Act One: Toys R Us
You know that saying, you can really tell who somebody is in a crisis? You can really tell at Christmas, too. That's because Christmas, more than any other day in the American year, is a day when we're all handed the same stage props. The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives, and all the same expectations. And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day. It's like hundreds of millions of people all set to work doing exactly the same art project. And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project, an art project everybody cares about getting right. And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.
And one place you can witness this human drama at work is at one of the epicenters of modern Christmas, the world's biggest toy store, Toys R Us.
Toys R Us Announcer
Attention shoppers. Attention shoppers. Toys R Us is closed for the evening. Please bring all your final selections up to the registers at this time.
Closing time, Christmas Eve. But still the store is filled with parents making one last run to the goal line of a perfect Christmas. Mark [? Neimus ?] and his teenage son Ricky are walking the length of the store. Walking, literally, as quickly as men can walk without actually breaking into a run. Their bodies are tense. They spot a sales girl.
Do you know where these twins dolls are? They are twins. They're like $70.
They're directed into aisle 12C. It is stacked high with dolls. The [? Neimus ?] boys don't have much time. Where are the twin dolls? There's Heart to Heart Baby, whose heart really beats. There is poseable Sleepy Soft Skin. There is Softina, the miracle soft foam doll. There is Baby Bathe-A-Lot. There's Danielle's Fashion Ensemble. There's Baby Braids, the pretty, huggable, fashion hair doll. There is Baby Tummy Talks.
They are in this aisle somewhere.
Well, no. Actually, they're not. A middle aged black couple, themselves in the search for a doll called the Sparkle doll, suggests 11C.
All the dolls in 11C, for some reason, have names that suggest the names of starlets in adult films. So Shy Sherry, Baby Shivers, Powder Pool twins, Previous Playmate. Debbie Attachable Accessories. Standing there, I realize, of course their names are like names from adult films. Where else do you find this kind of hyped up, packaged, theatrical girlishness?
Oh, here they are. OK.
They find a price sticker on the twins doll. And they stand there, unnerved.
I don't know.
What are you looking at?
It turns out to be $90.
Oh, well. I guess I've got to get it.
Who is it for?
It's for my daughter.
How old is she?
She's four. Going to be five.
How come so last minute? The store closes in just two minutes.
We bought her some other things. And tonight, she asked me three times if Santa was coming. And I said, yes. And she said, good, because he's bringing me these twins. And we didn't have it. I never thought I'd be doing this at 7:30 on Christmas Eve. I've seen it in movies. I swear to God, I never thought I'd be doing this. But here I am.
Well, I've got to go pay for this now.
You're a good dad.
I'd better be, for $90.
This is the thing about Christmas. Christmas has given him a stage on which he can prove who he is. He's the same good dad he always is, but more so, you know? Christmas. Christmas is the time when everybody is who they normally are, but more so.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you are hearing our program for the first time, a number of public radio stations around the country are just picking us up for this Christmas special. We are a new public radio show. Each week we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, performers, radio producers to tackle that theme with radio monologues, mini documentaries, overheard conversations, found tape, anything we can think of.
Today's program in three acts. Act One, Toys R Us. Act Two, David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries." Act Three, Christmas Freud. That's Sigmund Freud. Stay with us.
Act Two: Santaland Diaries
My costume is green. I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.
Four Christmases ago, those were the words which introduced radio listeners across the country to David Sedaris. His account of working as a department store elf for two Christmas seasons was immediately one of the most popular stories ever broadcast on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Only the coverage of commentator Red Barber's death generated more tape requests, I have been told. It is with pleasure that we broadcast it again today. The Morning Edition version of "The SantaLand Diaries" ran only eight and a half minutes because of the format of Morning Edition. But here, here we have the time to stretch out, and play you something that's much closer to David's original text.
I was in a coffee shop reading the want-ads when I saw, "Macy's Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sizes. Working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement." I brought the ad home and my roommate, Rusty, and I were laughing about it. And he dared me to call for an interview. So I did.
The woman at Macy's asked, "Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?" I said, "Full-time elf."
I am a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf. I often see people in the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I usually avoid leaflets, but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco. So if there is a costume involved, I tend to not only accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying, "thank you so much," and thinking, "you poor son of a bitch."
This afternoon on Lexington Avenue, I accepted a leaflet from a man dressed as a camcorder. Hot dogs, tacos, video cameras, these things make me sad because there's no place for them, no community. They don't fit in on the streets.
I figure that at least as an elf I will have a place. I'll be in Santa's Village with all the other elves. We'll live in a fluffy wonderland, surrounded by candy canes and gingerbread shacks. It won't be quite as sad as being some big French fry out on a street corner.
