When I was 16, I went to work for the Philadelphia Vision Center. My primary job was going throughout the neighborhood, putting flyers on people’s porches, in their screen doors, in their mailboxes (against the law), and in their hands. For this service, I was paid $5 an hour under the table, a rather handsome sum in 1992 for a high school junior who had never had a real job before. And the job was easy at first, the walk throughout the neighborhood invigorating, the conversation with people interesting, and the flyers pretty much took care of themselves. But after a couple of months, people were tired of seeing me. If they were going to come to the Vision Center, they had already done so, and if they weren’t, I was the last person they wanted to see coming. Then there were the dogs on the lawns who barked at me like they wanted me for supper, so when it got to be December I was so excited when the boss called me into his office and offered me a change of pace.
“I noticed how tall and strong you are,” he said to start, and I knew he was heading somewhere exciting. “And the guy we had last year isn’t coming back this year,” he continued. I was totally hooked by then. “So we want you to be Santa Claus for us this year,” he finished. By that point he could have told me he wanted me to sell Tootsie Rolls to senior citizens and I would have taken him up on it, I was so bored with my daily route (I called it my daily rut). I jumped at the chance, and top it off he said he would pay me extra for every person I brought in to the shop, whether or not they purchased glasses. I could just see the money rolling in.
So I suited up, all 6 feet 3 inches of me, in a bright red velour outfit with white sleeves and suit trim. The conical hat was a bit snug on my large head, even though I had shaved myself bald for just the occasion, but it sort of fit, and that was good enough for me. The major problem, I noticed from the start, was the mustache and beard. It itched like crazy from the moment I put it on until I took it off again. No one tells you about how much it itches, so much so that I had to keep taking it off and scratching my face (that was very pretty when I would have to go home for the night with my face bright red where the beard had been). A pillow for my belly (I was quite thin) completed the ensemble, and I wore black sneakers instead of the classic boots because the boots that went with the outfit were way too small for my monster sized feet. I was ready.
The first day they gave me my bag of flyers and sent me out in front of the store. Now, just to give you the picture of the avenue, it was pretty congested, with a corner drug store, a check cashing place, and an inner city department store right in the vicinity. That brought the traffic, and I was supposed to direct that traffic into the Vision Center so I could get paid. So I walked back and forth in a five-block radius wearing the hot suit, the fake belly, and the itchy beard, screaming at the top of my lungs, “Ho Ho HO,” and hoped that no lady took offense, handing out my flyers to anyone who would pause long enough to see why a tall black man in a Santa Suit was in their neighborhood. And for the first few days, I did direct more traffic into the store, if just for pure curiosity’s sake.
Now, that was only the first part of my new job, however. The second part was that every hour, on the hour, I had to return to the store, head to the side room, and take photographs with the children of the people I had wrangled into coming to the Vision Center. This tertiary part of the job was probably my favorite because, 1) I got to come inside and sit down for a few minutes, and 2) I got to listen to all kinds of crazy requests from kids wanting all kinds of things their parents could probably never afford. The kids spanned all kinds of ranges, too, from as young as one, to as old as thirteen, and all ethnicities, from Chinese to Puerto Rican, and from white to black. They would all sit on my lap, I would ask them the standard questions, and then we would both pose as my temporary cameraman (they paid him under the table too) snapped a shot with a Kodak camera that the kids could take home as witness of their rendezvous with Santa Claus. And every once in awhile one of the little denizens would tug on my beard, which would hurt. Then I got to head back on the strip to drum up more business.
One story always sticks in my head when I think back to that year when I was Santa, and it happened in that side room when I was on my photography break, listening to kids waxing eloquent about how good they had been that year, and how much they deserved the world in return. There was this one kid who was sitting, waiting his turn, who kept looking at me strangely. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, a small black kid with a mini-fro and Converse sneakers. I remember the kind of sneakers because I wore Converse too at the time. When it was his turn, he came over slowly and sat down on my lap, like all the kids before him, but instead of talking up his merits, or requesting astronomical things, the conversation went this way instead:
“Santa ain’t black,” he told me, point black, as he stared me down. I was quite taken aback by this kid, but I answered as quickly as I could.
“Yes, he is,” I said, the first thing that came to mind.
“Nuh unh,” he said. “Santa is some old white dude.”
“That’s what people want you to think,” I said, “so the real Santa can chill here at the Vision Center without being disrupted too much.”
“But you ain’t even wearing boots,” he said, the little lawyer. “Everybody knows Santa wears boots.”
“The boots are getting cleaned,” I replied, almost smiling. “By the elves.”
“That ain’t right, man,” he continued, shaking his head from side to side and still staring me down.
“Yeah, it is,” I said, starting to get annoyed. “Now what do you want for Christmas?”
“I want a dog, but my mom says it’s not gonna happen,” he said, still shaking his head dubiously. “You gonna make it happen?”
“Well,” I began, “it’s tough when mom and dad don’t want a pet in the house. Only so much that Santa can do.”
“See, I knew you wasn’t the real Santa,” he nearly shouted in my face. But I had had enough of it.
“Look, kid. I’m the real Santa. Now you want a picture with me or not?” I said, barely raising my voice. He looked at me, all steely eyed, then he looked down at my sneakers one more time, paused, and opened his mouth. I had to admit I had no idea which way it was going to go.
“Okay, man. Let’s get this picture done,” he said in his ‘little man’ voice, and that’s just what we did.