Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yes, Monterey, there is a Santa Claus

Mervyn's Department Store, Monterey, California... 1990. My dad had taken my brothers and I to the mall to pick up some gifts for our mom for Christmas. We'd stopped by customer service, for either gift wrap or package pick-up, and while my dad spoke to the clerk at the counter my brothers and I were instructed to sit quietly on the chairs in the small waiting area.

Now, there was a major flaw in the plan. My brothers and I never sat quietly anywhere. Somehow we would get into an argument and start a fight... sometimes fairly innocent and sometimes pretty fisticuffs.

Having happened some 19 years ago, I can't remember exactly what our argument was about. But I'm sure to an adolescent mind it was terribly important. Maybe we were pre-fighting whether I got to watch Saved by the Bell on Saturday morning or they would get to watch X-Men. Whatever it is, it was very verbal. But we knew better than to get our father's attention so even as it escalated, we kept it at a strong whisper.

A large man, looking like he'd just finished off four or five corn dogs with a side of Auntie Anne's hot pretzels sat down beside us and we instantly hushed. This man was large, a stomach that rolled out over his lap, a heavy white beard that clung to his portly face and a thin pair of gold glasses that just barely sat on top of an upturned nose.

"You boys know better than to pull that here," he said.

Being the oldest I often assumed leadership (for better or for worse). But here I was frozen. Something inside said just listen.

"Now I know you're father would not be happy with you three putting on such a show," the old man continued. "In fact, I can think of two men who would not be fond of such a conflagration." What's a conflagration? I thought, not yet having started my P-SAT vocabulary training. "I think that three boys like yourselves would be on their best behavior at a time of year like this. Not that I think you should misbehave at another time mind you. It just seems that if you Bobby" he said, acknowledging my youngest brother, "want those Ninja Turtles and you Mike want those Power Rangers, than I think you'd best be behaving, don't you?"

How'd does he know our names? I was stunned. First, this stranger was talking to us and I was sure that it wasn't a good idea. But for some reason I wasn't afraid of him. Second, this stranger knew our names and I was certain that our father had not spoken to him before we sat down. He didn't have time. He was busy carting three boys around and making sure we didn't cause trouble.

"And you Tom, you should be showing these two what it means to be a man, watching them while your dad is busy. And you're just egging it on," he dropped his head as though ashamed of my actions. "I just don't know what I would do if I were Santa."

Santa? But... can't be! I had been told years before that Santa was not real. Well, technically my mom had told me that Santa was the spirit of Christmas and he was alive in every parent, bringing gifts to those who deserved them as a token of his love in the Christmas season. But a REAL GUY?

Still, I sat stunned... quiet.

"Now, I have to get moving," said the chubby old man. I looked him over. He didn't wear a Santa suite so I was sure he wasn't the mall Santa on a break. He was dressed in khaki shorts, a flowery short-sleeve shirt and then (of all things) socks and sandals. But the beard and belly were right, and the glasses were as I'd imagined them. He looked so much like the Santa on the old Coca-Cola tin tray that our mom always displayed... it was uncanny. "But I hope you boys will do right and behave. Your mother would be very upset to learn you'd acted up. Wouldn't she?"

My brothers nodded at him. They too seemed stunned, just bobbing their heads slowly as they stared at the Kringle-like man.

"Then I have nothing to worry about," he said and stood up. "Have a very Merry Christmas you three." And with that he gave us a wink (A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread... it fit so well) and headed off into the store.

Once he'd disappeared my brothers turned to me, "Did you see that?" Bobby asked as though a unicorn had walked right up to him.

I couldn't answer. Yeah, I saw it. But what was it or rather, who?

Our father finished up his business and collected us, heading out of the store and into the parking lot. We climbed into the van, none of us speaking. The van started up and we pulled out of the parking space and into the mall road, looping around the entrance to Mervyn's department store. Right then a long white Cadillac convertible pulled out of another parking row. Horns (or antlers?) were mounted to the front and the old fat man was seated behind the wheel. Even through the glare of our windows he spotted us. Another wink. And he pulled ahead of us. Can't be, I thought. It really can't be! But there it was, the "Santa-lac" pulling ahead of us with California tags that read "H0-H0-H0" and suddenly it was gone. The car hadn't pulled away, hadn't turned out of sight, hadn't flown into the air... just gone.

I'm still absolutely convinced that the man, or the spirit that is Santa Claus, was really at Mervyn's that day. And I'm still 100% sure that he really is watching for good boys and girls, checking his list twice, finding out just who has been naughty and nice.

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