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Holiday Guide Feature

Bad Santa

Tales of a Reluctant Mall Santa

Smell of Steve Inc.

Holiday Guide 2006

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Bad Santa Tales of a Reluctant Mall Santa | By Travis Dunn

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Ho. The City Paper Annual Holiday Calendar

By Travis Dunn | Posted 11/15/2006

The kid's list was 10 pages long, word-processed, single-spaced, stapled. The kid wasn't making a request. He was placing an order. He wanted video games, he wanted gaming systems. The kid tore right through the list. He fumbled words he didn't try to correct.

I was a rock star, I was a god, I was Santa Claus, and this kid didn't give a fuck. He didn't believe in me, and he had told me so. He knew this annual recitation for what it was: a tedious but necessary formality.

This was December on the isle of Alameda in the San Francisco Bay. It was an outdoor mall, and the elfhouse, which lacked air-conditioning, was cooled by a tiny electric fan. Temperatures were well into the 70s.

Santa was soaked in sweat. Santa was shaking. Santa had hit the Night Train a little too hard the night before. Santa had smoked a roach for breakfast. Santa was choking down bile and trying not to puke into his fake beard. Santa tried to ignore the kid and concentrate on the soothing sibilance of the electric fan. The kid's litany went on and on.

A head popped in through the elfhouse door. An adult was attached to the head. No children were attached to the adult.

"Hey, Santa," the head said as the kid kept right on with his list. My elf apparently wasn't paying attention.

The company paid the elf to take pictures, sell pictures, and do crowd control. But my elf was yakking on her cell phone. Santa made a made a mental mark on his shit list.

"Hey, Santa," the guy said again.

The kid stopped reading. "How about world peace?"

The elf was paying attention now. She waddled over and prodded the smart-ass with a candy cane. His head retracted through the doorway. The kid on my lap was puzzled. "Never heard of that one," he said.


The magnates of commerce and industry do not hand out mall Santa sinecures to reward model citizens. I was not hired for that job in Alameda because I was a well-adjusted, upwardly mobile young professional. I was a fuck-up. I had made poor life choices. I was a loser.

I lived in squalor. I was fired from shitty jobs. I moved around a lot. I slept on couches. I once woke up with my head in a cat litter box. I hitchhiked. I grew partial to fortified wines. My high-school graduating class had voted me "Most Likely to Succeed."

I worked as a mall Santa twice--once in Alameda, in 1999, and again in Laurel, in 2003. The first time I was underemployed as an office temp. The second time, I found an ad in The Sun (the ad didn't mention how far away the goddamn mall was from Baltimore), and I was hired on my qualifications from the first job--I hadn't been arrested for child molestation. Just before this second stint, I had been fired under rather unpleasant circumstances. The fact finder's report for my unemployment compensation hearing, which did not go in my favor, included unflattering terms such as "unreliable," "unpredictable," and "unstable." I was just the kind of guy you would want around your kids.

It was nearly Thanksgiving of 1999 when I found the ad in The Oakland Tribune. On days without temp work (most days), I began the morning with coffee, cereal, a cigarette, and the classifieds. I circled ads and wrote down numbers and addresses. I made calls in between reading snatches of Wilhelm Reich's Function of the Orgasm. When I saw the Santa ad I knew I had found a life-fulfilling career that would last me about a month.

Nick (let's call him Nick) answered after the first ring.

"You've got a deep voice, which is good. Nothing worse than a soprano Santa," Nick said. "It's a goddamn good thing you called. I was getting worried about that mall over in Alameda, had a black Santa over there bail on me last night. I need a warm body in that suit in three days. You don't sound black, but I couldn't give a shit at this point. It's a pretty mixed crowd over there, and this is California. You could be a goddamn Galaxian for all the difference it would make. Meet me at 10 tomorrow, and we'll see how you look suited up."

I was incredulous. Was this really all it took.

"What the hell you want?" Nick asked. "You think this is the casting department at Warner Brothers? You need a job, I need a Santa. You like to fuck kids? Got any felonies? How tall are you? What do you weigh?"

"No, no, 5-foot-8, 155," I said.

"That's perfect. Not a pervert, not a criminal, not a giant, not a dwarf. You're a little skinny, but that's nothing that a few padded vests can't fix."

"But," I stammered.

"You like kids?"


"You have any?" Nick asked.


"Even better, they'll be a novelty, won't want to smack them as much. Ever had a kid piss in your lap?"


"It's no big deal. That's the worst that can happen to you, and I promise it won't happen very often. You're white, right?"

"Right. White."

"White is OK. Santa was originally white. Can you be here tomorrow at 10?"

"Yes, sir."

"Let's hear your ho."


"No. Ho ho ho," he explained.

"Ho ho ho," I mumbled.

"That's good. Work on the resonance a little. You've definitely got the voice for it. See you tomorrow."

"That's it?" I asked, still unsure about the ease with which I was being awarded Father Christmas status.

"Look, all they see is your eyes," Nick explained. "That's all that matters. It's all in the eyes."


The dressing room was an empty store littered with fake white wigs, fake white beards, several suits of jolly red clothing, and assorted Christmas paraphernalia. Nick, unsmiling, was staring directly into my eyes.

"I'm staring directly into your eyes and I see Santa Claus," he said. "You've got a twinkle in there, and that's what counts. The glasses are a little too hip. Can you see with them?"

