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The best Santa story ever

Here's the best story you'll read this Christmas season. It's written by the great Dan Barry of The New York Times:


December 16, 2007
Working the Santa Shift (and Hiding the Tattoo)
WILMINGTON, Del. – Two o’clock; lunch break is over for Santa A. Claus and his wife, Dolores. They take their seats beside an artificial fireplace and pretend once again to nestle in their cozy living room, somewhere between a Foot Locker and a Kay Jewelers.

Their first visitor, 9 weeks old and the size of a fruitcake, is carefully placed on Mr. Claus’s considerable lap. The baby greets him with a display of spittle. A helper working behind the camera shakes a jingling Elmo doll to draw her gaze, but the baby is being a baby about it. Click.

“O.K.?” Mr. Claus says. Then, with a gentle roll of his chubby fingers, he beckons the next in line for a photo op and some brief catching up that, when stripped of its forced seasonal cheer, comes down to this:

Santa: “Long time, no see. Staying out of trouble?”
Child: “Yep. Or trying to. Heh-heh.”

What a strange ritual it is to go to a mall expecting to find Santa Claus, as if, in the crazed weeks leading up to his annual night of fleeting relevance, he has nothing better to do than loiter outside Macy’s, inhaling the blended aromas of a Sbarro’s and a Cinnabon. What a risky ritual too: depending on the mall, your excited children might encounter a Santa who leaves you frantically trying to remember whether Charles Manson has been paroled.

He hasn’t; Merry Christmas.

But at least this Santa, plying his merriment in this mall-like-any-other-mall, the Concord Mall, has the requisite look. He is 67 years old, stands 5-foot-4, weighs 242 pounds and always takes care to shield that anchor tattoo on his left forearm (oh, those Navy days) from the eyes of the innocent. He’s not Popeye, after all; he’s Santa.

Really. He had his name legally changed years ago, and proves it by whipping out his driver’s license — he wore red for the photo — and grabbing his framed birth certificate from a fake windowsill. Both say: Santa A. Claus.

“Dolores!” he shouts, holding up the framed document. “Put that back up on the windowsill.”

Mr. Claus, a mall Santa veteran who has worked the Christmas season here for nearly 15 years, learned long ago how to infuse the magical into the mundane. The other day, for example, one of the wee ones soaked Mrs. Claus’s Christmasy skirt. Mr. Claus says this has never happened to him in his many years as the Jolly Old Elf, then adds, “They know not to do it to the real Santa Claus.”

“Thanks a lot,” mutters Mrs. Claus.

The 2-to-5 shift is a steady stream of smiles, sobs and that singular shyness rooted in abject terror. Mr. Claus handles every situation with sweet patience — because, he notes, he and Mrs. Claus work for the mall and not for the contractor who sells the photos, a company called SantaPlus.

“The picture shouldn’t be that important,” he says. “To have a child get hysterical just for the sake of having a picture, that irritates me no end.”

Other things that irritate Santa: a lack of manners, cellphones for children, and those who say there is no such person as Mrs. Claus.

The Clauses, married so long that they are now great-grandparents, have been clocking 13 hours a day, six days a week, since the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Even their lunch and dinner breaks are public events, with customers invited to join them for lunch on Tuesdays at Burger King, or maybe dinner on Saturdays at China Express. Oh-oh-oh.

As for the number of children who sit on his lap every day, Mr. Claus does some quick calculating: three minutes a child, though he moves things along when the line has snaked all the way to Macy’s ... Three hundred a day? Maybe more?

Here is another one, a boy who smiles angelically at Elmo but then rubs his eyes. Click. He smiles again but closes his eyes. Click. Smiles again but looks away. Click.

“Good enough,” his father says. And the boy clambers off the white-bearded stranger’s lap. But who, really, is this white-bearded stranger?

Five o’clock; dinner hour for Santa. He sits back in his green sofa — behind which he stores “Keep Christ in Christmas” car magnets, $7 apiece — and explains how a guy from Eastern Pennsylvania became Santa A. Claus.

Twenty-five years ago he was driving a tractor-trailer for a living, hauling items like Mrs. Smith’s frozen pies, when a car accident laid him up for a year. He gained a lot of weight, grew a beard and began to look like Orson Welles during his Paul Masson, we will sell no wine before its time, period.

Soon he was having a beautician bleach his dark hair white (“Dolores, who did my hair the first time? Come here.”), which enabled him to land Santa gigs at local malls and got him to thinking about changing his name. Another Santa, Santa C. Claus from upstate New York, passed along some advice that he still recalls:

“Do not say that you are Santa Claus. Use a middle initial and become that man. You can’t lie to the children.”

What can you say about a man who has set aside his own identity for that of a mythical character? A man who is raising reindeer on his property “up north,” in rural Pennsylvania? A man who now has the responsibility — the burden, really — of constantly meeting the outsize expectations of others?

Perhaps this: It’s a living.

Mrs. Claus is pushing him to eat his slice of pizza and drink his Diet Coke. People are beginning to gather on the other side of the ropes, including a woman and a child now peering into his living room.

Santa calls out to them, sweetly but firmly, “We’re closed until 6.”

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”

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