What happens when Santa goes on a holly-jolly spree of smoking, dancing and picking up chicks?
By Carl Kozlowski
DECEMBER 28, 1998: Santa Claus. The name conjures up indelible images of a man in a red suit with a white beard who barrels down our chimneys and blasts through our skies on Christmas Eve. He is also a man who has spawned more imitators than Elvis, an icon so big in the world's collective consciousness that he has wrested Christmas straight from the stigmatized hands of Christ Himself.
But Santa is also a man of contradictions, perhaps even of menacing danger. Like Big Brother, he knows when you are sleeping and he knows when you're awake. Like Ice-T, he enjoys the thought of home invasions. He loves all people yet has no qualms about working elves and reindeer harder than a Chinese dictator.
With a home on the unreachable North Pole and mysterious yet unlimited financing, it looks as if ol' Saint Nick could even be in cahoots with the CIA. And yet we still love him, even though the discovery that he doesn't really exist represents our first loss of innocence. It's not Watergate that jades us, folks, nor our first breakup with a lover. It's discovering that Santa is really Dad.
Dressed in the garb of the legend, I spent forty-eight hours on the mean streets of Chicago to see if the magic of Santa still exists for the young and old alike.
The alarm clock is ringing way too early for a man who is hungover. For a man who downed six beers and four tequila shots the night before. For a man who passed out on his couch. For a man who is going to spend the unseasonably 70-degree day in a poly-blend Santa suit.
After an ill-fated attempt at breakfast, I'm on my way to pick up the first of my assistant elves, Ben. Having been punched and spat upon during a previous undercover assignment as an inflatable dinosaur, I have steadfastly refused to hit the streets without security, or at least a witness the authorities can call upon in court.
Ben is wearing green in the spirit of Christmas, but his clothes are hipster military fatigues utterly inappropriate for an elf. He also hasn't shaved in six days; this Fidel Castro look is sure to frighten children. He tries to excuse his attire by saying he's Jewish and can't be expected to get a Christmas gag right.
We hit the road in full costume, the rogue elfin one armed with an extra belt of jingle bells and a plastic hook-hand that just seems like it might come in, uh, handy. Immediately, people yell out "Santa!", and children wave from honking cars. First mission: cigarettes. In line at the convenience store, we encounter a little girl and her mom. I say the smokes are for my elf, and that I'm very disappointed with his disgusting habit.
Dangling my day's first cigarette out the car window while cruising along an impossibly crowded Michigan Avenue, I find holiday shoppers aren't too self-absorbed to shoot a smokin' Santa dirty looks - or maybe that's the indication of a hernia induced by lugging around Crate & Barrel bags. A cabbie who looks like he's been out of prison for about two days is yelling "Santa shouldn't smoke!" at me repeatedly. None of this seems to faze the two hotties in the next car over. They're smiling, giggling and waving. Surely a Santa suit can't be considered sexy?
We're joined by my other elf, a six-foot-tall, 300-pound guy named Rod who is apparently trying to steal my thunder by donning a Santa hat - as well as inexplicable ropes of plastic gold chains. The jolly old Mr. T thing is confusing, but I have a feeling the kids won't even notice: he's also brought along a plastic bag of Beanie Babies to hand out. I tell him to hop in, 'cause we're heading to Hooters.
Before you condemn us for patronizing such an unwholesome institution, realize that lunch at Hooters was a bold compromise with the editors who wanted photos of strippers giving Santa lap dances at the Admiral. We also restrained ourselves from handing cigarettes to children in lieu of the Beanie Babies and avoided picketing stores with our "Santa's On Strike! Get Your Own Crap This Year!" sign. So a couple hours spent leering and cracking innuendos is fairly innocent in the big scheme of things. Outside we're accosted by a limo driver who wants a photo. Inside, we're met with the fame Santa deserves: heads swivel, women cry out "Look! It's Santa!" There's even a smattering of applause.
Our waitress is a Hooters'-typical blonde who goes by the oxymoron Speck, and who looks like she's alternately amused and embarrassed by having to serve us. In the course of an hour, we down Hooter Burgers, baskets of fries and a pitcher of Leinenkugels while people stare. There's even families here, and the parents scowl at me for setting a bad example. I scowl right back. They're the ones who brought their rugrats to this culinary jigglefest in the first place. As Rod holds mistletoe over my head, I get a kiss on the cheek from Speck while a table full of Navy guys on shore leave goes nuts. I exit Hooters to a thunderous round of applause. A couple of tables even give me a standing ovation. That's more like it.
