Here's another exanple of good APA writing we're happy to give new life to. This article originally appeared in SFPA more than three years ago; its author is perhaps a recognizable name for fanzine and convention fans, and has been involved in fandom first in New Orleans and since 1978 in Phoenix, where the following events occurred.
- - - - - - - -
Adventures of a Shopping Mall Santa
by Don Markstein

I don't know when I had the idea, but it was some time of the year when Christmas seems very far away. I finally got around to mentioning it to GiGi around the middle of November, and she encouraged me to call around and find out how one goes about becoming one. A week or so later, I actually reached the point of calling a local mall, which gave me the number of a Kathy McNulty, who handles such things for them.

Before I continue, the Snarling Villain in me insists I say a few cynical words about Santa Claus. Very well. Several years ago, in FreFanzine (the anarchist apa), Richard Onley made this observation (disclaimer: I haven't looked up his words; these are mine):

Children live in a world of terror. They are ruled by people of immense power (relative to themselves), whose rulings may not be questioned and whose motives can only be guessed at. Anger and frustration are their constant companions. But they know that at the end of the year (if they're good) a benevolent old man with a long white beard, who lives in a bright, gleaming land far, far away, will give them everything they've ever dreamed of.

And when they grow up, they still live in a world of terror. They're still ruled by people of immense power, unquestionable rulings and unfathomable motives. Anger and frustration still abide with them. But at the end of their lives...

Richard prefaced this by stating that the Santa Claus myth is a lie, and that if lying to children is wrong then it's wrong to tell them about Santa Claus. I don't entirely share that point of view, but the parallel with the organized religion lie gives one pause, and when you put it that way, it's hard to answer.

Anyway, I called this Kathy McNulty, and on the third try found myself speaking with a personable but very rushed woman who, for 15 years, has done Santa Claus bookings for shopping malls in seven Western states. She didn't have time to interview me properly, but there was a 15-minute period during which we could meet at a mall in the neighborhood if I could make it there at just the right time.

I was there. I took the unusual approach of telling her all the reasons nobody should ever hire me for anything, then convinced her she should anyway. Personally, I think an honest job interview should deal with the reasons the person shouldn't get to take the job, but this is the first time that's ever worked.

The interwiew ended with my asking her, just out of curiosity, what she does the rest of the year.

illo by Alan Hutchinson "Easter Bunnies."

Of course!

That was Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving. Friday, I was off to Santa School -- and it's a good thing I hadn't put off making the call one more day, because I must have been just about the last person she hired.

Santa School covered about what you'd expect it to cover if you ever gave the matter any thought at all, which I'm sure you haven't. What to tell the kids, what not to tell the kids, what the kids might tell us, how to deal with a surprising variety of problems that might come up, the names of the reindeer... It was lots of fun, but like the honest job interview, made mention of possible negative aspects of the job.

In fact, one guy said at lunchtime that he'd been scared off by warnings of shin-kickers and such ("Why didn't you bring me what I asked for last year!?"), and wouldn't be taking the job. Too bad for him -- I'm not so delicate that a kid is likely to inflict any real damage before my helpers could whisk him away. (And for the record, I didn't get kicked one single time.)

One thing that surprised me was that we were never to admit, under any circumstances, that we were anything but the real, bonafide Santa Claus. Now, when I was a kid, that standard answer to how Santa could be in so many places at once was that these were actually just his helpers, and that the real Santa was busy at the North Pole, planning his trip and supervising the manufacture of toys. That seems okay to me, because it doesn't conflict with either that legend or the rules by which the universe is constructed, which even a child knows. But that pat answer wasn't good enough -- the job is to convince the kid that you're the One And Only (or at least make him prove that you aren't).

One guy there said he'd been doing it since his kids were that age, continued through the grandkids, and now has great-grandkids. He described one encounter with a reporter -- he was asked his name, questions about the mall he was in and various other things. He said he was Santa Claus and would answer only Santa Claus questions (I live at the North Pole, I bring toys to good girls and boys, I have eight reindeer and their names are... ), and he simply refused to be shaken from his story.

