Thursday, December 21, 2006

Candy Canes and Pine Boughs

I've had a lot of jobs in my working life. I've been a cook, a record store clerk, and a marketing assistant. I've flipped burgers, juggled numbers on prune sales forecasts, and spent a few months entering data into a national breast implant registry. I'm currently a programmer, having mistakenly been hired by my company nine years ago for what I thought was an administrative assistant position. The human resources lady thought that was the job as well, and my boss was so happy that they'd actually let him hire someone, anyone, that he didn't bother correcting either of us. He'd wanted a junior programmer, and eventually I turned into one. It was the least I could do.

A few months prior to that lucky incident, I did some time in the Santa House at Broadway Plaza. I wore the tunic. I talked the little kids into the house and onto Santa's lap. When they were too paralyzed with fear and indecision to make it past the doorway, I'd kneel next to them and listen to their whispered, tearful wishes. "A Thomas the Tank Engine? You want me to go tell him instead? O.K., I'll be right back." Those kids, I could tell they wanted to walk up to him more than anything in the world, but there was that fear. No power on Earth was going force them one step closer. We'd see some of them in the doorway three or four times during a shift, standing their with their parents, staring into the cozy little shack, wide-eyed with huge teardrops dripping onto their shoes. You just knew that they'd walked the cold sidewalks of the outdoor mall for the past hour to work up the courage to walk in, but in that last moment it had all drained away. I remembered feeling like that when I was little, afraid and sick with longing at the same time. I didn't want any of them to walk away with that. "Santa says it's O.K., he'll talk to you himself next year. He says you're going to have a merry Christmas."

The little kids always thanked me through their hiccupping sighs. Some of them would smile while their mother or father took their picture with me in the doorway instead of with Santa on the artistically festive armchair. I got a lot of tiny hugs, which I enjoyed more than I've ever admitted. Having a bunch of three-year-olds in their adorable holiday jackets throw their little arms around me made me happy. I don't have children, and I don't want children of my own, but in those moments I felt like I understood why people do.

Of course, these impromptu hugs and candid snapshots meant no money for the Santa House, which got me into trouble with the lead Helper. "If they don't want to sit on Santa's lap, you don't have time to chitchat with them. You need to keep the line moving," she'd hiss in my ear. Sometimes I'd throw the three dollars into the register myself in an attempt to shut her up. This didn't please the hard old biddie, either. I don't know what drove her take the seasonal job at the Santa House, as she didn't seem to like Christmas or children, and she exuded no warmth whatsoever. She was happiest when she was arranging the bills in the register so that they all faced the same direction. She was like a reptile in a belted velvet tunic, a sleestack in a red Santa hat.

I didn't last the whole season in the House. I played the "my real job doesn't want me to moonlight" card and quit a few days before Christmas. Clearly, I was not cut out for fast-paced culture of ruthlessness and greed and that was the Santa House enterprise. Don't get me wrong. I understood that we weren't there entirely out of the goodness of our hearts, that Broadway Plaza Santa needs his cash, yo. Even so, I couldn't reconcile the business side with the human side. "Next year I'll find some charity that does the same thing and I'll volunteer!" And of course I never have.

But I still might do it someday, just to feel that spirit, that joy again. Who knows? Maybe I'd get to be in another Christmas parade. When that reindeer broke free and bolted for the crowd in front of Macy*s? That was holiday excitement, baby.


Anonymous said...

I'm not comfortable with the whole holiday spirit/profit thing, either. But I love your career story -- I know many, many programmers, but you're the only one who sort of stumbled into the position!

weezalana said...

I'll bet there are many, many children who remember you to this day, and always will.

I just don't understand how people like that woman can be so cold. What goes through their minds, that they can actually think screw the kids, we gotta make a buck? May she and the Santa House be struck down by rabid sleestacks on crack.

Bezzie said...

Wuah, what a sweet story only to be ruined by corporate greed. But it's cool. I know you're one of the good guys.