I have to admit that I had high hopes when moving to New York. In my imagination, I went straight from Penn Station to the offices of One Life to Live. In my imagination, I went out for drinks with Cord Roberts and Victoria Buchanan, the show's biggest stars. We'd sit in a plush booth at a Tony Cocktail Lounge and they'd lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say, "A toast to David Sedaris, the best writer this show ever had." I'd say, "You guys, cut it out."
People at the surrounding tables would stare at us, whispering, "Isn't that? Isn't that?" I might be distracted by their enthusiasm. And Victoria Buchanan would lay her hand over mine and tell me that I'd better get used to being the center of the attention.
But instead, I'm applying for a job as an elf. Instead, someone will say, "What's that shoe size again?" and hand me a pair of seven and a half slippers, the toes of which curl to a point. Even worse is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn't even find work as an elf. That's when you know you're a failure.
This afternoon, I sat in the eighth floor SantaLand office, and was told, "Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You're an elf." In order to become an elf, I filled out 10 pages worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test.
During the second interview, we were asked why we wanted to be elves, which, when you think about it, is a fairly tough question. I told the interviewers that I wanted to be an elf because it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard of. I figured that, for once in my life, I would be completely honest and see how far it got me. I failed the drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it, but still they hired me, and honesty had nothing to do with it. They hired me because I'm short. Everyone they hired is short. I am one of the taller elves.
I have spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless Macy's classroom, undergoing the first phases of elf training. We have been addressed by all sorts of instructors, who begin their presentations by saying, "This looks like an outstanding group of elves." Several of the bosses have led us in motivational cheers, a concept which stuns me to the core.
Following an eight hour day of cash register training, we were treated to a video presentation by the security staff, visited by interpreters for the deaf, and presented with "The Elfin Guide," a 40-page booklet of rules and regulations. This afternoon's training concluded with a tour of SantaLand.
SantaLand is beautiful. It really is. It's a wonderland with 10,000 twinkling lights and diversions. People enter and walk through a maze, which affords views of mechanical dancing penguins, train sets, spinning bears, and really big candy canes. They walk through a quarter mile of maze and wind up at the Magic Tree, at which point they brace themselves for Santa.
The tree is a tunnel designed to resemble a complex system of roots. The child is supposed to think, "I can't believe I'm inside a tree." But instead, I think it looks like a large scientific model of the human intestinal tract.
Once you pass the Magic Tree, the lights dim. It is dark beyond that tree. It is dark because Macy's does not want people to know that there are six houses. Macy's wants people to think that there is only one house, and one Santa, and he lives at Macy's.
They constantly refer to the movie Miracle on 34th Street. But even if someone believed in one Santa, why would they believe he lived in a department store? Nobody lives in a department store. The Santa houses are cozy and intimate, laden with toys. Each house has a hidden camera.
This afternoon, we learn the names of the various elf positions. You can be, for example, an Oh My God Elf, and stand at the corner near the escalator. People arrive, see the long line around the corner, and say, "Oh, my god." And your job is to tell them that it won't take more than an hour to see Santa. You can be an Entrance Elf, a Water Cooler Elf, a Bridge Elf, Train Elf, Maze Elf, Island Elf, Magic Window Elf, Emergency Exit Elf, Counter Elf, Magic Tree Elf, Pointer Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Usher Elf, Cash Register Elf, or Exit Elf.
We were given a demonstration of various positions in action, acted out by returning elves who were so on stage and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach. I don't know that I could look anyone in the eye and exclaim, "Oh, my goodness! I think I see Santa!" Or "Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish?" Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it. It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way.
I prefer being frank with children. I'm more likely to say, "You must be exhausted," or "I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours." I'm afraid I won't be able to provide the enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.
Today was elf dress rehearsal. The lockers and dressing rooms are on the eighth floor, directly behind SantaLand. People have gotten to know one another over the past four days of training. But once we took off our clothes and put on our costumes, everything changed. Ivy, the woman in charge of costuming, handed out our uniforms, and gave us a lecture on keeping things clean. She held up a calendar and said, "Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don't tell me, 'I don't wear underpants. I'm a dancer.' You're not a dancer. If you were a real dancer, you wouldn't be here. You're an elf, and you're going to wear panties like an elf."
My costume is green. I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.
During dress rehearsal, I worked as a Santa Elf for house number two. A Santa Elf greets children at the Magic Tree and leads them to Santa's house. When you work as a Santa Elf, you have to go by your elf name. My elf name is Crumpet. The other elves have names like Jingle and Frosty. They take the children by the hand and squeal with forced delight. They sing and prance and behave like cartoon characters come to life. It frightens me.
