(This is the second in a series that will appear occasionally, leading up to Christmas. The first part is here.)
The biggest problem with being a mall Santa in a downtown shopping centre is the people who spend their days there.
I’m not talking about the shoppers and the employees. I mean the people who park their asses in the food court five minutes after the mall opens and stay all day, nursing cups of coffee and carrying on with whatever they’re not supposed to be doing. This mall was like that. Back then, people could still smoke indoors in Ontario, so the food court was a grey-clouded wasteland of empty lives, its regulars sitting at orange molded plastic tables and chairs, arguing, sneaking booze into their Pepsi cans, dealing drugs on a very small scale and all in all just hiding from life.
Some of them would occasionally wander, or stagger, past Santa’s Workshop. For the most part, they treated me as an interesting diversion, and with good humour. Once in a while, one of the hookers would come sit on my knee and flirt a bit, and I would stay in character, and everyone would have a good laugh. It has been my experience, after all, that people at that low end of our food chain tend to be the most genuine, and good company on a limited scale.
One morning, during the first week on the job, a couple turned up at Santa’s Workshop with their little boy. It was about 10:30 a.m., and Mom and Dad were completely smashed. The reek of liquor was like a plasma in the air around them; it was clear they were still going from the night before, or maybe the week before.
And they had this cute little guy with them. Maybe four years old, big dark eyes, scrabbly hair, dirty clothes … and a winning smile. The elf and the photographer greeted this little family; Mom and Dad said no to the $10 photo package and shoved the kid at me. “Just tell him you want the free fucken colouring book,” the mother growled.
The kid crawled onto my knee. Mom and Dad stayed back a bit, but I could still smell them. My elf, a high school girl, was visible distressed. “So, what can Santa bring you for Christmas?” I asked my new young friend, knowing the odds were good that he wouldn’t have a Christmas tree at all, and if he did the only thing under it December 25 would be a passed-out friend of his loser parents.
“Can you bring my mom a nice ring?” this kid asked.
I was taken aback. “Don’t you want some nice toys?”
“Yeah, but my mom needs a ring,” he said again.
Well, there’s the spirit of Christmas, I thought. I’ve already told you how the spirit had filled me up when I started doing this, and now it was clear I wasn’t alone. I wanted to rush down to the department store on the main floor and buy every toy on the shelf for this kid. I wanted to bring him home with me to play with my own son, who was about that age. I just wanted him to have a real Christmas.
But before I could say anything, his mother staggered up, laughing. “He isn’t even the real Santa Claus!” she shouted. And she grabbed my beard, and she yanked.
Now, remember that I glued that puppy on. With spirit gum, which doesn’t come off easily. So when she pulled it hurt, almost as much as if she had pulled my real beard. I yelped, an Irish-accented Santa yelp, still in character. The beard didn’t come off. Mom stumbled backward. And this wonderful little boy looked up at me, beaming, and said “He is! He is the real Santa Claus!”
And I was.
I still wonder what happened to that kid. He’d be in his late teens now, or maybe even 20. I can imagine that he didn’t have much of a childhood, and I hope he’s okay, but I spent a lot of time reporting in the courts and I know where kids like that end up.
But wherever he is, I hope he has at least a slight memory of the year he met the real Santa Claus.