My brother-in-law is married to Monahan's niece, so I get this gig as Santa outside Monahan's jewelry store. Good for two weeks, right up to the day. I'm on the edge of the parking lot, on the sidewalk ringing my bell and waving at cars on Atlantic Boulevard all day long in a hot red suit.
Wave and ring, ring and wave. It's not even remotely like making a living. It's more like going insane, or what someone like me, a Santa for hire, might imagine going insane to be like; a gradual, if not total loss of identity for an extended period, during which time, every gesture, movement and expression you endeavor to make represents an imaginary entity.
Plenty of time to think while I'm ringing that bell. Not that I do, much. I keep a headphone set in my beard and listen to tunes most of the time. I was doing that on Friday when the big Lincoln pulled up in the lot and wedged itself into the space right next to me. The elderly woman behind the wheel got out and walked into the store, leaving, in the rear passenger seat, an ancient old man.
I moved a step to my right when the car pulled in beside me. I could have reached out my left arm and touched his window. He was that close. I wasn't looking at him, but his shallow breathing heaved as he rolled his window down.
I knew he was going to say something. He had to. I clicked the off switch and pulled off my headset.
"Hey Santa," his voice was a croaking, whiskey growl.
I gave him back a hearty grin, rang my bell and waved.
"Hey Santa," he growled again, a raspy, edge-of-death kind of throaty whisper. I braced myself for a bad joke or an anecdote of some kind. You face these kinds of moments as a Santa, because everybody knows you.
"What can Santa bring you?" I said, grinning and waving and hoping he'd say, "Nothing."
"Help me out of this car, will you, Santa?" he said.
Fifty years ago, he might have been Broderick Crawford. He just couldn't move his legs too well anymore.
The rear hinged "suicide door" swung open. The old man sat in his bathrobe and pajamas with worn leather slippers over yellowish white socks. He looked at me without twitching either one of his legs. I had stopped ringing and waving by then and was reduced to staring. This was definitely not in the manual.
I looked anxiously at the door to the jewelry store for a moment, hoping to see the lady who had left him in the car returning, but the average length of a customer's visit to a jewelry store is at least ten minutes.
Where did the old guy think he was going to go? I didn't see any wheelchair.
"Maybe you ought to stay in the car," I said. "She'll probably be right back out."
"Just grab hold of my leg," he said. "Lift it on out."
I had the white hair, the beard, the costume. I was an icon of Christmas. I brought him toys when he was a little kid. I was ageless, timeless. Helping old men who couldn't walk get out of their cars was not part of my act.
"Ho ho ho," I said, "how about staying in the car there, Dad? I mean, where are you going to go? You can't walk, can you?"
"I can walk," he said. "Just help me lift up my leg."
I put the bell under my arm and bent down to grab hold of his ankle. I did not want him getting out of the car, so I hesitated, fumbled with my clumsy grip, knocked his leather slippers off his feet and killed a few more seconds putting them back on for him.
Meanwhile, cars are driving by and honking at me because I'm not doing my job, which is waving and ringing my bell. Instead, I'm half on my knees, bent over, leaning into an old man's lap, pretending to assist his ill-conceived effort to get his legs out of the car.
Some smart guy snapped a picture as he drove by. They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
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