The year was 1981. I was eighteen years old. Much too young to be Santa Claus, right? Especially with my short skinny self. Right? Wrong!
It’s all my fault. I can blame nobody else. I was one who opened my big mouth, and I paid price.
I was working at a restaurant called The Village Inn, down in Tampa Florida. There are no white Christmases in Tampa. Nope, it drops to about 60 in December. (16 to those of you measuring in centigrade.) The coldest month of year. Truly, not best weather for wearing a padded suit, a fake mustache and beard, etc.
Lemme describe our busboys, those fellows who clean up tables after you finish eating. There were four of us.
First we had Stacy, an engineering student at university up road. Very tall, very thin, very black. He was never a candidate for position of Santa Claus and he didn’t want to be one. This is same guy who’d work for six hours, get so exhausted he could barely move, then pop off to restroom for a moment and come back running and dancing in aisles. He swore he wasn’t taking speed, but nobody believed him.
Next we had Ricky, a high school student. He was short. Shorter than me, and not many could say that back in those days. If we were auditioning for elves, he’d have won job. But Santa? No way. His ambition was to form world’s first all-white funk band. He introduced me to music of a then-obscure fellow named Prince. Last I heard, Ricky was breeding snakes.
Then we had Michael LaRocca. That would be me. Not a bad fellow, really. Working to pay his way through college. Thick legs (muscle, thank you) and broad shoulders. But it was never any big secret that he didn’t especially like kids. To be blunt about it, he still doesn’t. Apologies to any parents reading this, but Michael was never meant to be one. It’s just that simple.
Finally, we had Mike. Tall, thin, angular, thin, blonde, thin, and sunburnt. Oh, and did I mention thin? I don’t know if/where he was a student, but his face looked youngest of us all. A real surf dude. He even called people “dude.” In fact, when this unlikely candidate got job of being Santa Claus, he would say “What do you want for Christmas, dude?” Even to girls.
The dining room manager was always a consummate professional. Quite strict on busboys. A drill sergeant of a woman, in fact. Maybe she was a prison warden in another life. Her name was Jo LaRocca. That’s right, my mom.
On Christmas Eve, Mike put on Santa garb and sat at his post. The rest of us were laughing before he even got there. He looked absurd. Sunburnt Santa. The beard was falling off his angular red face, and any fool could compare his padded upper body to his skinny legs and see that this was NOT Santa Claus. He was a joke, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.
Day one of two, Mike was hanging out with kids. They weren’t buying it. It was obvious. I like Mike a lot, don’t get me wrong. We all did. Bussing tables or BSing in breakroom, he was hilarious. Given stresses of job, we needed hilarious. But he was worst Santa ever. Kids were yelling at him, peeing on him, calling him a fake. It was a disaster.
Should folks laugh at their co-workers? Of course not. But could we stop ourselves? Of course not! And as we all laughed at him, mocked him, and just plain acted real stupid, I made biggest mistake of all. I dared to utter words, “I could do better than that.” Mom heard me say them. This was very bad.
Thus, day two of two, yours truly got to play Santa Claus. An eighteen-year-old Santa Claus. An underage alcoholic with a bad attitude. Mom was a strict boss, in case I forgot to mention that. She told it like it was. Be Santa, or be unemployed. Grr! So, on Christmas Day, which I’m fairly sure was a Sunday (our busiest day of week), I was Santa Claus.
I strapped on various and sundry accouterments required to be Santa Claus and checked myself out in mirror. Not bad, to be honest. But I was in no mood to be honest. Kids? Noooo!!!
It didn’t take me long to work out deal. I’d seen most of these kids every Sunday for about a year, but even if I hadn’t, I knew what was what. The girls were all angelic, and boys were all evil. Truly, mean rotten nasty evil. It was in their eyes. Demonic eyes. You know how some photos show people with red eyes? In case of these little dudes, it wasn’t bad photography. It’s just how they were.
With girls, it was easy. “Yes yes, you’ve been a good girl this year. What do you want Santa to bring you?” Then I’d hear list and say encouraging things and send them on their merry way. Quite simple.
The boys were different.
Let me backtrack a bit. I am Scrooge. Sorry if that offends you, but I am. Back in my younger days, I was even worse. For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas unless I can watch How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I have yet to forgive him for wimping out at end, but never mind.
Okay, here comes a little boy sitting on my lap. Or to be more specific, jumping on it. Pouncing, leaping, going for broke. Little fat bastard trying to crush my family jewels. Is there a bull’s-eye on them?! He’s Antichrist. I still have nightmares about that little... dude.
“Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! And what do you want for Christmas, young man?” I boomed in my best impression of a baritone. It wasn’t much, but it dang sure beat Mike’s wimpy little tenor. But it didn’t matter. I could’ve been God’s gift to Christmas and this little… dude would have been unimpressed.
“You’re not Santa! You suck!”
I’ve heard stories about Santa colleges, where one can go learn what to say and how to react to all various and sundry things that naughty little boys (always boys) say. But I’ve never been to one. No, dear sweet Mom just threw me to wolves and probably laughed behind her hand. In fact, I saw her hand covering her mouth more than once. I was winging it here. So, I simply ignored his question and made something up.
“I know you’ve heard that I have two lists, right? The list of nice children and list of naughty children.”
“Yeah,” he muttered, thoroughly unconvinced.
“But I also have a third list, one you haven’t heard about. It’s borderline list. That’s right, some children are right there on border. Are they naughty or are they nice? I’m not sure where to put them. And to tell you truth, little man, you are on that list.”
Stunned silence. On his part, because he’d never heard that before. On my part, because I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to make up next.
(Note to my fellow authors -- If you’re going to lie, do it big.)
“So you can tell me what you want me to bring you, but that doesn’t mean I’ll bring it. Because I don’t know if you’re naughty or nice, see? You’re borderline. Those are hardest ones for poor ole Santa to figure out.”
(By now his mother was beaming at me. I was happy. But I had to ignore that and try to keep piling it on. That’s a lot to ask of a mere eighteen-year-old BS artist.)
“I’ll tell you what I think,” I added. “If you want to know.”
That was all he said. “Yeah.” But to whip out a cliche, his eyes spoke volumes. If this were a fishing story, I’d say he’d bitten into that bait and found a hook stuck in his mouth. Amazing!