DESPERATELY SEEKING SANTA

(AND AN iPHONE)

[unedited version - click for edited daily print edition]

 

December 9, 2007


By ROBERT BIESELIN,

STAFF WRITER

 

Most kids visit Santa and leave with a candy cane and a glossy 3”x5”. I sat down with the big guy and left with half a ham and cheese sandwich, a dill pickle and a spiral notebook full of ideas that contributed to my growing case of Santa-envy.

 

It was the end of a very strange week.

 

A few days prior, I was at another mall looking for an iPhone when I passed their Santa display.

 

The whole routine seemed to defy every parental instinct and yet had endured the tests of time, psychologists and recessions alike: Parents wait in line for hours to give their toddlers a chance to sit on the unsanitary lap of an obese man stricken with rosecea and clad in furry, red pajamas. He repeatedly yodeled – though an Aqualung-like beard – a term whose usage gets feminists infuriated and radio personalities fired.

 

What gives? 

 

Being shielded from its oddity by tradition and flashbulbs, I absolved the parents. Warmed to its peculiarity with the aide of striped pipes of corn syrup and the promise of toys, I pardoned the tots. Still, nothing immediate in my mind rose to the defense of the big guy.

 

Why on earth would anyone want to play jolly ole’ Saint Nick?

 

That’s where it started: an investigation impelled by curiosity, skepticism and mortality’s unwavering obsession with the immortal. I became determined to learn the secrets of Santa and the iPhone. I planned to investigate each with the hearty heart of a cynic.

 

 

Cliff Bernelli was the first fellow with whom I spoke in pursuit of the big guy. He’s the marketing manager at Bergen Mall and in charge of the center’s seasonal Santa program. Still, this didn’t give him to authority to speak about it. He was the first to tell me what a chorus of others would also tell me: he couldn’t tell me anything.

 

The person to speak, I was told, was Wanda Payton, Sr. Vice President and Director Sales and Marketing for Cherry Hill Photo, a group which places Santas at more than 300 malls nationwide, including the local biggies: Bergen Mall, Willowbrook Mall, Westfield Garden State Plaza and Paramus Park.

 

I gave her a ring but never got past her staunch guards.

 

“No one within the company is authorized to comment [on the placement or training of Santa],” I was told by Bonnie Fluck, Cherry Hill Photo’s executive assistant.

 

“No one?” I asked. What is this, the Manhattan project? Isn’t the job in question little more than a two-month gig for fat, moral, bearded men who don’t smell like bourbon and are free of criminal records? “Can I at least talk to one of your Santas?”

 

“No, he especially can’t comment.”

 

It wasn’t just the flat-out rejection I thought strange, but the singular pronoun it enforced. It wasn’t “they” who were unavailable for comment, but rather “he.”

 

One dude: the one and only Santa and he wasn’t talking.

 

 

Blocked at the top, I decided to revive the search for Santa back on the mall level.

 

Jill Daniel seemed a fit candidate as the marketing director of the Willowbrook Mall. Turns out she was fit alone at the art of delusion.

 

“I interview Santa before he starts each year,” Daniel said when asked how they go about picking the right man for the job. “We ask how long he’s been at the North Pole. We ask if Mrs. Claus will be coming with him or if she’s staying at the North Pole.”

 

“Is she serious?” I thought, before she addressed the topic unprovoked.

 

“I’m being dead serious,” she said, citing her mall’s association with the aforementioned photo group. “[Cherry Hill] will not let Santa do interviews.”

 

A-ha! Just as I thought! a conspiracy!

 

Every year, according to Daniel, “the real Santa,” as she called him, hoisted an estimated 10,000 tots onto his lap at the Willowbrook Mall, and yet he can’t take a minute or two to speak with me. Maybe the elves could talk…

 

"Nope." According to Daniel, they’re off limits too. “The elves are back at the North Pole making gifts at the workshop,” she answered matter-of-factly. Her attitude was moving farther from cooperative and nearer towards passive-aggressive. “We don’t have elves. We have Santa’s helpers on the set with Santa.”

