Even as a cynical woman in her mid-forties, I believe in the spirit of Santa Claus.
Since I can’t be him, I hoped to become a gregarious Mrs. Claus in a city known for its transportation challenges.
I first portrayed Santa’s wife 2017 at an Upper Manhattan tree lighting. I was inexperienced, in the wig and bustled skirt I bought from Amazon, but children read me story books from the vintage suitcase I carried. An aspiring public servant asked my first name — I think he was flirting. “Missus,” I told him sweetly. A local activist asked me numerous questions. Once she felt she could trust me, she wilted beside me on a garden bench. “Oh, Mrs. Claus,” she divulged. “I’ve been to too many protests. I’m so tired.”
For several nights, I was too happy to sleep. In character, I became a mirror that reflected everyone’s better angels, including my own. Mrs. Claus has lived rent-free in my soul ever since. Her crimson wardrobe has taken over a quarter of my precious closet space and a portion of my anxious mind.
A few months into 2018, I applied for a scholarship to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan. By spring, I learned I had won.
At the three-day training in Michigan, I was one of 50 women among 200 Santas, most of them men with long, white whiskers. Founded by legendary Charles Howard, a former Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the school included courses in beard grooming, tax law, and toy making. On the final day, I got to drive the school’s parade sleigh and pull the reins on its lifelike reindeer. “Ho ho ho!” I bellowed into the warehouse, where the sleigh was stored. The overall experience was more fun than any adult should be allowed to have.
When I returned to New York that late night in October, I held the wooden duck toy I had made that morning in the workshop. As I wandered through LaGuardia’s renovations, I felt so blissed out in my red beret and scarlet riding jacket that I stood out among locals dressed in black. But when they glanced at me with my feather corsage, they brightened and nodded. While I wasn’t wearing my wig and full costume, I felt filled with a lifetime of Christmas mornings.
Glowing like Rudolph’s nose, I floated to the cab line on a cloud of imaginary white fur. But the familiar yellow cabs weren’t there anymore. Uber had taken over. I pulled out my cell to order a pickup, but my battery had died. “Hello,” I called cheerily to the people in the queue. “Is anyone going uptown? I can pay half.” No one looked up from their screens, so I tried again, louder over the drills of a construction team.
Meanwhile, yellow cabs flew by us to another part of the airport.
I waved my hand vigorously, but the drivers shook their heads like I was high on glue. I went back inside the Delta terminal but found no one who could assist me. So Mrs. Claus — a resourceful dame of the tundra — took a deep breath, braced herself, and yelled “Help meeeeee!” into the Saturday night air. A construction worker stopped what he was doing to direct me through the scaffolding. “I’m so sorry,” he apologized. He escorted me through a plywood walkway to the hidden cab line, a scab of concrete much less visible than the queue for Uber.
“It’s okay,” I said, impressed that a little Christmas cheer provided such hospitality. “I’m not mad, but I need to get home to my cats.”
Immediately, a cab pulled up. Inside was the angriest driver in America. Tiny as a glass shard, she hoisted my bag into the trunk muttering expletives that could peel auto paint. “Uber and Lyft,” she grumbled. “I should have gone into accounting. The whole city is falling apart. No one can live here.”
As we sailed over the East River fueled on her resentment, she told me about the two fiancés who changed their minds. And by the way, did I mention how much she hated her job?
Then she grew thoughtful, “Did you make your bird?”
She was referencing my old-fashioned wheeled toy with its long handle and flapping leather feet. Trying to protect it from scratches, I held the duck awkwardly across my lap.
“Yeah,” I said. “I made it this morning at Santa school, in the workshop.”
“What will they think up next?” she cackled and pressed her horn at the driver ahead who kept switching lanes. “You gonna be Santa? Santa?”
“Mrs. Santa,” I corrected her. “You’re a female cab driver. I’m a female who drives a sleigh.”
“What?” she exclaimed in full Brooklyn-ese. “You’re taking jobs away from the elves.”
I chuckled, but she wasn’t joking.
“You know the elves don’t drive the sleigh, right? It’s supposed to be Santa, but Mrs. Claus can do it too. They’re partners.”
She was silent for several blocks. As we entered Upper Manhattan, where I live, I spied the top of her perm through the divider. She was thinking so hard I could almost hear her brain.
In front of my building, she popped the trunk and pushed my suitcase over to me on the curb. “Good luck,” she said, with what might have been a bit of respect. “There could be some money in this.”