April 12, 2016 by genelup
It was just before Christmas in 1967 and a lot of us stood impatiently in a crooked line in front of the poky woman at the unemployment office. Yes, at age 29 I had been laid off from my public relations job in Chicago a couple months before.
After what seemed like hours, I reached the head of the line and the woman didn’t even look up.
“I need a job,” I said.
“I figured that or else you wouldn’t be standing in line,” she said, taking out a new form. “What do you want?”
“Anything. How about washing dishes at a restaurant?” I answered.
She asked my name, age, address, social security number and if I had ever completed high school.
“I have a bachelor of arts degree in journalism,” I replied to the last question.
“And you want to wash dishes?” she said, looking up for the first time.
“Yes. I’m willing to do …”
“Have you ever washed any dishes before?” she interrupted.
“At home… ”
“I mean at a restaurant,” she said.
“No. But I’m willing….”
“Then you’re not qualified,” she said, crumpling up the form.
“You should go to the unemployment office for professional people at Second Street and McDowell.”
At the professional unemployment office the woman smiled as I sat in a chair in her glass-enclosed office. I explained I had just arrived in Phoenix and needed any kind of a job to get through the Christmas season. I told her I was nearly broke.
She took my name and telephone number and said she’d call if she could find a job for me. Three days later she called.
“A Santa Claus!” I said. “You’re kidding. I’m skinny. I don’t even weigh 150 pounds.”
Well, that’s all I could find for you,” the professional unemployment woman said. “You’ll do all right. The Guardian Angel Child Care Center needs a Santa Claus for the next four evenings. Practice your ‘Ho Ho Hos’ and be there at four p.m. tomorrow.”
“You must be the new Santa,” Mrs. Alfred Johnson said when I walked in the door. She and her husband operate the center.
Half an hour later I stepped out of the washroom decked out in my floppy red Santa Claus outfit complete with big black boots. I even chalked my eyebrows and sideburns white to blend with my white wig and scratchy white beard.
“Oh, Santa,” Mrs. Johnson said. “You’re too skinny. We’ll have to get a pillow for you. Last year we had a fat Santa.”
“Well, it’s been a lean year.” I tried to “Ho Ho Ho” it off.
With a big pillow installed, I was led to the four classrooms where my 100 subjects, divided into different age groups, waited for me.
“Just be merry, say a lot of ‘Ho Ho Hos’ and ask the kids what they want for Christmas,” Mrs. Johnson whispered in my ear.
The door opened and I stepped into the classroom. Two dozen four- and five-year-olds turned and stared. Would I pass the test? TEST?
“It’s Santa Claus,” one of them squealed. They all rushed up, some grabbing my red coat and two pretty girls squeezing my hands.
“Merry Christmas, boys and girls.” I tried to boom my voice but it wasn’t too merry. I really wasn’t in the swing of things. I asked one boy what he wanted for Christmas.
“A hand grenade so I can blow you up.” He said and laughed.
The teacher gave him a cold stare: “That’s not very nice, Jimmy.” She said. But Jimmy went on shooting his toy pistol at a playmate.
Most of the kids behaved as I was led from one classroom to another. One group of three-year-olds even sang a song in my honor: “Deck the Halls.” I “Ho Ho Hoed” and waved as I walked out of the room.
For the next three hours I sat on the patio waiting for parents to pick up their children. The children would sit on my knee and I would talk to them and give them each a piece of candy. I asked one long-haired youngster if she had been a good girl. The mother informed me coldly that “she” was a boy.
Another kid said he wanted a baby sister. I looked at his mother who promptly informed her child: “That’s one thing you’re not going to get.”
Another boy asked me where my reindeer were. I told him I left them at the North Pole.
“But then how did you get down here?” the four-year-old asked.
“Well, I…” fumbled for an answer.
“Santa came in a helicopter,” the boy’s mother said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I came in a helicopter.”
Jimmy came by, refused to sit on my lap and after I gave him a piece of candy he kicked my leg.
Somehow, I got through the first night and went home. Three more nights to go, I thought wearily as I fell asleep.
When I reported to work the second day Mrs. Johnson told me she had too many complaints from parents that I was too skinny.
“This time stick two pillows in,” she instructed.
Two pillows later I was on the patio again and spent another evening with my 100 subjects.
But that night after I finished and thought all the kids had gone, I walked into the day care office and pulled off my hat, wig, and beard. Then I saw a five-year-old girl in pigtails sitting in the corner. Her mother was late. The girl stared at me with disbelief. I gulped.
“Santa is a real close friend of mine and since he’s so busy he asked me to help him out this year,” I tried to explain. “But don’t tell any of the other children about this. Let’s keep it a secret between you and me.”
She thought for a while and then smiled and said “Okay.” I wasn’t sure if she believed my story. The next evening when she came to me on the patio she squeezed my hand and I winked at her. It was our secret. I don’t think she even told her parents.
There was one little boy who, I noticed from the first day, stood off by himself. He looked sad. His teacher told me he was retarded.
On the patio during the evenings, I made special attempts to be friendly to him. At first he shied away from me. As the evenings went on he warmed up and once he even let me place him on my knee. The last night, while I was talking to several kids, the boy came out with his mother he ran up to me and threw his arms around me and kissed me.
”Santa, I love you,” he said. I almost cried.
As a bachelor, I never was around children much. But I loved those four nights playing Santa Claus.
Jimmy didn’t even bother to kick me the last night.