We've just hiked all the way to Marshall Field's, creating a traffic jam of gawking fans. I'm hoisting the "Santa's On Strike!" sign, along with ones saying "Will Deliver Toys For Food" and "Reindeer Flew Away. Need Change For Plane Fare." But it's my fourth sign that proves to be the most useful, as I round the corner and come face-to-face with a street preacher who just happens to be singing "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." When the tune changes to "Jesus Christ Is Coming Again", I leap in front of him and execute a shuck-and-jive dance that would make the Blues Brothers proud, waving my "Please Donate Change To Make Us Stop Singing" sign like a strip-tease boa. I'd like to say the crowd went wild, but they really just looked confused. The preacher never caught on. Fearing that Marshall Field's security will call police, we headed over to the Daley Center plaza to march our signs under the official city Christmas tree. We realize that this is a bad move when Ben notices the mile-long line of kids waiting to see the city-approved Santa - and that some parents are starting to point their children toward me. This should have triggered an identity crisis of metaphysical proportions in the children, but without even a hint of doubletake, dozens of munchkins are toddling my way. It's up to Rod to fend them off with the promise of Beanie Babies, but it is only now that he informs me the bag holds just two of the fuzzy holy grail. We toss 'em at the approaching three-foot-tall army and run like hell.
Avid gambler Rod lives up to his "Imabad Elf" moniker by luring me into the Off Track Betting outlet on State Street. As I cram my dollar into the admission-fee box, the guard begs me not to go inside. "Santa shouldn't gamble," he pleads. I choose not to bring up his own naughty-and-nice status and head upstairs, where everyone yells out their own witty variation of "Santa, bring me some luck in the fifth race!" Can't explain why it is, but the first lump of guilt weighs heavy in my bowl full of jelly. Maybe there truly are some places Santa doesn't belong. High-tailing it back outdoors, I literally and figuratively feel the need for a shower. Ben the elf can't take any more embarrassment, so Rod and I have hop on a Michigan Avenue bus to Water Tower Place by ourselves. The driver looks utterly amazed as I pop my $1.50 into the money slot, but he still doesn't spare Santa the indignity of paying. I make a mental note to drop him a lump of coal this year.
Rod and I try to act as cool as possible while fellow riders stare, and a couple of kids ask where my sleigh is. Ignoring them, I stick my red-clad arm out the window and high-five people every time the bus stops. Tourists are chasing us with their video-cameras, and flashbulbs are popping faster than a Princess Diana car chase. We reach our destination, and as the doors swing open I step into a crowd of screaming children. So this is how the Beatles felt getting off the plane in America for the first time. I shake my belly and say, "Yo ho ho! Ride the CTA!" before entering the mall.
Rod and I draw a crowd kicking back in a pair of vibrating massage chairs at The Sharper Image. I would insert a couple of jiggling-like-jelly jokes here, but in my hungover state my belly feels more like an acidic volcano ready to erupt all over the front window.
Five minutes later, we're stuck on an elevator with a dozen senior citizens. Before you can say "Metamucil," I'm leading them in a boisterous, off-key rendition of "Jingle Bells." Triumphantly rejoicing, we emerge to a round of dropped jaws, and the oldsters continue to follow me like I'm the Pied Piper until a security guard grabs my arm.
"Excuse me, sir. Are you the Food Life Santa?"
"Are you the Santa for any other store?"
"No, I'm the real, uncommercial Santa!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but you're gonna have to leave. We can't be singing songs and jingling bells around here."
He leads me to the elevator, waits until the doors close on us and has another guard greet us at ground level. I feel utterly dejected until a group of teenage girls swarms me like I'm one of the Backstreet Boys and beg me to take a picture with them. As soon as the flash goes off, I'm pushed outside by the security guard. Grinch.
At this point a little hair of the dog seems in order, and so we stop into a dive liquor store on State Street to gauge the clerks' reactions. Even after making a full pass of the store and contemplating whether to purchase a bottle of Brass Monkey or Night Train, we don't catch so much as a glance from the employees. They've clearly seen it all.
After heading home for a brief steam-cleaning in my shower and a couple hours of sanity, I'm on my way to a 600-person, Catholic parish Christmas party atop the Harold Washington Library. Rod has been replaced by Mike, tonight's all-purpose chauffeur/bodyguard. While I beg him to spring for a garage, the cheapskate insists we're perfectly safe parking at 8th and Wabash. On the painful hike to the party, we encounter two screaming winos in battle.