So okay, if that's the job then that's the job. Very early on I was asked by a 7-year-old how I can be in two places at once. "Oh, don't worry," I said. "I manage. Why, do you have any idea how many places I have to be in at once on Christmas Eve?" Not perfect, but it left her without any logical basis for refutation, at least not one she could think of before I sent her on her way (which I did gently but quickly).

At home, I figured it was okay to admit the truth. I explained to our daughter Kelly that I'd taken a job as Santa Claus's helper, and would be having occasional phone dealings with Santa's agent. My job would be to impersonate Santa at shopping malls.

I "impersonated Santa" at two different malls. This was apparently a fairly common practice -- of the other Santas I talked with in the course of business, about half did the same. For some reason, at one mall it was a deep, dark secret, even from the women playing "helpers", that this was done. At the other it was talked about by everyone. I never did figure that one out. There were other differences between the two malls in their approach to the Santa Claus operation, but that's the one that stands out the most. There are even more differences in the characters of the malls themselves.

Metrocenter is the biggest mall in town -- in fact, offhand I can't think of any I've ever seen that's bigger, though I'm not what you'd call an authority on the subject. Two stories, five major department stores, hundreds of little shops, alleys, byways, and of course an ice skating rink. Metrocenter is the first place in Phoenix I saw Dragon's Lair.

And crowds! Migod, the crowds at Metrocenter! Everybody shops there -- it's big enough to draw people from... from... well, none of you know the suburbs of Phoenix, so think of it, in New Orleans terminology, as drawing them in from LaPlace to Slidell. And if you drew people in from LaPlace to Slidell, what you'd get would be... well, let's call it a cross-section of the population. You see many different types of people at Metrocenter.

Not so at Paradise Valley Mall. This is the only shopping mall -- and one of the few commercial enterprises of any kind -- in the Town of Paradise Valley, a suburb of low population and high per capita income. In L.A. terminology, the Town of Paradise Valley wants to be Bel Aire to Scottsdale's Beverly Hills. Paradise Valley (the mall, that is) is posh, but not as posh as Metrocenter. It's big, but there are several malls in the area that are bigger. The shops are high-end, but most are also represented elsewhere in town. Its merchandise is no less tacky, but a bit more expensive as is common in shopping malls. Altogether, it's a nice package, as malls go, but not designed to attract people far from its immediate area, at least not in a city like Phoenix.

Which means that the crowds are thin at Paradise Valley, and the people in them are well-heeled. Relatively fewer blacks, Mexicans, Indians, and other population segments that are under-represented in the Town of Paradise Valley. It's a less hectic, less tense place all-around than Metrocenter, but also less alive. Add to this the fact that I always seemed to hit Metrocenter on the busiest days -- weekends, the Friday before Christmas, never a school day -- and you will see that I found it altogether easier to maintain my Santa-like serenity in Paradise Valley than in Metrocenter. But I enjoyed visiting Metrocenter a lot more.

A week after Santa school, that is, the day after Thanksgiving, there I was at Metrocenter, sitting on a throne set in a prominent spot in the mall, smiling and waving at kids and inviting them at sit on my lap. If I behaved that way at a schoolyard, I'd be arrested... if the cops got there in time to save me from the parents.

Surprisingly (to me), that was one of the busiest days of all. I guess everybody figures to beat the crowd by rushing out as soon as the season opens. Or maybe going out that day is the only way you can get a Cabbage Patch Kid, but anyway, there was a lot of people out Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

My very first client presented a problem. She was already on her second visit -- Metro jumps the gun on the other malls by starting Santa the Monday of Thanksgiving week -- and the first guy whose lap she'd sat in had told her a secret. My helper had overheard her mention it while I'd been out checking on my reindeer (which I usually did right around shift changing time), and warned me about it as I sat down.

Oh, I was so clever about it. "Didn't I tell you a secret when you were here before?" Yes. "Do you remember what it was?" And to prove she did, she repeated it to me.

I suppose I should be pretty smug about pulling myself through that one without planting any suspicions... but then I remember what Richard Onley had to say, and I wonder if using my superior adult deceptive abilities to trick information out of a child is really something to be proud of. The secret? Oh, some tawdry episode involving Rudolph, as I recall. Nothing you'd be interested in, I'm sure.

