John Del Signore: When I Was Santa (Part One: Silver and Gold)

by John Del Signore


I was nodding off at my desk, high up in the airtight offices of Deutsche Bank, across the street from the World Trade Center, when the big call finally came through.

I had been temping at Deutsche Bank for about a month, on assignment through one of the employment agencies that used to keep our city’s offices humming with human resources. My supervisor had been out of town for the whole month, and my sole task was to take down his telephone messages and read them back when he called in. The period concluding that sentence also punctuates the full extent of my duties.

My daily routine went a little something like this:

1. Report at nine.
2. Retrieve a cup of complimentary juice from the commissary and withdraw into my cubicle.
3. Read the paper until I would catch myself falling asleep, and then walk off the lethargy by taking the scenic route to the men’s room.
4. Finish the paper in sweet, sweet “stallitude.”
5. Return to desk.
6. Read about Illuminati-Freemason-Stephen King-John Lennon conspiracy theories on the Internet. (Here you go!)
7. Check e-mail.
8. Take a goodwill tour of the office, walking one brisk lap with an attitude of business-like urgency, clutching a folder with my conspiracy print-outs.
9. Make copies for friends and masses.
10. Return to desk and read internet research about Mark of the Beast-UPC Symbol-Book of Revelation prophesies. (Enjoy!)
11. Check e-mail.
12. Catch myself falling asleep again and embark on another brisk office tour, smiling brightly and waving to my colleagues.
13. Walken’s favorite word: LUNCH!
14. Repeat process in the afternoon with added emphasis on wakefulness.

All over town there were indolent kids occupying cubicles just like mine, getting paid almost twenty bucks an hour to merely show up and behave civilly. A special lady friend at the time had a job in the Flatiron making sweet coin as a graphic designer for a major publishing house. But whenever I called her she was busy playing a simulated drug dealer game. A buddy from college had gotten a temp job “working” in the Chase Manhattan Bank Y2K Preparedness Division-but the office was just a front for running his theater company. (For years I kept a one sentence e-mail from him taped to my refrigerator: “Who knew working for the Empire would be so boring?”)

And so silent! It was unnerving, that plush seductive quiescence. I knew nothing of Deutsche Bank’s role in the harmonious new global economy; I could only assume that any business conducted with such smooth silence had to be in the service of a magnificent evil. My friends and I were just happy little barnacles gripped fast to the rolling hull of the digital economy. We didn’t care where we were going, and the officers on deck were too busy lighting each other’s cigars to pay us much mind.

The morning of the big call began like all the rest, until the cheerful voice of a co-worker lacerated my cyber-reveries.

“This pod is so quiet today!” she breezily observed to one of my pod-mates. It seems that a cluster of cubicles is collectively referred to as a “pod.” To keep up appearances, I hammered out my default ‘look busy’ sentence on the keyboard: “Whom the gods would destroy they first make complacent.” Her little remark had, as the poet sings, cut like a knife.

Indeed, I had become one of the pod people. Was it not all a bit too easy, all this pay and no work? What was the catch? Were they monitoring us, doping us with some sort of sedative in the water cooler and studying our behavior? WHY WERE WE BEING ENCOURAGED TO GROW SO SLEEK AND FAT?

The phone!

“Hi, John, it’s Kathy Dannaher! How ARE you?”

Kathy was one of the militantly upbeat young women from my temporary agency. I always mirrored her blistering enthusiasm with an equally cheery tone, tempered with just enough private irony to maintain my small illusion of dignity.

“I’m great, Kathy! Really busy over here. It’s a fun job though. Great group of people. And every Friday they bring in pizza for everyone. And each person can have as many slices of pizza as they want, and complimentary pop, too!”

“That’s great! Listen, John, I have got the perfect job for you.”

“I don’t know how it could get any better that this, Kathy.”

“What would you say if I offered you the role of Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue this Holiday season?”

“I’m twenty-four years old.”

“That’s what they want! They asked for a tall, young guy with good attitude! Bursting with holiday cheer!”

“But won’t it be obvious that I’m just some twenty-something punk in a fat suit?”

“No, you’re perfect! They’re going for a crossover audience!”

“How much are they paying?”

“Nineteen an hour.”

“Ho Ho Hokay,” I said.

I reported to Saks on Black Friday of 1999, elbowing my way off Fifth Avenue into that frothing pandemonium of over-confident consumers that was to be my place of business. The flickering Christmas lights cast a lurid sheen on the mob as they swung shopping bags at the backs of each other’s calves.

I fought my way toward the Information Desk to rendezvous with Patricia, my guide. I was struggling straight up into the heart of darkness itself. In fact, my job was to become that heart of darkness for thousands of innocent children programmed to see me as the living embodiment of Christmas. I was to be their Almighty until December twenty-fifth-granting their prayers with a pat on the head, or spurning them cruelly.

I, their sovereign lord, would walk among them, clothed in mortal rags. Who among us could turn down such power, and the nineteen dollars an hour that came with it? “Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be God,” is how it was put in Apocalypse Now.

Finally, I reached the woman whose name tag identified her as Patricia.

“Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas, young lady,” I said.

“You must be John. I’m Patricia.”

“Nice to meet you, Patricia! Have you been a good girl this year?”

“Not really.”

“Ho, Ho, Ho.”

I was already running out of juice.

“Uh, you know, “ she said, “you don’t have to be in character yet. It’s okay.”

Tomorrow: So maybe Santa drinks a little.

John Del Signore is currently employed by Gothamist.