A seamy side of Santa Claus

Kevin Cowherd

December 07, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

There's a certain tradition involved in taking the children t see Santa that should not include, it seems to me, Santa firing up a Winston.

It's probably also considered bad form for Santa to be seen talking on the phone with his bookmaker, although that is apparently what we saw the other day.

To recap, the whole ugly business began when my wife and I sat down and thought: What can we do to make our lives as hellish as possible in the next couple of hours?

Suddenly it came to me: We'd take the kids to the mall to see Santa. After all, it was Saturday, which would maximize the discomfort level of the whole experience and just about guarantee that the place would have all the calm of an open-air market in Marrakesh.

Sure enough, when we arrived, the line in front of "Santa's Workshop" stretched halfway to Pennsylvania.

It was an incredible sight: babies wailing, toddlers whining and throwing themselves on the floor, school kids punching each other, exhausted parents eyeing the chaos with that numb, thousand-yard stare you'd see in men who did two tours of duty in Vietnam.

As the line inched forward, it dawned on us that Santa was about 18 years old.

Not only that, but he had that just-out-of-Betty-Ford look: dark circles under his eyes, pallid complexion, trembling hands, etc. Picture a young Axl Rose in a Santa outfit -- that's what we were dealing with here.

"Santa has a black mustache!" our 7-year-old squealed at one point. "You can see it when his beard moves!"

"Well, this is one of Santa's helpers," I said, neglecting to mention that this particular helper had probably escaped from a local chain gang.

Standing there in line with nothing much to do, we decided to watch how Santa worked the crowd.

From what I understand, department store Santas have undergone a good deal of sensitivity training in recent years.

There is to be no more loud ho-ho-hoing on Santa's part -- apparently it scares the bejeezus out of the kids.

Santas are also cautioned not to promise the little monsters anything. If, for example, a kid asks for Super Nintendo -- which costs as much as a Rolex -- Santa is supposed to remain encouraging yet non-committal. Which is a hell of a thing to pull off, it seems to me.

Anyway, this particular Santa seemed to be following both guidelines to the letter. Not only wasn't he ho-ho-hoing or promising the kids anything -- he was mumbling in such a low voice that the children could barely hear him.

Finally, after what seemed like several hours, we were ushered into the presence of the great man himself.

The 7-year-old jumped up on Santa's knee and proceeded to list everything she wanted for Christmas, starting with Totally Hair Barbie and ending with, if memory serves, two weeks in Aruba.

The 18-month-old, however, wanted no part of Santa. As soon as we put him on Santa's knee, he started screaming as if someone had hacked off his arm.

This seemed to unnerve the young Santa, who now had that deer-in-the-headlights look.

So we had the photographer snap a quick picture of the happy trio and then we beat it out of there before Santa became completely unhinged and started babbling in tongues.

"Santa didn't say too much," the 7-year-old said as we walked away.

"I don't think he was feeling well," I said, not wishing to get into the whole business about what detox can do to one's personality.

So there the story would have ended, and we would have never found out about Santa's vices -- except we decided to wander around the mall for a while.

About an hour later, we were taking the kids to the rest rooms when suddenly the door to the mall's security office swung open.

And there was . . . well, you're not going to believe who was taking a break in there. There was Santa, feet up on a desk, pulling a pack of Winston's to his mouth and talking on the phone!

I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he was scribbling something on a piece of paper, which was probably the line on the Redskins-Giants game.

Well. Luckily, the kids didn't see this whole Santa-gone-to-seed tableau, as the door quickly swung shut, no doubt leaving Santa to bark: "Gimme 200 bucks on the Redskins."

After that we hustled the kids out to the parking lot, before they could be treated to the sight of Santa stumbling out of a liquor store with a fifth of Wild Turkey.

You talk about not being able to find good help anymore.

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