Not all of my conversations with kids were so interesting. In fact, the vast majority of them were downright boring. I'm afraid there were times when I failed to instill the conviction that this was just the most personal visit anyone had ever had with Santa Claus; and there were other times when the feeling of spontaneity and personal warmth was transmitted only by dint of superior effort. It came to sound like broken record at times... but a jolly broken record.

I'd usual1y start by asking the kid's name, especially if they were coming up more than one at a time (common when siblings visited together). Then it's "What do you want for Christmas?", listen to the list, make standard comments about the various requests (optional), tell the kid to keep on being good (I've been watching and I know he's been good so far) and I'll see what I can do about that list (never promise), here have a coloring book (some Santas give candy canes, we gave coloring books), see `ya Christmas Eve, `bye now.

illo by Alan Hutchinson Once, after a string of routine visits, I was starting to get a bit glassy-eyed. A little girl came up and sat on my lap. I asked her name, and she replied, "Kendra." Now, that's a fairly unusual name, so I blinked, looked at her again, and sure enough, it was Kendra from down the street, one of Kelly's playmates; and there was her mother looking on. Another time, I had the daughter of a local fan on my lap. In neither case did they ever suspect who it was behind the beard.

Oh, by the way, don't name your kid Jennifer or Jason, at least not if you want every kid in earshot to turn around when you call the little darling. John and Mary are both out of fashion, but it seemed like every other kid was named Jennifer or Jason. Kelly is another really popular one this generation -- wish we'd known that before we named our Kelly.

If I could pick up a name from bits and pieces of overheard conversation, that was very much preferable to asking it. It's a nice touch to have Santa Claus greet the kid by name.

Of course, sometimes it would backfire. During a slow period at Paradise Valley one day, I had my feet kicked up and was busily occupied waving merrily at passers-by (I claimed to be able to get a smile out of anybody whose eye I could catch, and 9 times out of 10 I delivered). "Come on, Bob!", I heard from one side. "Santa is free right now." Next thing I knew, this guy was holding a young boy up to me.

I took the kid onto my lap, saying "Hi, aren't you Bob?" To which the father said, "I'm Bob. This is Mike." I shook his hand. "Hi, Bob! Hi Mike! I'm Santa Claus!" Well? What would you have done?

There were lots of embarrassing moments like that. Most came from questions, such as why did I have that black moustache underneath the white one?

That one was easy. I dye it, and those are the black roots showing. Not particularly believable, but either they were young enough to want to believe whatever quasi-plausible story I came up with, or they were old enough not to have believed anything short of an outright admission of fraud. (So, why do I dye it? So the beard on my chin will be as white as the snow, that's why.)

I said back there that I'd make the standard comments on various parts of the kid's list. It was optional but I always tried to do it so that I'd know I was actually listening and not just processing kids through my lap. The conversation was mostly rote, and I considered it important to make the kid feel conversed with. It wasn't hard to come up with those comments, because I came to know the toys pretty well.

letter to Santa For one thing, the season's expected hot sellers were covered in Santa school. It figures, right? I mean, You can't have an intelligent conversation about a toy unless you know what the toy is, eh? Of course, there wasn't much Santa School could teach a kidvid addict like me -- why, I collect toy commercials on videotape! Anyway, in visit after visit over the span of a month, I came to know some of those toys with stupefying intimacy.

Of course, there were some kids with unique requests, too. Like the kid who wanted a voodoo doll, so he could do terrible things to his parents. I sympathize, but as a parent -- and as Santa, I'm afraid -- I couldn't approve. As relieved as I acted when he admitted he was only kidding, I still felt like a turncoat inside.

For boys, top sellers were (neck and neck) Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe. Both of these are sets of a stunning variety of separately-sold characters / figures that can be posed, moved around, and put through a myriad of wonderful adventures. Masters of the Universe was based on a syndicated Satmorn half-hour; G.I. Joe on an overly-promoted comic book out from Marvel which features predictable militaristic assholery. For girls, well -- Cabbage Patch Kids and the Strawberry Shortcake series have made remarkable inroads, but Barbie was still Numero Uno.