 

So, Santa was off-limits, the elves were at work and everyone in between was sworn to silence or seemingly drugged up and ill-tempered.

 

 

What had once seemed like a scene out of “Roger and Me,” was increasingly feeling more like one from a more divine pursuit. I felt like I was trying to get an interview with the Christmas’ real icon:

 

“Hi God. It’s Rob Bieselin from ‘The Record’”

 

“The what?”

 

 “‘The Record’ newspaper in northern New Jersey.”

 

“Oh, you mean ‘The Bergen Record?’” he said with confident recognition.

 

“Umm, yeah,” I answered hesitantly, aware that at no point in its 112-year history was the paper ever called “The Bergen Record,” but also aware that you can’t just go around correcting The Lord. “I was wondering what it was like having Jesus work for you.”

 

“I can’t comment on that.”

 

“Okay. Any chance I’d be able to speak with him? I’m working on an article on Mall Santas…”

 

“Nope. He’s, um, getting ready for his Birthday… getting a haircut, I think.

 

“What about his disciples?” I asked.

 

“They’re busy helping out at Santa’s workshop making toys...”

 

“Oh. Think they can make me an iPhone?”

 

“No. Those are made in China, not the North Pole?”

 

Stewing in my ergonomic seat and fed up with my findings, I decided to go to the source, mall approval or not. The time for passivity had passed.

 

 

On a crisp Tuesday afternoon, I made an unannounced visit to the Wayne Towne Center, where I’d heard the “best local Santa” presided. 

 

There, in the mall’s center court was his home, a ring enclosed by gates holding a maroon-patterned couch like the ones grandmothers bought in the 70’s and, for some reason, retained for another 30 years. Behind it sat an overly-decorated isosolese triangle masquerading as a tree.

 

He wasn’t obese, but appropriately sized and more well-meaning than insanely jolly, as he’s portrayed. And he wasn’t surrounded by Cherry Hill’s secret service guards with dark sunglasses mumbling inaudible instructions into headsets. He was surrounded by children, scores of them, even on a weekday at 2 o’clock.

 

As I’d find out later, Wayne Town Center didn’t deal with Cherry Hill Photo, but instead Beesley Event Photo.

 

Five-foot plastic nutcracker guards flanked Santa as pint-sized Sean Mackey of Teaneck approached, staring Santa intently in the eyes and whispering what he wanted for Christmas: an Optimus Prime Voice Altering Helmet.

 

Once passed along, he loosened up, smiled, hopped on Santa’s lap and leaned back as if lounging in a recliner made of cushiony red velvet. Santa whispered in his ear while their picture was taken, after which Mackey hopped down, gave Santa a high-five and scampered off.

 

“He’s nice,” Mackey said before trotting away.

 

I was next.

 

After exchanging pleasantries, “Santa” and I agreed to reconvene the following day to discuss all things “Santa.”

 

He never showed. Instead, I got Ray Beesley, who looked a lot like Santa, dressed a lot like Santa, but didn’t claim to be Santa. Living in Paterson, not the North Pole, he was just a benevolent man with an iconic beard and an association with a photo shop.

 

“I’ve been doing this in malls since 1990,” he said as we sat down for lunch – his treat. “It was tough breaking in... I actually started with Cherry Hill.”

 

Like the others I’d reached out to who were barred from speaking, Beesley once toiled for the group he claimed saw Christmas as “a business” and was “all about the money” They yelled at him for talking to kids. They stifled his spirit. When invited to play Santa on Late Night with David Letterman, they told him he couldn’t go

 

Fed up, he joined his daughters’ photo studio and began playing Santa at Wayne Towne center, where he’s been since 1996.

 

Off his throne and stripped down to fuzzy pants and a motorcycle T-shirt, he was still striking; rosy, wise and fit with that requisite eye-twinkle that poems cite but don’t do justice to with mere words. His beard: real; his spirit seemingly authentic.

