Santa Claus has five years clean and sober. He’s also got an apartment, a new girlfriend, a VCR, and a job. He’s most psyched about the VCR at the moment because it lets him catch up on all the Hollywood product he missed during the 10 years he was homeless and living on the street. It’s not that Santa never went to the movies during the bad times. It’s just that his viewing choices were limited by such factors as where to stash a shopping cart safely while the movie was playing and how to find theaters that admitted people wearing eight layers of clothes. Santa watched a lot of cheesy porn in the early ’90s and a lot of Hong Kong action flicks. You could probably infer that he beat even the NYU film school types to the oeuvre of Chow Yun-Fat.
Santa’s name, of course, is not Santa. It’s Bernard. But given his general wish for anonymity and the fact that his job requires him to sport a red plush pajama outfit, a velvet hat with a pompon, and a bogus beard, we’ll dispense with the christened patronymic and stick to Claus. Anyhow, the work is seasonal. He’ll be back to his real persona soon enough. For the next 10 days, though, he’s one of those Volunteers of America guys standing by a money kettle and ringing a bell. His money kettle is situated outside a menswear shop in an 11-block stretch of midtown Manhattan that, at this time of year, is the staging ground for a mass ritual in which thousands converge to ratify a holiday whose hodgepodge symbolism conflates Christian worship, animism (that 100-foot Norway spruce at Rockefeller Center), the theories of Thorstein Veblen, and winsome millennial renditions of fin de siècle mercantile kitsch.
Santa has a handle on the whole thing. He’s got a way with foreign tourists. He’s got an aptitude for dandling babies. He’s got a line for the ladies and a knack for making on-the-spot repairs to balky point-and-shoots. “You got to push down hard, sweetheart, with your pretty self,” Santa instructs one tourist struggling with her Minolta. To another he explains: “I speak Italian, Spanish, German, and English. I speak lire, peso, marks, and even change for a dollar if you need it. I’m a black Santa, baby, and you’re on Candid Camera.”
Before he got sober, Santa Claus was addicted, in this order, to wine and to malt liquor 40s, to cocaine in freebase form and to crack. He decided to turn his life around, as the saying goes, five years ago, when he “hit bottom”—suffering petit mal seizures and what may have been a heart attack following an 18-hour binge at the business end of a pipe stem. He was revived at Harlem Hospital, the place where he’d been born 32 years earlier, and was discharged onto a street not 15 blocks from where he grew up. A social service worker gave him $20 and the telephone number of a recording that lists, in marathon fashion, the numerous AA meetings held throughout the five boroughs every day.
Santa is not certain what made him attend a meeting. Once he did, he stuck with the program, eventually attending the grueling three-month stint known as “90 in 90” and then weekly meetings that continue to the present. He is quite clear, however, about “the gratitude lesson,” as he puts it. “I know what it is to make a change.” When Santa utters this stock phrase he means something specific and unhackneyed. He means that if it’s true we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it’s also possible to interrupt the most predestined narrative and pick a new script. “I always justified myself because I was given a hard way to go,” says Santa, whose summarized biography is in no way less grueling for being tabloid familiar: second youngest of eight, child of an occasionally alcoholic single mother, raised substantially in “youth facilities” and foster homes, where he was often abused.
“I had a particular incident I carried around with me,” says Santa. “I never even realized I was using it like a crutch until my sponsor pointed out that it came up every time I was active,” meaning high. The story involved an incident that took place when Santa was eight. “My foster parent was taking me and two of her natural children Christmas shopping,” says Santa. “We were on the IND platform. She asked us all what we wanted for Christmas. Her kids said toys or whatever. I said I wanted an Atari game. You probably don’t remember, but Atari was like the Nintendo of back-in-the-day. When I said it, this woman’s face changed. Her whole attitude went off. She smacked me. She started calling me a greedy-ass little monkey and all kind of nonsense. People were staring. I tried to shrink up really small. When the train came, she made me sit at the opposite end of the car. She whipped my ass when we got home, but that didn’t hurt as much as the fact that nobody said anything to her, nobody told her to stop.”
In reply to a philosopher who claimed that everything in the universe exists first as a thought in the mind of God, Samuel Johnson is alleged to have kicked a stone and said, “I refute him thus!” Santa’s druggy refutations—of God, of birth parents, of foster parents, of humiliating childhood narratives, of callous or helpless strangers, and of creaky social systems—are supplanted now by what he calls “acceptance.” If the word smacks of resignation, this isn’t at all how Santa understands it.
“It’s more like passive resistance,” he says. “I’ve got my own interpretation of a higher power and my own interpretation of the Serenity prayer—you know, change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, know the difference.” Which is how it is that Santa appears so palpably grounded as he holds his spot in that swollen river of prosperity whose floodplain is Fifth Avenue between 48th Street and FAO Schwarz. Rather than feel, as some do, a welling resentment at the annual influx of holiday “cheer,” Santa remarks, “I’m enjoying myself with it. Now that I have my life turned around, it’s all about giving back.” It’s a function of Santa’s sincerity that a gorge doesn’t rise when a stranger takes note of his observation that “nothing makes me feel better than when I can get a little kid to smile.” Improbable as it sounds, this Santa is for real.