When they did ask for Cabbage Patch Kids, I'd get so sad... I'd explain in this really remorseful tone of voice that my toy production facilities up at the North Pole were swamped with orders for them, and I probably wouldn't be able to fill them all, and I'd try real hard, but please don't be too disappointed if I can't make it. As the season progressed, I had to start giving the same spiel for Care Bears, another disgustingly popular commercial product. Most would nod understandingly, but some did so while obviously fighting back tears. I guess Santa must have been their last hope.

When I told GiGi about that routine, she suggested that I add that there are lots of other toys that they can love just as much, and I'll see what I can do (never promise) about bringing one of those. I liked that suggestion, because it put across the idea that commercial hype isn't what makes a toy good. So I started doing it, and it went over pretty well.

letter to Santa It was mostly the older kids -- 5 and up, approximately -- who asked for commercial products. The 3- and 4-year-olds had more of a tendency to want "trucks" and "dolls". 2-year-olds' desires were more generic yet -- most of them just wanted "toys". I got kids younger than that (all the way down to 12 days), but if they wanted anything at all they didn't say so.

Why would a kid that young want to sit on Santa's lap? Well, they didn't, actually. In fact, some of them were rather emphatic about not wanting to sit on Santa's lap. It was the parents who wanted a picture of it, and as I mentioned earlier, it's more what the parents want than what the kid wants that determines what the kid does.

Oh, did I mention that the helpers' main function was to take pictures and collect money? Well, it was. Disgusting, isn't it? But that's what makes the sleighbells jingle! Of course, Santa's lap was available free to those who just wanted to visit, so it was really okay.

So I got some kids who were too young to appreciate it themselves. A fair number of them were pretty reluctant to be delivered over to a pair of eyes peering out of a ball of white fuzz, and were not at all shy about saying so. (In fact, I am chagrined to report that we failed entirely to get a picture of our other daughter Rachel sitting on my lap, and got Kelly only on the second try. [I should also report that Rachel was extra-nice to me at home -- I suspect that's because she smelled Santa Claus on me.])

And I also got some people who were entirely too old for Santa Claus, but for whatever reason wanted pictures of themselves on his lap. They were fun. Like an actor assuming a role, I would never step out of character. (I'll get back to that idea of an actor assuming a role later on.) Like the other age groups mentioned back there, the too-old crowd had their own pattern of Christmas wishes. They tended to be quite extravagant, along the lines of ears, houses and celebrities. I took everything seriously, and would never even suggest that I might be dealing with someone who didn't believe in me.

illo by Alan Hutchinson "Oh, a Hot Wheels Corvette! Well, I might be able to manage that." "Would that be a Barbie house or a Strawberry Shortcake house?" "I could put a note in his stocking." "A real one!!? I don't know if I'll be able to fit that on my sleigh!"

Grown-ups ask for the darndest things. A few good ones were:

The granny-lady who wanted a trip to Tasmania so she could visit her descendants instead of just sending them a photograph. I said maybe I could drop her off wtren I make my rounds.

The young adult who wanted a naked Tom Selleck doll. "Life-size, right?" "No, bigger."

The stoned teen-ager who wanted a bong, a couple of hash pipes and a kilo of Maui Wowie. I made it clear that Santa Claus doesn't deal in grown-up toys like that but wished her a Merry Christmas anyway.

And as they left, of course I cautioned them to be good, and that got some amusing snickers. And of course I made sure they got their coloring books, which got a good response also.

In fact, on two separate occasions, I was asked by an adult to autograph the coloring book. I was delighted to sign the name "Santa Claus". The first of them was from Scandinavia. Apparently, he couldn't bear to pass up this quaint Americanism.

letter to Santa Then there were the two guys who looked through the coloring book and found a picture of Santa checking his list, and -- lo and behold -- there were their first names, right together on the list. I was not slow in taking credit for the coincidence -- I had them together on my list because they were friends.