Today was the official opening day of SantaLand, and I worked as a Magic Window Elf, a Santa Elf, and an Usher Elf. The Magic Window is located in the adult quick peep line. My job was to say, "Step on the magic star, and look through the window, and you can see Santa." I was at the Magic Window for 15 minutes before a man approached me and said, "You look so stupid."
I have to admit that he had a point. But still, I wanted to say that at least I get paid to look stupid, that he gives it away for free. But I can't say things like that because I'm supposed to be merry. So instead, I said, "Thank you." Thank you, as if I had misunderstood and thought he had said, "You look terrific." Thank you.
He was a brawny, wiseguy, wearing a vinyl jacket and carrying a bag from the Radio Shack. I should have said, real loud, "Sorry, man, I don't date other guys." People would have turned and looked our way. And he would have curled into a little ball and died.
All the Santas have different routines. Some want the children's names. So as you're leading the youngsters from the Magic Tree, you say, "What was your name again? It's right on the tip of my mind where I can't get at it." Then they say their name. And you say, "That's right. Van. You're Van. See, I didn't recognize you with that turtleneck. That's new, isn't it?" And it's always new, because they grow so fast they are always needing larger clothes.
Then you lead them to Santa's door and say, "Let me just check and see if he's ready." And you poke your head in and whisper, "Van." Then, half the time you'll usher the child into the house, and Santa will say, "Stan, it's so good to see you." It's hard when you have three or four kids in a group. It's hard to keep the names straight. And some of the names are names I've never heard. Vaneesha, Fohntaj, Great. A child named Great. I'm Great. That's a name which is bound to prove challenging once he gets old enough to start sleeping around.
This afternoon, I was Photo Elf for Santa Howard. Santa Howard uses names, and sits the kids on his lap, and asks if they've been good and what they want for Christmas. And then he asks what they plan to leave him on Christmas Eve. And they say, cookies and milk. And he asks, what kind of cookies? And they say, chocolate chip, or whatever. And he demands the Photo Elf to say, "Chocolate chip? That is Santa's favorite kind of cookie." I don't mind saying it, but I must have said it 60 times today.
This afternoon, Santa Howard got an Asian child who wasn't familiar with the idea of leaving cookies. Santa asked what she was going to leave him to eat. And she got a puzzled look on her face. He said, "Something round to eat?" And she said, "A potato?"
22,000 people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well-behaved. Today I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. Once the line gets long, we break it into four different lines, because anyone in their right mind would leave if they knew it would take over two hours to see Santa. Two hours. You could see a movie in two hours. Standing in a two-hour line makes people worry that they're not living in a democratic nation.
I was sent into the hallway to direct the second phase of the line. The hallway was packed with people, and all of them seemed to stop me with a question. Which way to the down escalator? Which way to the elevator? The patio restaurant, gift wrap, the women's restroom, Trim-a-Tree.
There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom. And one woman, after asking me 1,000 questions already, asked, which is the line for the women's bathroom? And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. And she said, I'm going to have you fired.
I had two people say that to me today. I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead. Be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I'm going to have you fired. And I want to lean over and say, I'm going to have you killed.
This morning, I got stuck at the Magic Window, which is really boring. I'm supposed to stand around and say, "Step on the magic star and you can see Santa." I said that for a while. And then I started saying, "Step on the magic star and you can see Cher." And people got excited. So I said, "Step on the magic star and you can see Mike Tyson." Some people in the other line, the line to sit on Santa's lap, got excited and cut through the gate so that they could stand on my magic star. Then they got angry when they looked through the Magic Window and saw Santa, rather than Cher or Mike Tyson.
But what did they honestly expect? Is Cher so hard up for money that she would agree to stand behind a two way mirror at Macy's? The angry people must have said something to management, because I was taken off the Magic Star and sent to Elf Island, which is really boring, because all you do is stand around and act merry.
At noon, a large group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and, after seeing them for 15 minutes, I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you've set your mind to it.
This morning, I worked as an Exit Elf, telling people in a loud voice, "This way out of SantaLand." A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her pictures while her son lay beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said, "Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa is not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for." The child said, "He is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me."
The woman grabbed my arm and said, "You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas." I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You're going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.
The woman got a worried look on her face and said, "All right. That's enough." I said, "He's going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing." The mother said, "No, that's enough. Really."
