When I was a callow youth, almost all adults were figures of ridicule. Three types, however, were special targets of my disdain.
One was people who talked to their animals. When I say "talk," I don't mean the usual stuff, like, "Here, Buddy," or "Attaboy, Spot," or even "Hey, wanna go for a ride?"
No, I'm talking full-blown discussions even a hardcore NPR groupie couldn't follow. An example: "Dang, Rascal, can you believe Gaddafi made it into Algeria just fine?" Or, "All that messing with genetically modified crops - it can't have any good results can it, Bowser?"
The next type were what I thought of as "fussbudgets" - those retentive, bossy characters who insisted everything had to be Just So: The salt shaker had to be to the pepper shaker's left. You could put milk in tea, but not coffee. If you didn't button the top button of your shirt, you were a slob.
The third group were the smallest but most annoying. They were those strange birds who loved to play Santa Claus.
Of course, the reason I found these people so ridiculous was because I was so removed from their experiences, something I'm embarrassed to say I no longer am.
Now I talk to my cat about the American obesity epidemic; I ask my dogs what they think of the virtues of legalized gambling.
When it comes to being fussy, I make a British coronation look like a Rainbow Family gathering.
And as for Santa wannabes read on.
Out of the mouths of babes
I never gave any thought to the Santa thing until very recently. Nor did I have to, since I lacked the essential requirement - a long white beard. For years my beard was short and red. Then it was short and grey. Then it became long and white.
Strictly speaking, while it became white by itself, it didn't become long on its own. Quite simply, I decided to see how long my beard could grow. Why? I thought I did it just out of curiosity, but some of my more psychobabble-endowed friends think it's due to unresolved Oedipal conflicts, repressed antisocial tendencies and other arcane things.
No matter. The fact is, the beard is here, if not better than ever, then at least longer.
But what of it? I thought the only difference it made was to be more prone to catching falling crumbs and getting caught in jacket zippers. At least I thought that till a month ago, when I stopped in Nori's.
I was walking down the ramp when my way was blocked. Standing before me was a little girl, around 5 or 6, and she was staring me straight in the eye.
Of course I've seen thousands of little kids, and have probably been stared at by hundreds, but never like that. If I had to use one word to describe the look on my face, it was "rapt."
Suddenly she spoke.
"Hello, Santa," she said softly.
I was gobsmacked.
It was apparent this was no put-on or goof. That little girl truly believed I was Santa.
But now what?
Nothing had ever prepared me for this.
Somehow, I regained my composure and said hello. Then I became a Santa Claus cliche master and asked her if she'd been a good girl. After she assured me she had, I told her, "Well, Santa will be very good to you this Christmas." Then I beat a hasty retreat out of the store.
I tried to process what'd just taken place, but couldn't. It was just too far beyond my experience and understanding. I mean, to her I was Santa. And if you can remember being that young, to a little kid, Santa is as powerful as God and a lot more real.
Finally I decided it was just a fluke and to forget it.
But it WASN'T a fluke. About three days later, the same thing happened to me in the Blue Moon with a little boy. I gave him my pat answer; he left smiling.
Then it happened the next week - twice.
And week after that, it happened in the post office. But this time it was different. The child was a little girl, again about 5 or 6 (which seems to be the optimum age to believe in Santa) who came up to me with her sister, a hard-bitten cynic of 9 or 10.
"Hello, Santa," said the little one.
And before I had a chance to say hello, her sister chimed in, "He's not Santa."
"Yes he is," said the little one. "Santa has a long white beard, and so does he."
"Well, Santa doesn't have earrings," said the sister.
I felt my hackles rise.
"You don't know that," I said.
"Santa doesn't wear sandals," she said.
"You don't know that, either," I said.
"OK," she said. "But this time of year Santa's at the North Pole, making presents."
"Oh yeah?" I said, far too waspishly for my own comfort. "Has it ever occurred to you that, just like everyone else, Santa takes summer vacations?"
My brilliant riposte stopped the little snot dead in her tracks.
Then I told her sister SHE'd have a great Christmas, and left.
Claus's kid bro
Believe it or not, after that, I had a couple more kids approach me and lay on the Santa rap. And it became a dilemma of sorts.
On the one hand, I don't want to lie to them. On the other hand, I don't want to destroy their belief in Santa. Yeah, I know Christmas has become a commercialized, materialistic Schlock-o-Ganza. But that's the adults' fault, and there's no way I'm going to make little kids pay for adult stupidities at least, any more than they have to. Which still didn't tell me what I was going to do. I only knew I had to do something.
I thought about it a bunch, and by the time I ran into my next wide-eyed innocent, I'd come up with my game plan.
This time the child was a little boy in the Grand Union.
Per usual, he said, "Hello, Santa," and I replied in kind.
Then - again per usual - he asked, "Are you really Santa?"
"Well," I said, in my new persona, "no, I'm not Santa. He's at the North Pole with the elves, getting everything ready for Christmas. I'm his younger brother."
He nodded, taking all my words as gospel.
Then I asked the standard - whether he was a good boy (he was) - and after that I gave him the expected follow-up, that Santa's good to all the good boys and girls, and since he's a good boy ...
Because it worked perfectly, that's the script I'll follow from now on.
Strictly speaking, of course, it's all a lie. But it's one lie I can easily live with.