by ERTEL GRAY
edited by ANDREW HICKS
I was a Department Store Santa during the hectic Christmas season of 1995. Value City was the store. For years, it’d held prime position as the face of the Lycoming Mall in Pennsylvania. Catering to the “low-income/useless crap on the cheap” demographic, Value City operated under the name “Gee Bee’s” before someone (presumably in a cheap suit), stood up in a board meeting, and said, “Look, we want to offer our customers value. Yet we want to imply that this is no mere store. So… Value Hut? Value Sovereign Nation? ValueTownXpress? Mmm…. how about Value City? Besides, what the fuck is a Gee Bee anyways? Do we really want our customers to associate our name with the song ‘Nights on Broadway’?”
The work wasn’t bad, really. I got stuck in the household accessories department, which — oddly — was filled with massive, massive amounts of African-themed knickknacks, vases, tribal masks, and so on. I was verbally reprimanded for being culturally insensitive for cracking a remark (to a black coworker, no less) along the lines of, “You got it lucky, dude. You work in the shoe department. Apparently, I wandered on to the set of Roots.” The black guy thought it was funny. My boss, Mr. Wunderlin (irony?), didn’t.
Wunderlin, around the time the entire store became a Winter Wunderlin (ha ha!), approached me to ask if I’d take on the assignment of Value City Santa Claus. My qualifications? I was slightly chubby at the time, white, and maybe just had a little “too much” dignity at the time. For six hours a night, I was forced to sit in a chair in a sweaty costume, getting groped by children with sweaty, sticky candy-cane hands. These little angels would yank at my fake beard, while I braved the time bomb that some kid would either, a) piss or shit him/herself on my lap, b) vomit profusely, or, c) all of the above simultaneously. It was as close to hell as I could be without actually going to hell.
I was issued the costume, which consisted of a hat, a fake beard that smelled like linseed oil and a pair of furry red pants and matching coat. I suited up in the men’s room and began practicing my script (yes, there was a fucking script). To be honest, I didn’t look that bad. I was chubby but not quite “bowl full of jelly” obese. I looked like a Santa who’d been held captive by Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs for 3 months. As the great wordsmith Mr. Wunderlin put it, “Yeah, I mean you’re fat, but you’re not ‘Santa fat.’” Fuck you, Mr. Wunderlin! I didn’t even bother to change your name when I wrote this. Asshole.
His solution was to strap a decorative pillow from the home furnishings department around my waist with the MacGuyver-esque use of a back brace. Problem solved. Say hello to Lumpy Santa Claus.
Wunderlin sent me out to the mall’s center court to study the mannerism of the official Mall Santa. The Mall Santa was Broadway; the Value City Santa was off-off-Broadway. I had to stand around Santa’s Village for hours in street clothes, studying Mall Santa’s subtle nuance as he asked an endless stream of lap-sitting children what they wanted for Christmas. Picture the parents of these children, noticing a loitering solo male who looked like a cross between Eddie Vedder and a Nintendo Magazine ad. I’m suprised I didn’t end up on the sex offender list.
My script was as follows: “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! Have you been good this year? And what would you like most for Christmas this year?” Then you’d do your photo op with the kid, slip the kid a candy cane and greet the next kid. By the second day, I threw my script out the window. I was in full-blown improv mode. I was in the ZONE! My natural ability to develop a rapport with the younguns made me a hit. I was Jokey Santa. I used this to my advantage. Why? Two words why: Single Mothers.
A sample conversation:
ME: I think that Mom should join in on this photo with us. What do you think?
KID: YEAH! C’MON, MOM!
MOM: Oh well… I guess… okay, what the heck!
ME: That’s the spirit! You’ll get a candy cane too, Mom!
ME: Ho ho ho… It sure is Mom, it sure is.
The rest of the days leading up to Christmas Eve were a cocktail of every disgusting bodily fluid and odor imaginable. I got pissed on, farted on, drooled on… and that was just the mothers! Yowza! During one kid encounter, my Santa beard, was yanked off my face so hard the elastic snapped. A Value City lackey was immediately dispatched to the crafts section for a bit of twine. By this point, my white Santa beard had taken on a slightly pinkish hue, due to the amount of candy-cane hands constantly pawing at it. One of my boot leggings split up the side and had to be repaired with black electrical tape from the hardware department.
So that’s my tale. Value City went bankrupt a few years later and is now a Burlington Coat Factory. And out there somewhere, wandering the malls, looking frantically for the latest “craze” toy, there is a whole slew of those children of 1995 who grew up to be adults with children of their own. And they will take the new generation to see a severely underpaid Santa at some shitty department store, trading in his last remaining scraps of dignity for the utmost honor of getting pissed and farted on by a giggling 7 year old.
Fuck you, Mr. Wunderlin. Just, fuck you.