Two New Jersey families came today to see Santa. Two loud, ugly husbands with two wives and four children between them. The children gathered around Santa and had their pictures taken. When Santa asked the 1o-year-old boy what he wanted for Christmas, his father shouted, "A woman. Get him a woman, Santa." These men were very loud and irritating, constantly laughing and jostling one another. The two women sat on Santa's lap and had their pictures taken, and each asked Santa for a KitchenAid brand dishwasher and a decent winter coat.
Then the husbands sat on Santa's lap. And when asked what he wanted for Christmas, one of the men yelled, "I want a broad with big jugs." The man's small-breasted wife crossed her arms over her chest, looked at the floor, and gritted her teeth. The man's son tried to laugh.
"Hi. Hello. How are you doing tonight? What are you up to tonight? What are you drinking? I think I'll have whatever you're having. I could use a change."
My roommate, Rusty, gave me these lines. I don't have any idea what to say to people in clubs and bars. I freeze up and wither away. But Rusty tells me that these lines work.
"Hi there. I was just standing across the room, but couldn't help but notice that your glass is empty. Can I buy you a drink? I think I'll have whatever you're having."
This evening I was a Maze Elf. Nothing is more boring than being a Maze Elf. Other Maze Elves address children and ask, "What do you want for Christmas?" But really, why should a child tell an elf? Santa is who they've come to see. And it seems pathetic for an elf to try to outshine Santa. After children have passed the dancing penguins, they don't care if they ever see another elf as long as they live. The maze is overpopulated with elves.
This evening, I was stationed in the maze near the candy canes. Children would pass, bored. And I'd say, How are you doing tonight? What are you up to this evening? Good. I'll have whatever you're having. Terrific.
I've met elves from all walks of life. The recession has hit New York very hard. Most of the other elves are show business people, but several of them had real jobs at advertising agencies and brokerage firms. Bless their hearts. These people never in their wildest dreams figured there was a velvet costume waiting in their future. They are the really bitter elves. Most of the elves are young, high school and college students. They're young and they're cute, and one of the job perks is that I get to see these people in their underpants.
The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Richie. His elf name is Snowball, and he tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I generally gag when elves get that cute, but Snowball is hands-down adorable. You want to put him in your pocket.
Yesterday, Snowball and I worked as Santa Elves and I got excited when he started saying things like, "I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet." It made me dizzy, this flirtation. By mid-afternoon, I was running into walls. By late afternoon, Snowball had cooled down. By the end of our shift, we were in the bathroom changing our clothes, and all of the sudden we were surrounded by five Santas and three other elves. All of them were guys that Snowball had been flirting with. Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas.
Later on, we were in the elevator and I heard him say to his friend, "I don't know what these guys all want with me. It gives me the creeps, the way they stare." Snowball is playing a dangerous game. It's one thing to get a child fired up, but you really don't want to be working under a jilted Santa.
More of David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries" and Christmas Freud, in a minute, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. The special Christmas edition of our program. We continue with David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries."
Out of all the Santas, two are black. And both are so light-skinned that, with a beard and makeup, you'd never know they weren't white. Yesterday, a black woman got upset after, having requested a Santa of color, she was sent to Will. "He's not black," the woman said. We assured the woman that, yes, he was black. And the woman said, "Well, he isn't black enough."
Will is a difficult Santa, moody and unpredictable. He spends a lot of time staring off into space. When a boss tells Will that we need to speed things up, Will gets defensive and says, "Listen, I'm playing a role here. Do you understand? A dramatic role that takes a great deal of preparation."
I was the Pointer Elf this afternoon when a woman approached me and whispered, "We would like a traditional Santa. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about." I sent her to Will.
Last Saturday, Snowball was the Pointer and a woman said, "Last year we had a chocolate Santa. Make sure it doesn't happen again." Snowball sent her to Will.
I spent time at the Magic Window with an elf named Rita, a dancer who was in the process of making a video with her all-girl singing group. We talked about one thing and another, and she told me that she has appeared on a few soap operas. I asked if she had done One Life to Live and she said, yes. She had had a bit part as a flamenco dancer two years ago when Cord and Tina remarried and had their honeymoon in Madrid.
And suddenly, I remembered Rita perfectly. I remember Cord and Tina's honeymoon like it was yesterday. Rita wore a red, lacy flamenco dress and stomped around the shiny nightclub floor, while Spain's greatest bullfighter challenged Cord to a duel. Rita said to Cord, "Don't do it, Senor. You would be a fool to fight with Spain's greatest bullfighter."
Rita told me that Cord and Tina's honeymoon was filmed right here in New York, which surprised me. I really thought they went to Spain. Rita told me that she performed her flamenco dance in the morning and then they broke for lunch. She was in the One Life to Live cafeteria and Tina waved her over to her table. Rita had lunch with Tina.
