Lap Dunce, Part 1

Whenever someone utters the familiar bit of treacle, "It's always darkest just before the dawn," I like to point out that, like cocktail hour, it's always "just before the dawn" somewhere in the wor

Dec 7, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Whenever someone utters the familiar bit of treacle, "It's always darkest just before the dawn," I like to point out that, like cocktail hour, it's always "just before the dawn" somewhere in the world. Where the average person sees a frisky litter of snuggly puppies, I see a swarming maelstrom of the unwormed. On difficult days when I need a break, a mental vacation, I imagine myself in a tropical paradise. Specifically, Jonestown. More specifically, in 1978.

I mention these items not to inspire an outpouring of heartening testimonials from Prozac gobblers, but to establish the utter preposterousness of my ever taking on the role of Santa Claus, the purported "jolly old elf." Yet, at one time, a woman I was deeply involved with, a woman who managed a desperately short-handed Santaland operation in a local mall, implored me, as a favor, to do just that. And I, solely out of love, accepted. Which, if there are any tender youths out there, I beseech you to recognize and digest this powerful argument against ever falling in love.

The suit, I can tell you, is not for the faint of heart. By the time I'd show up for my evening shift, the unbreathing scarlet polyester-velvet costume had been heavily sweated in by a sequence of minimum wage zeroes ("zeroes" because they'd taken this gig not, like me, out of love, but — sweet suffering Christ!

— to pay their rent). The stomach padding was fetid and disgusting, with a look, smell and feel that emptied my brain of all words except "flophouse pillow." And despite an occasional dry-cleaning, the suit's exterior was, when looked at closely, a virtual tapestry of children's oozings, emissions, excretions, droppings and expectorations — with residue of Fruit Roll-Up drool here, evidence of a poorly fitted Huggie there. To enrobe oneself in this oh-so-festive holiday garment was to be surrounded by a greater number of DNA samples than the most overworked crime lab technician.

As for the long, white wig, beard and moustache — items made of (I swear) un-dry-clean-able bleached yak hair — I can only marvel that I lived to tell the tale. It was an ugly, obvious fact that the errant hairs constantly migrating into my mouth had, just hours or minutes earlier, migrated into the foul, dank, mossy, never-flossed maws of my co-Santas. Or, worse, had been in the rude grasp of a 4-year-old germ magnet, some unwitting carrier of pink eye or lupus or cholera or penis dropoffidus. Why, I'd've been at less risk sipping tainted champagne from a rented bowling shoe.

Don't think because Santa is the beloved benefactor of the all the world's children that he operates with any great license. Hardly. Before assuming the Santaland throne for the first time, I was handed a comprehensive code of behavior to read and sign. As I recall, the three strongest warnings contained in this document were: 1) Do not greet children with "Ho-ho-ho," it will frighten and traumatize them. 2) To avoid allegations of impropriety or molestation, do not lift the children onto your lap; let them climb or be placed there. 3) After a child tells you what s/he wants for Christmas, remain non-committal. Do not promise or indicate in any way that s/he can expect to get what s/he's asked for. As I signed along the dotted, I couldn't help but wonder what, in light of these constraints, I was going bring to a child's Christmas experience that a Santa sculpted from a large, hard imported cheese couldn't.

Each shift, before the first supplicant of the evening approached, I'd gaze out over a serpentine waiting line that looked absolutely endless. Once the polyester-velvet rope fell, however, and the line got moving, that changed. Then it felt endless. So much so, I began to suspect that, after taking leave of my lap, the children were stealing off to a secret location, putting on Mission: Impossible/ Martin Landau-quality full-face latex masks and racing back into line for another go at Saint Gift Boy. Which, when I thought of it, went a long way toward explaining The Code's Rule No. 4: Do not attempt to rip the face off of any child. Of course, I eventually figured out that none of the children were actually wearing Mission: Impossible/Martin Landau-quality full-face latex masks. Which, I assure you, didn't make Rule No. 4 one iota easier to obey.

Next week: Attack of the Killer Cherubs. ©