunity to fall in love with each of those timeless classics again and again. And then again! Have you every wondered how many times you’ll have to hear ‘Holly, Jolly Christmas,’ ‘Feed the World’ or ‘Hark! The Bells,’ before you can die? Well, put on some coffee because I’m living proof that you’ve got quite a bit more “Oh by golly have a holly jolly Christmas! This year!” to go.
I would zealously sing along to try and drown out the voices in my head. My favorite was the immortal Burl Ives classic, ‘Silver and Gold.’ Whenever ‘Silver and Gold’ played, Santa would sing and dance through the aisles, tossing candy-canes in the air, venting his joy to the world.
Silver and Gold, Silver and Gold, everyone wishes for Silver and Gold!
How can we measure its worth?
Just by the pleasure it gives here on Earth!
Occasionally a child would approach me with a request so adorable I became suspicious that a Chock Full ‘O Nuts commercial was being secretly filmed without my consent.
The most memorable wish came from a five-year-old boy. He only wanted one thing from Santa: Keys.
“Keys for a car?” Santa asked.
“No, just keys,” the boy said.
When the 30-minute break arrived at last, Santa would dash through the cafeteria like Regis Philbin, advocating Holiday Cheerfulness and flicking candy canes at employees eating their lunch.
I would usually grab an egg salad sandwich, a big bowl of frozen yogurt and another Big-Gulp half-filled with ginger ale. In lieu of paying at the cash register, Santa would just smile and spread the cane around.
Back in Santa’s little storage closet I would rip off the damp beard and fat suit and hunker down in my underwear to enjoy my sandwich and add Jack Daniels to the ginger ale. That finished, I’d inhale the frozen yogurt to lower my core temperature before re-entry.
The second set typically featured Santa loosening up and letting his hair down a little. This was also when the trouble started.
By the time I reached the last hour of my shift, I’d be on the main floor yelling above the din, in a delirious fever: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas, everyone! Merry CHRISTMAS! Help yourself to anything you want in the store! Tell the cashier Santa said it’s on the house!”
One morning at the end of week two, I got a phone call at home from Kathy at the temp agency, just as I was leaving for work (and struggling to stuff a new bottle of Turkey into my coat pocket).
“Hi, John, how are you!”
“I’m really great, Kathy! I’m really enjoying working with everyone on this project,” I said.
“John, that’s great! Listen, I’m calling because Patricia said reports are coming to her that you’ve been stealing food from the cafeteria. Is that true?”
“I just assumed that lunch was one of the perks.”
“No, I’m afraid there’s no such thing as a free lunch, not even for old St. Nick, ha ha!”
“It’s customary for lunch to be provided for the talent,” I tried. “What kind of amateur Punch n’ Judy show are they running over there?”
Well, if that was how they were going to be, then fine, Santa would just have to drink his lunch on an empty stomach. So instead of swinging by the cafeteria on my break, I would proceed directly to Santa’s Little Betty Ford Clinic and toss back a few.
“Yep, just you and me,” I muttered to my elf helper, Al. “You and me, Al, and Santa makes three! Can’t count on anybody in today’s crass consumer culture. I am the friggin’ Reason for the Season! But! We are going go out there spread the cheer, Alfred! You’d better not cry because Santa is here, you over-privileged acquisitive brats! Al, hombre, can you zip me up?”
Either nothing significant happened again until the third week, or I blacked out. I have no idea. By some miracle, I never found myself regaining consciousness on the F train at Coney Island, my Santa Suit caked with vomit. But it could have come to that-at best-if they hadn’t terminated Santa first.
It is important to remember that during the year 1999, New York had reached the nosebleed nadir of Rudy Giuliani’s “Quality of Life (for whitey)” campaign. Already that year he had promised that street vending would soon be illegal, gatherings of more than twenty persons would require a permit, and homeless people would be arrested if they refused to enter the city’s filthy, crime-infested “shelters.”
I personally had spent more than 24 hours in jail, and had been charged with felonies for climbing up on a crosswalk sign during a demonstration protesting the acquittal of the four police officers who killed the unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, in the doorway of his building, by use of 41 bullets.
Also I had been arrested for putting up posters for a free concert on a temporary construction wall already covered with posters.
So, sometime about a week before Christmas, I was wandering through the fifth floor, just minding my own business, tossing candy canes to the masses, when I came upon a man with his back to me. Hearing my jolly exhortations, Rudy Giuliani turned to meet his Santa.
I proffered cane and spoke the first inoffensive comment that occurred to me.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Well, Rudolph, you’ve been a very naughty boy this year!”
Mr. Mayor sneered and took the candy cane without saying a word.
As I watched him shuffle away, I momentarily pitied the guy. He had been taking a beating in the press! He had to face protesters who compared him to Hitler.
And now even Santa hated him.
Inevitably, while doing my shtick later on the main floor, I was approached by an unctuous man with the air of middle management about him.
“Listen, my friend,” he said, “I’ve been watching you and we’ve got to have a little talk. Basically, I need less improv and more Ho-Ho-Ho out of you.”
I was insulted. Infuriated. There I was, pouring my heart, soul and sweat out day after day-without one single note of appreciation from Saks-and then this anonymous critic, who didn’t know a thing about the process of creating a character, had the arrogance to interrupt my performance and give me notes?
“Well, young man,” I said, “you’ve got to let Santa be jolly in his own way.”
“No,” he said. “I know what I want. I’ve been getting some weird comments about some things you’ve been saying. From now on, I want you to stick to Ho-Ho-Ho and Happy Holidays, and I want it loud and cheerful. That’s it.”
“Young man, let me explain something to you,” I said. “When children come to see Santa, sometimes they’re afraid, and if Santa is too loud and boisterous, they start screaming and even crying, and nobody wants that, right? So you’re just going to have to trust old Santa’s judgment when it comes to the volume of his voice and the level of his cheer.”
Without responding, he turned and seized the telephone from the information desk. I could see him ranting, presumably about me. He would receive his lump of coal someday, I thought-the hot, steaming coal of hell.
When I arrived home that night, there was a message on my machine.
“Hi, John! This is Kathy from Final Solution Staffing! Listen, John, I don’t know what happened, but the client called me today and told me you don’t need to come back tomorrow! They said there were complaints that you were asking women to ride in Santa’s sleigh? I told them you must have been misinterpreted, but they wouldn’t believe me! I don’t know what to tell you, John! I feel terrible!”
Less than a week before Christmas and they laid Santa off. Without even a severance plate of cookies. How was I supposed pay my rent? To buy a present for my kid brother? Who would spike the egg nog?
The Corporate Overlords who owned Santa’s fat ass could not care less, and I was cast down into desperate financial straits. The next day I made the rounds at my temp agencies and was told things would be dead until after the New Year.
But it was on my way home, waiting for the F train at 14th Street, that a way out of my impending indigence appeared before me. Take heart, unemployed masses of today! There’s always money to be made in self-employment! Particularly, money to be made on subway platforms, standing immobile, with your face painted, wearing a silver unitard and holding a placard. As long as you don’t mind the occasional $50 ticket or a night in the tombs.
John Del Signore is currently employed by Gothamist.