She said Tina was very sweet, but all she talked about was her love for Smokey Robinson. Tina fell in love with Smokey Robinson in real life. She drove a wedge between Smokey and his wife, and left the show so that she you could move to Los Angeles and be with Smokey.
I'd read that in the Soap Opera Digest, but it was thrilling to hear it from someone who knows the whole story. Later I was working at the cash register, and Stephanie, one of the managers, told me that her friend, Carol, was the person responsible for re-casting on One Life to Live, replacing the old Tina with the new Tina. I told Stephanie that I liked the new Tina. And she said, "Well, I'll tell my friend Carol. She'll be happy to hear it."
Then Michael, another one of the managers, got involved, and told me he has been on One Life to Live seven times. He played Clint Buchanan's lawyer five years ago when half the Buchanan family was on trial for the murder of Mitch Laurence. Michael knows Victoria Buchanan personally, and said she's just as sweet and caring in real life as she is on the show. He said that Clint tends to keep to himself and that Bo is a lot of fun.
I can't believe I'm hearing these things. I know people who know Tina, Cord, Clint, and Vicky. I'm honing in. I'm getting closer. I can feel it.
Today, a child told Santa that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone loves those turtles. A child came to Santa this morning and his mother said, "All right, Jason. All right. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him what you want." Jason said, "I want Proctin and Gamble to stop animal testing." The mother said, "Procter, Jason. That's Procter & Gamble. And what do they do to animals? Do they torture animals, Jason? Is that what they do?" Jason said, "Yes, they torture." He was maybe six years old.
Tonight a man proposed to his girlfriend in Santa house number five. Santa asked what he wanted for Christmas and he pulled a ring out of his pocket and said that he wanted this woman to be his wife. The Photo Elf got choked up and started crying.
I got a new haircut and a few people complimented me, but it didn't register. I spend all day lying to people, saying, "You look so pretty," and "Santa can't wait to visit with you. You're all he talks about. It's just not Christmas without you. You're Santa's favorite person in the entire tri-state area."
Sometimes I lay it on really thick. "Aren't you the princess of Rongovia? Santa said that a beautiful princess was coming to visit him. He said she would be wearing a red dress and that she was very pretty, but not stuck up or two-faced. That's you isn't it?" I lay it on and the parents mouth the words, "Thank you," and "Good job."
To one child I said, "You're a model, aren't you?" The girl was maybe six years old and she said, "Yes, I model, but I also act. I just got a second callback for a Fisher Price commercial." The girl's mother said, "You may recognize Katelyn from the My First Sony campaign. She's pictured on the box." I said, "Yes, of course." All I do is lie, and that has made me immune to compliments.
This afternoon, I was stuck being Photo Elf for Santa Santa. I don't know his real name. No one does. During most days, there's a slow period when you sit around the house and talk to Santa. And most of them are nice guys, and we sit around and laugh. But Santa Santa takes himself a bit too seriously. I asked him where he lives, Brooklyn or Manhattan. And he said, "Why, I live at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus." I asked what he does the rest of the year and he said, "I make toys for all the children." Santa Santa sits and waves and jingles his bell sash when no one is there. He actually recited "The Night Before Christmas," and it was just the two of us in the house. No children, just us. He says, "Oh little elf, little elf. Straighten up those mantel toys for Santa." I reminded him that I have a name, Crumpet, and then I straightened up the stuffed animals. "Oh little elf, little elf. Bring Santa a throat lozenge." So I brought him a lozenge.
Santa Santa has an elaborate little act for the children. He'll talk to them and give a hearty chuckle and ring his bells. And then he asks them to name their favorite Christmas carol. Most of them say "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Santa then asks if they'll sing it for him. The children are shy and don't want to sing out loud. So Santa Santa says, "Oh little elf, little elf. Help young Brenda here sing that favorite carol of hers." Then I have to stand there and sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which I hate.
Late in the afternoon, a child said she didn't know what her favorite Christmas carol was. Santa Santa suggested "Away in a Manger." The girl agreed to it but didn't want to sing because she didn't know the words. Santa Santa said, "Oh little elf, little elf. Come sing 'Away in a Manger' for us." It didn't seem fair that I should have to solo. So I told Santa that I didn't know the words. Santa Santa said, "Of course you know the words. Come now. Sing." So I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sang if she had put out a Christmas album.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
Santa Santa did not allow me to finish.
This evening I was sent to be a Photo Elf in house number two. The camera is hidden in the fireplace, and I take the picture by pressing a button on the end of a cord. Most elves will hold up a stuffed animal over the fireplace and say, "Look at my little animal friend and smile." Oftentimes, the parent will settle the child on Santa's lap and then start grooming. I've seen mothers pull cans of hairspray from their pocketbooks and spray the child's hair as if Santa were a false prop made out of cement. Hairspray shoots into Santa's eyes, and he winces in pain.