I also got in some good zingers with adults who were just there because they'd been brought by their kids. Like the lady who tried to distract the kid from how scary I was by pointing out the cover of the coloring book (which showed Santa in the toy shop, wearing an apron): "Look, that's Santa when he's not working." "No," I said, "that's me when I am working. Today, I'm making a shopping mall appearance."

One kid screamed, pulled on the beard, and, just before being placed on my lap, shit in his diaper. Yet, the picture showed me with a jolly smile on my face. "You have the patience of a saint," his mother told me. "I am a saint," I reminded her.

That one reminds me -- I didn't work December 6, St. Nicholas' Day. Grrr... Another special day I didn't work was Christmas Eve.

Computers were big that year, as one might expect. Lots of 6- and 7-year-olds wanted computers, mostly for game playing but also in some cases for education. The motivation isn't important, of course -- even the most hardened game player can't help being educated if the machine has any non-game ability at all, and even if it doesn't, what the hell, video games are good for kids (a minority opinion, but one that I'll defend if need be).

Some younger kids wouldn't mind having computers, either. In fact, I took one such request from a 3-year-old (I knew she was 3 because I asked her). None of your tawdry 1200-XLs and TRS-1000's for this kid -- no, she wanted an Apple. When an acquaintance some years ago in an apa expressed as a goal the building of a computer for his personal use, I thought he was being wildly extravagant, and look at us now.

You'll see some of the requests mentioned above repro-ed here. They are all authentic, as I'm sure you've guessed. Hardly a working day went by that I didn't pick up two or three of those things, which I never failed to praise as an aid to ol' Santa's memory and always was careful to bring home (a very common practice among Santas). And it wasn't just letters, either. The kids would draw pictures, tear out ads in magazines, all sorts of stuff. I had one kid give me an apple and another a cookie. There were several little perks like that to the job.

letter to Santa My favorite is one that I consider a reward for service above and beyond. On one of my highly-cherished days off, during which I had the usual innumerable things both business and personal that had to get done, I got a call from the Santa Supervisor at Metrocenter. The guy who was supposed to go on was suddenly so sick he was swooning, and a whole Kindergarten class was waiting.

I rushed over, got dressed, and was bouncing kids on my knee within 20 minutes of getting the message. A couple of hours later, his system was purged and he was feeling well enough to finish the shift. But during the time I was there, I received from a very young child the list shown here [at left]. Santa Claus, at least, should have no trouble reading it, though you poor mortals may see nothing there.

I don't want to convey the impression that it was all sweetness and light. Santa has his dark side, of course. As a matter of fact, on two or three occasions, I actually went so far as to threaten to bring someone a lump of coal, which is absolutely the nastiest thing Samta Claus can do. This threat was reserved for hecklers, usually in the low-to-middle teenage bracket, but once I went so far as to make the threat to a 9-year-old who was trying to pull my beard off. He didn't act impressed at the threat, but he did stop pulling the beard.

I said something back there about telling the "truth" at home. Yeah, I told Kelly that I went in to the shopping mall and impersonated Santa, but it didn't seem to have been clear in her mind what I was doing. We suspect that she thought that in some mystical way I actually became Santa Claus. In a sense, she was more right than you'd be if you said I just put on a suit. Somebody made an apt analogy to a story that came from the set of one of the Superman movies. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are sitting around in costume. Kidder needs assistance with some minor thing, and calls out, "Help!" Instantly, Reeve is on his feet, strutting over to render aid. Whether the cameras are rolling or not, whether it's in the script or not -- if Lois Lane needs help, you can bet that Superman is on his way.

Many actors report the same phenomenon. When they assume a role, they act like that character whether they're reciting a seript or not. And it's the same with playing Santa Claus. I was an actor assuming a role, and I talked, acted and thought like Santa while I was behind that beard.

And like any actor, I loved my applause. I can hear an instance of it ringing in ny ear right now. The voice is that of a 4-year-old, talking excitedly to her Mom just after visiting me: "Mommy! Mommy! That was the real Santa Claus!"

letter to Santa
All illustrations by Alan Hutchinson

back to previous article forward to next article go to contents page