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Lap Dunce, Part 2

By Bob Woodiwiss · December 14th, 2000 · Pseudoquasiesque
My stint as a mall Santa was both psychologically and physically debilitating. Psychologically because I was constantly struggling to reconcile this internal conflict: If I loved the woman who ran Santaland so much that I allowed myself to be drafted into the job, why did I, while on the job, cling to the reparatory image of her severed head being baked like an apple in a convection oven? Physically exhausting because sitting on a rigid plywood throne in a too-heated mall dressed in a polyester-velvet suit, thick "fat padding," a long wig and full facial hair while attempting to contain on one's lap an endless stream of children as they wriggle and squirm and pull and punch is, if not exactly Herculean or Sisyphusean, at least Tae Bo-ean. More to the point, by Dec. 24, I was feeling Robert Downey Juniorean.

Santa's actual work duties are pretty boilerplate: Hold child. Listen to child. Send child on merry way. And that's fine. Because, it turns out, Santa's visitors are fairly boilerplate, too. In all my weeks of being a "little people" person, my lap was occupied by no more than four basic types. (I'm not talking about your child/ren, reader. Of course, your child/ren is/are absolutely unique and the refreshing exception to every rule.) These types, in descending proportions, are:

1) Wieners. These kids recognize that in order to get what they want for Christmas they've got to go through Santa. Unfortunately, Wieners use every last shred of their nerve to simply approach The Bearded One.

Once in his presence, they cannot muster a single audible word. The child's whole visit is comprised of looking at the ground, rubbing his/her face and failing to respond to a parent who repeatedly calls, "Tell him, (child's name). Tell Santa what you want." I figured my role was to say helpful things, like, "Spit it out, sport, people are waiting," and "Have you thought Judaism?"

2) Gimmees. Typically, a kid head-to-toe in branded/licensed clothes (Gap, L.L. Bean, Oshkosh, Sesame Street, Pooh, Mickey, etc.) bearing a long unambiguous and prioritized wish list. I had several kids bring in catalog pages, either to make their presentation more compelling (kind of kiddie "overheads") or to ensure Santa, old feeb that he is, doesn't screw up (you know, like last year when there was a Endocrinologist Barbie under the tree instead of a Gastroenterologist Barbie). Less a "visit" than a "transaction."

3) Wailers. These fearful children are forced to sit on Santa's lap by parents who, apparently, believe this is a season of tears, shrieks, spasmodic writhing and struggle to flight. Such blind terror is rarely seen ­ or inflicted ­ in public. Glad I could help.

4) Goofettes. High school girls (in pairs, sporting braces, school jackets, no boyfriends) and women 40-plus (one at a time, with too much jewelry, too much make-up, too much hair) who think it's cute to bust Santa's sweaty, underpaid, captive chops. Lots of giggling from the former, lots of sexual innuendo from the latter. ("Yes, that is the North Pole in my pocket and, no, I'm not glad to see you.")

Of course, the real reason Santa takes up residency in America's malls isn't to provide fond memories to tykes flushed with excitement. It's to sell 8-by-10 memories to parents flush with coin. And so, as each visit wrapped up, an elf, standing behind a camera six feet away, would try to coax a salable look and smile from Santa and die Kinder. To get the money shot, these elves (i.e., cute young women dressed in peppermint-striped tights and shorty-short green holly-scalloped tunics), would coo, cajole, entice, pucker, clap, flutter, wave, dance, spin, sway and undulate. By the time an elf's full routine had been performed, I was not only smiling, I was on the brink of shouting "Go, baby," and tucking a $20 bill in the waist of her tights. So much for my ability to distinguish naughty from nice.

At the end of each shift, Santa had to make his way back to the changing room (which was the mall office, the same out-of-the-way place from whence rent-a-cops spring and shoplifters are detained) and his street clothes. This meant a long walk through the mall, smiling at and waving to the throngs of holiday shoppers along the way. Adults smiled and waved back, called "Hello, Santa." Children pointed and beamed. To me, it was this interlude that felt the most like Christmas. Because the world seemed joyous and hopeful and generous of spirit. And I could just keep moving. ©



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