Once a child starts crying, it's all over. The parents had planned to send these pictures as cards or store them away until the child is grown and can lie, claiming to remember the experience. Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her crying child. She yelled, "Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile, or I'll give you something to cry about." Then she sat Rachel on Santa's lap, and I took the picture, which supposedly means, on paper, that everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be, that everything is snowy and wonderful. It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents' idea of a world they can not make work for them.
David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries" are published in his book Barrel Fever. His forthcoming book of stories is called Naked.
Act Three: Christmas Freud
Act Three, Christmas Freud. Well, on the Upper East Side of New York City, the upscale department store Barney's has chosen an odd tactic for its Christmas decorations. Namely, they don't refer to Christmas. It's like an odd-- you know, you've got to respect that kind of contrarian streak. Instead, each of their department store windows is dedicated to different famous people of the twentieth century, filled with memorabilia, pictures, video monitors, all sorts of images and colors and lights. The subjects of the windows? Frank Sinatra, the beat poets, great blonds of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, and Sigmund Freud.
Only one of these windows has a live human being in it, and it's the Freud window. The human being is a 30-ish bearded actor named David Rakoff.
I am the ghost of Christmas subconscious. I am the anti-Santa. I am Christmas Freud. People tell me what they wish for. I tell them the ways their wishes are unhealthy or wished for in error. My impersonation merely involves me sitting in a chair either writing or reading The Times or The Interpretation of Dreams every Saturday and Sunday until Christmas.
I sit in a mock study facing Madison Avenue at 61st Street. My study has the requisite chair and couch. It's also equipped with a motorized track on which a video camera-wielding baby carriage travels back and forth, a slide projector, a large revolving black and white spiral, two hanging torsos, and about 10 video monitors that play Freud-related text and images.
When I sit down in the chair for the first time, I'm suddenly horrified at the humiliation of this. And I have no idea how I'm going to get through four weekends sitting here on display. And this role raises unprecedented performance questions for me. For starters, should I act as though I had no idea there were people outside my window? I opt for covering my embarrassment with a kind of Olympian humorlessness. If they want twinkles, that's Santa's department.
I am gnawed at by two fears. One, that I'm being upstaged by Linda Evans' wig in the blonds window. And two, that a car will suddenly lose control, come barreling through my window, and kill me, an ignoble end to be sure, a life given in the service of retail.
Sometimes, for no clear reason, entire crowds make the collective decision not to breach a respectful six foot distance from the window. Other times, they crowd in, attempting to read what I'm writing over my shoulder. I thank God for my illegible handwriting.
Easily half the people have no idea who I'm supposed to be. They wave, as if Freud was Garfield the cat. Others snap photos. The waves are the kind of tiny juvenile hand crunches one gives to something either impossibly young and tiny or adorably fluffy. "Oh, look. It's Freud. Isn't he just the cutest thing you ever saw? Aw, I just want to bundle him up and take him home."
There are also the folks who are more concerned with whether or not I'm real. This I find particularly laughable, since where on Earth would they make mannequins that look so Jewish? My friend David came up yesterday, and was writing down what people were saying outside. "He really looks like him, only younger." "Hey, that's a real guy." "He just turned the page. Is he allowed to do that?" "Who is that, Professor Higgins?"
If psychoanalysis was late 19th century secular Judaism's way of finding spiritual meaning in a post-religious world and retail is the late 20th century's way of finding spiritual meaning in a post-religious world, what does it mean that I'm impersonating the father of psychoanalysis in a store window to commemorate a religious holiday? In the window, I fantasize about starting an entire Christmas Freud movement. Christmas Freuds everywhere, providing grownups and children alike with the greatest gift of all, insight.
In department stores across America, people leave display window couches snifflingly and meaningfully whispering, "Thank you, Christmas Freud," shaking his hand fervently, their holiday angst, if not dispelled, at least brought into starker relief. Christmas Freud on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Christmas Freud on Friends. People grumbling that-- here it is, not even Thanksgiving, and already stores are running ads with Christmas Freud's face asking the question, "What do women want for Christmas?"
If it caught on, all the stores would have to compete. Bergdorf Goodman would leap into action with a C. G. Jung window, a near-perfect simulation of a bear cave. While the Melanie Klein window at Niketown would have them lined up six deep. And neighborhood groups would object to the saliva and constant bell ringing in the Baby Gap's B. F. Skinner window.