"Christ no."

"Take them off," he demanded, so I did.

"What am I holding up?"

"A blob and some colors."

"Forget it. Wear them. Let's get that suit on."

My long hair didn't matter. I stuffed it in a hair net, and the long white wig covered up the rest. My dark beard stuck out all around the fake Santa beard, but whatever stuck out got grease-penciled white. My eyebrows got grease-penciled, too.

"You're pretty scrawny. Let's throw on two of those padded vests," Nick instructed. I put one on the front and one on the back and pulled the red coat on over them. Santa was now pear-shaped and kind of lumpy. There was no padding, however, for my legs, which swam in the clown-sized pants.

For boots, there were these cheap pullover things with no bottoms. They made my feet look like they were melting into the ground. These fake boots were the least convincing part of the costume and they didn't completely cover my shoes when I walked.

"Walk around. Let's hear your ho," said Nick.

I walked around and gave him my best "ho ho ho."

"OK. Now when you're in that suit, you're no longer you. You're Santa. That means you talk like Santa, you walk like Santa, you think like Santa. To those kids out there, you're a rock star, you're a god. Remember that. You're Santa Claus. They've been waiting all year for you. Don't disappoint them."

"I won't sir. Ho ho ho."

"That's what I'm talking about."


I was not always a very jolly elf, but I think I was good at faking it. Anyway, people laughed at me.

There were people, cruel people, who sometimes made comments about Santa's scrawny legs. I had two stock responses to this taunt: 1) Santa practices Tae Bo (Santa would demonstrate), or 2) Santa takes Metabolife (Santa would point to the Metabolife cart in the mall). Neither of these stock responses squelched the occasional nasty remark that Santa was a crackhead.

In the Alameda elfhouse, music was compulsory. The elfhouse had to be continuously filled with Christmas music. If Santa didn't keep the tape deck humming, Santa got yelled at by the mall manager. Santa's hangovers verged on involuntary emetic episodes during those first few days, thanks to selections such as Alvin and the Chipmunks Make You Tear Your Eyes Out by the Roots Christmas Album.

I pulled together Christmas albums by Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, and Elvis Presley. These albums kept me somewhat sane and prevented vomiting. When "Merry Christmas, Baby" came on, and if the line was empty, sometimes Santa would dance. In Alameda I was known as The Dancing Santa. One time, I tried skipping rope, but my wig nearly came off.

In Laurel, the situation was more grim. There Santa was denied the sanctuary of an elfhouse. He had no boom box. Right in the center of the mall, he was stuffed into a chair in front of a Christmas tree that reached two stories up to the glass cupola, and he was forced to listen to syrupy Christmas selections that sluiced out of the store stereo system. Santa was not quite as happy here. In Laurel, Santa did not dance.

Every morning Santa woke up half-drunk in Charles Village, walked past the corner where he had recently been mugged (Guilford and 30th), and then tried to remember where he had parked his Tercel, which had recently had its rear windshield smashed out. Then Santa would fight his way out of the city and begin the drive in earnest, since Santa's sleigh was generally running behind schedule. It was not unusual for Santa to hit 90 mph on his drive to Laurel.

Santa also made the mistake of trying to pick up women at the Laurel mall. Sometimes these flirtations would begin in costume, which was awkward and generally distasteful to the women who were confronted with this unsolicited behavior. Other times I would try out of character, but the conversation would always turn to what I did for a living. Much to Santa's surprise, women did not seem to have any respect for an able-bodied young man who got paid to let kids piss on his lap.

And then there was the children. Don't think for a minute that I don't like children. I realize that I didn't mention them much, but that's because Santa can't remember much about them. What did they want for Christmas? Santa doesn't remember, and Santa doesn't give a shit.

But I do remember the shriekers. They comprise a distinct class of kids who are too young to understand the concept of Santa Claus. They have no idea what the hell is going on. All they know is that Mommy is forcing them toward a freakish stranger who hasn't had a haircut or a shave in several centuries. These kids are instinctively smart enough, however, to realize that there is something inherently sick about the entire process, that there is good reason to be terrified. They understand that anything could be lurking beneath all that fake hair.

So these kids would shriek, and they were generally quite loud. They began shrieking once they had passed some invisible barrier about three feet beyond Santa, as if Santa himself radiated a force field of pure terror.

Santa would see, on average, at least one shrieker a day. Shrieking became more common as Christmas approached.

I like kids, and that's why I look back somewhat fondly on the job. But I don't like adults very much, mainly because they generally don't understand children. The mothers of the shriekers would sometimes push past the force field of terror, shove those kids into Santa's lap, and use a series of wrestling holds to pin the kid down for that special family photo. Mom always got her picture, that memento of the trauma that has scarred her child for life.

I remember the shriekers at the Laurel mall the most clearly. In Laurel, the shrieks of primal fear would ring out in the great open space at the center of the mall, beneath the two-story plastic tree above us. Passers-by would gawk at the flailing, kicking kid, as the uncompromising mother would hold that shrieking kid down until the pictures came out just the way she wanted them, which was God-awful.

Moments like that, which would sometimes last an interminable 10 minutes, impressed upon me my own godlike nature as Santa Claus; these were the moments that felt the most like genuine human sacrifice. But mostly these moments were merely painful--most often to my eardrums, but also, on occasion, to my testicles.

Related stories

Holiday Guide Feature archives

More Stories

Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

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