"I swear on my mother's grave I'm gonna kill you!" one screeches, waving his bottle in the air like a deadly rapier. As his rival squeals, "I'm not gonna die for some chick!" I slip on the pirate-hook hand to make myself look tougher and drag the elf across the street.
A group of guys huddled in a parked car call out, "Hey Santa! Want some crack?!" Screw this; Santa's taking a cab.
Sweeping into the swank marble ballroom on the ninth floor, we are greeted like a pair of emerging debutantes. Before we got here, more than 600 people decked-out in their holiday finest had been engaged in proper, stifling conversations about business deals and relationships; maybe five of them were dancing to the strains of the cover band onstage. The party livens up when I'm grabbed by some outta-control mama ready to shake it. Merry Christmas, lady, your wish is granted. Suddenly I'm swarmed by hundreds of strangers in search of a kitschy photo op. Over the next two hours and nineteen minutes, I dance with twenty-three women - easily besting my lifetime record. One chick grabs me from behind, runs her hands over my stomach and says, "I'm Jewish, but I've always loved Santa. If my boyfriend wasn't here, I'd ask you to convert me."
Ho ho ho.
Amidst the hub bub, one girl named Maria has particularly caught my eye. We've danced a few times tonight, but now, with the party over, we're exchanging numbers as her undoubtedly skeptical friends stand to the side, keeping an eye on things. The moment would be really cool and romantic if I wasn't wearing such a stupid suit; then again, it never would've happened if it wasn't for the stupid suit. She asks me to take her on my second day's adventures, and I can't believe my good luck.
I ring up my newest elf, Maria.
"Hope you're not being naughty this morning!" I croon. Heh heh heh.
"Oh, you must be that Santa guy. I'll get Maria."
Plans are made to meet at noon, but first I've got to pick up Rod, my elfin third wheel. Soon enough, the three of us are on our a mission to find out "If A Guy In A Santa Suit Make It Through O'Hare Airport Security?" Approaching the checkpoint at Terminal 2, I concoct the backup story: we're here to meet my little nieces from an incoming United Airlines flight. In reality, my goal is to hug total strangers as they unboard. Surprisingly, we're not stopped on sight, and are allowed to pass through the metal detector without question. Nonetheless, my belt buckle makes the buzzers go off like an air raid siren. I offer to remove it, but the guards apparently fear that my trousers will drop and instead order me to step aside for a security-wand check. Arms outstretched, legs apart, they scan my entire body and ascertain that I am carrying no terrorist weapons. I'm still afraid that they'll invoke their right to arrest us for making a joke of the process. Meanwhile, Maria is also undergoing an extensive search, repeatedly ordered through the detector. Finally, they find the jingle-bell belt under her sweater, while Rod swoops around with my camera, its flash scrambling the X-ray machine's screens. We're ordered to move on.
As we trek authoritatively through the terminal hallways, passengers seem to think that we're official airport employees spreading holiday cheer - a notion no doubt helped along by the personal escort we get from the woman driving a golf cart for the feeble. Hopping aboard, we whiz through the crowded corridors, singing carols and high-fiving people at fifteen miles per hour. One guy gets slapped so hard he drops his coffee. Back on foot, we try to hug a few people, and surprisingly, they comply. Tots cry out for us, and Rod's ready with a fresh supply of Beanie Babies. As he awards one to an 8-year-old boy who looks like he stepped out of a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV-movie, the tyke smiles and says, "I believe in you." My throat actually catches for a moment. Suddenly, I don't know if I'm gagging on the sickly-sweet sentimentality, or choking back real tears.
Gun World, here we come.
I've already contacted the Bensenville-based firing range as an average citizen via phone and learned what it takes to get my hands on a gun. We have to fill out paperwork for a background check, and photos will be involved. They're just not expecting us to show up in such festive holiday attire.
"You can fill out the paperwork, but really, please don't," the clerk pleads. The state of Illinois would probably not look too kindly on a shop sending them gag photos to process. We settle for the right to pose with an assortment of air rifles and pellet guns, and wind up looking like Bonnie and Clyde on Christmas vacation. I finish by fulfilling a secret dream I've harbored ever since I watched "T.J. Hooker" for the first time: squatting cop-style and pointing a gun directly at a camera saying, "Freeze, punk!" The clerk laughs ruefully and asks us to head home. Looking around at the ample supplies of firearms on-hand, we realize the importance of staying on his good side. It's time to head back to the North Pole.
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