There's an unspeakably handsome man outside the window right now, writing something down. I hope it's his phone number. How do I indicate to the woman in the fur coat, in benevolent Christmas Freud fashion, of course, to get the hell out of the way? Then again, how does one cruise someone through a department store window? Should I press my own phone number up against the glass, like some polar bear in the zoo holding up a sign reading, "Help! I'm being held prisoner"?
One day, I come up to the store for a photo op for a news story about the holiday windows of New York. It is my 32nd birthday. I am paired with a little girl named Sasha. It's her birthday, as well. She is turning 10. She is strikingly beautiful and appears in the upcoming Howard Stern movie. She's to be my patient for the photographers.
In true psychoanalytic fashion, I make her lie down and face away from me. I explain to her a little bit about Freud, and we play a word association game. I say, "Center." She responds, "Of attention." I ask her her dreams and aspirations for this, the coming 11th year of her life. "To make another feature and to have my role on One Life to Live continue." She sells every word she says to me, smiling with both sets of teeth, her gem-like eyes glittering. She might as well be saying, "crunchy" the entire time. But she is charming. I experience extreme countertransference.
I read a bit from The Interpretation of Dreams to her. "Is this boring?" I ask. "Oh, no. It's relaxing. I've been working since 5 o'clock this morning. Keep going." Even though her eyes are closed, she senses the light from the news cameras on her. She curls towards it like a plant and clutches her dolly in a startlingly un-childlike manner. The glass of the window fairly fogs up.
My photo op with Sasha leads me to the decision to start seeing patients throughout my stint. I'm simply not man enough to sit exposed in a window doing nothing. It's too humiliating and too boring. My patients are all people I know. Perhaps it's because the couch faces away from both the street and myself that the sessions are surprisingly intimate. But it's more than that. The window is, weirdly enough, very cozy, more like a children's hideaway than a fish bowl. Patients seemed to relax immediately upon lying down.
T. beings the session laughing at the artifice, and ends it actually crying on the sofa. Christmas Freud is prepared and hands him a handkerchief. J. has near-crippling tendinitis and wears huge, padded orthopedic boots. The people watching think it's a fashion statement. She wears a dress from Loehmann's, but I treat her anyway. G., a journalist likes to talk with children and write about them. Perhaps that's why his shirt is irregularly buttoned.
I'm told that a woman outside the window wondered aloud if I was an actual therapist. I suppose there must be one in this town who would jeopardize his or her credibility in that way. I've scheduled our next session for the window at Barney's. I hope that's OK. Huh, you seem really resistant. Do you want to talk about that?
A journalist is doing a story on the windows for The Times. He asks me if this is a dream come true. Well, it is a dream. "It's logical," I reply. "One of my parents is a psychiatrist. And the other one is a department store window." He doesn't laugh at my joke, but it's half true. One of my parents is a psychiatrist. The other is an MD who also does psychotherapy.
I've been in therapy myself, for seven years. The difference between seeing a shrink and being a shrink is not only less pronounced than I imagined it might be, it feels intoxicating. When my own therapist of seven years says, "I have a fantasy of coming by the window and being treated by you," I think, "Of course you do." I feel finally and blissfully victorious.
My father tells me a dream he had in which I have essentially analyzed and exposed him. It's the only indication I've gotten from him so far that he is anything other than amused by what is, basically, a mockery of what he does. In a certain sense, I'm not just aping my father and my mother but also, in a way, their father, the man who spawned their profession.
And when I sit there, a patient on my couch, pipe in my mouth, listening, it feels so perfect. Like any psychiatrist's kid, I know enough from growing up and from my own years on the couch to ask open-ended questions, to let the silences play themselves out or not, to say gently, "Our time is up," after 45 minutes. The charade feels real, the conclusion of an equation years in the making.
Even the media coverage for this escapade is extensive and strange. People from newspapers and television are asking me deep questions about the holiday, the nature of alienation at this time of year, things like that, as though I actually was Freud. It's disconcerting because, with very little effort, I could be drunk with the power. But it also points out the O. Henry "Gift of the Magi" quality of it all. The media is so desperate for any departure from the usual holiday stories they have to turn out, they come flocking. And yet, the public doesn't really even want to read about the holiday in the first place. It's like trying to jazz up a meal nobody wants to eat anyway.
I get a call from the store that Allen Ginsberg might be in the beats window on Sunday. And if he wants to, would I speak to him? "I have no sway over Mr. Ginsberg. But if he has something he would like to talk about, I'm certainly available," I tell them. Not entirely true. I'm pretty well booked.
The whole Allen Ginsberg thing depresses me a bit. Then again, if he can see it as a cosmic joke, why can't I? I feel indignant and very territorial. Impostors only. No real ones in the window. Anyway, it's moot. He doesn't show up.
There is a street fair outside that teams to have brought a decidedly scarier type of spectator. They are like the crowd at a carnival, and I'm the dog-faced boy. A grown woman sticks her tongue out at me. Later, during a session, a man in his 50s presses his nose up against the window, getting grease on the glass, presses his ears up to hear, and screams things at me I cannot hear.
When I leave after each stint, I put up a little glass sign that reads, "Freud will be back soon." It's like a warning, the post-modern version of "Christ is coming. Repent." Freud will be back soon, whether you like it or not. Freud will be back soon. Stop deceiving yourselves.
In the affluent downtown neighborhood in Toronto in which I was raised, someone had spraypainted on a wall "Mao lives," to which someone else had added, "here?" My window is a haven in Midtown. I can sit there unmindful of the crush in the aisles of the store, the hour badly spent over gifts thoughtlessly and desperately bought. As I sit there I hear the songs that play for the display one window over, the blonds of the 20th century. Doris Day singing "Once I Had a Secret Love." Mae West singing "My Old Flame." Marlene Dietrich singing "Falling in Love Again. As I listen, I feel that they're really referring to my window, to Freud. Every time they come up on the repeating tape, I find them almost unbearably poignant, with all their talk of clandestine love, erotic fixation, and painfully hidden romantic agenda.
But they might also just as easily be referring to this time of year, with the aching sadness and loneliness that seems to imbue everything. Where is that perfect object, that old flame, that secret love that eludes us? Unfindable, unpurchaseable.
This is my final weekend as Christmas Freud, and I'm starting to feel bereft in anticipation of having to take down my shingle. I started off as a monkey on display and have wound up uncomfortably caught between joking and deadly serious, a persona that seems laughable at times, fated for me at others. I know this will pass, but for now I want nothing more than to continue to sit in my chair, someone on the couch, and to ask them, with real concern, "So tell me, how's everything?"
[MUSIC - "CHRISTMAS FREUD CAROLING," THE FORMERLY KNOWN AS FAMILY]
Act Four: Act Four
You know, I think we have time for one more act.
Where's [? Jennan's ?] at?
See what it says on the box there.
It just says, "Dad."
Oh, I was a good boy.
Daddy was a good boy. He got something.
It's 1966. John's family taped everything, all the time, he says, including this Christmas when he was three.
What are you doing in there?
Sparky, get out of there. Look at that. Isn't that really sweet?
Oh boy. Look at how nice.
How about that one? Do you like it?
John is John Connors, a Chicago DJ. He provides a lot of the music for This American Life from his vast and strange record collection. And on this, the third Christmas of his life, he is given exactly the present that he asked for, a close and play record player. This is [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. John's mother pulls out her camera to take a picture of him with his presents.
Do you like it?
John with his first phonograph.
OK, baby. Smile pretty.
Well, now the bulb don't work. Are there any batteries in there?
I just put new batteries in there. What the heck?
Don't be spitting on them. You'll have lead poisoning.
It deteriorates from there.
Ah, I'm disgusted with these cameras. I should have gotten a nice one from Santa Claus. That's what I should have got.
This right here? This is what Christmas is all about. Everybody's posed, everybody's ready, everybody's straining to be happy, and everybody has this picture in their heads of the perfect Christmas. And of course, it is never going to be perfect. It's never going to live up to that picture. And so disappointment is built into the very structure of the day.
And so the best you can hope for on Christmas-- and I say this as a Jew, somebody who has never celebrated the holiday, which makes me an outside observer, an impartial observer-- the best you can do is to ride the imperfections, hope they don't overtake everybody.
In this tape from 1966, John's parents spent a lot of time trying to keep him from destroying a new train set the very first day he gets it.
Half way, John. Half way. Oh!
Three-year-old John runs the train so fast, it always crashes.
Well, don't turn it so fast, John. John, don't monkey with that.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] over there.
All day long, a perfect day wavers in and out of focus, for a while wobbling towards disaster. Broken toys, hurt feelings, disappointment, and listing back towards happiness. Our three-year-old DJ puts a 45 of "Winchester Cathedral" in his new record player and runs the trains as fast as he can.
Our program was produced today by Peter Clowney and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike.
"Christmas Freud Caroling" by The Formerly Known As Family-- Bill O'Reilly, Kate O'Reilly, [? Colum ?] O'Reilly, and Jenny Magnus.
For tapes of This American Life, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380.
Freud will be back soon. Stop deceiving yourselves.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.