 

Reminded of my commitment to skepticism, I felt like I was on another mission, this time less divine. I felt like George Hotz, the 18-year old from Glen Rock who shocked the tech world in August by becoming the first to unlock the iPhone. Here he was, all wise and seemingly authentic, and all I could think of was tearing him down.

 

Try as I may, I’m no George Hotz. I’m no Bergen Academies genius. In little time, after hearing how he got his start, I was under the charm of the fake “Santa.”

 

 

“It was 1970 and I was going to college in Alabama,” he began, while adjusting his tan suspenders. “My history teacher was a Santa-buff and needed someone to dress the part and help hand out donations. I didn’t want to do it. She said ‘If you want to pass history you’ll be Santa.’”

 

They gave his beard a white sheen with shoe polish and, with a satchel full of donated clothing, trucked down to Arkadelphia, Alabama, a town which Beesley remembers in extreme poverty with no electricity or running water.

 

After handing out all the gifts, a young boy in oversized shoes walked up to him. 

 

“I wanted a baseball glove,” he said.

 

Most would say, “Maybe next year.” Instead, Beesley told the kid that he’d left the mitt in his sleigh, then drove an hour and a half back to his dorm, where picked up the glove his father had given him along with other odds-and-ends from around campus. After an other hour and a half drive he dropped it off for the boy.

 

“When he looked at me with that thankful look, I said, ‘you know what? I like this.’ It was a feeling I’d never had before of such gratefulness… I hope that kid’s like A-rod or someone now,” he said with a gleam in his eye.

 

Sine that day, Beesley has been Santa for all intents and purpose; for all causes and requests. After college he visited Cub Scout and Brownie groups. After getting married he met with Mother’s clubs. He later moved on to schools and now, when not manning the Wayne Towne Center, he visits special needs children in schools, sick children in hospitals and even makes house calls for bed ridden tots.

 

He likes to talk about the young Jewish girl in a wheelchair who overlooked the politics of religion to find him a source of secular seasonal joy.

 

“She still sends me a picture every year.”

 

He likes to tell the story of the young autistic boy who was almost entirely unresponsive to parents and teachers, but rose from his seat and gave Beesley a big hug when he walked into his classroom dressed in that patented suit.

 

“I still love that little guy.”

 

He likes to share an anecdote involving a paralyzed boy who abandoned his wheelchair when it came time to see Santa, as he wanted to stand.

 

“I hope I see him again this year.” 

 

In short, the father of six likes to help people, whether it’s in a school, a hospital, a mall or at Fountains of Wayne, where he plan to move when the Wayne Towne Center closes next year.

 

“If you can make a child smile or feel important, that’s the most important thing,” he said as put on his coat and hat and prepared to head back to his maroon-patterned couch. “Every single child that comes through that line, I tell them that I’m very proud of them. It’s not only the presents, it’s about making these kids feel good about themselves.”

 

 

I left in awe, armed with a sandwich, but still confused, unsure of who in the mounting scenario was truly delusional: the staffing agency executive assistant tongue-tying St. Nick, the marketing director swearing to his omnipresence and authenticity, the committed man who looked the part but claimed not to be St. Nick or the once-skeptical reporter running around in circles trying to learn who’s who in a seasonal scene packed tight with Hitchcock-ian twists and Jung-like identity questions?

 

On the way home, I stopped off at Westfield Garden State Plaza, jockeyed around the parking lot and finally found a parking spot practically on Route 4.

 

I passed the Cherry Hill-placed Santa on my way through the neon-lit mega structure, eyeing him suspiciously and looking, all the while, for telltale signs of his fraudulence; a beard too white to be authentic, eyes lacking the requisite glint, a less than spirited “ho, ho, ho.” 

 

Truth be told, he wasn’t bad, but I’d already met Santa that day – the real Santa whether he’d admitted it or not.

 

Once at my destination, the Mac Store, I held the iPhone in my hand, whirled through its features and, with the approval of the salesperson, made a phone call.

 

"Hello, this is Jay"

 

"I’m sorry, I’m looking for Jesus?"

 

“Yeah, this is he – my friends call me ‘Jay’”

 

“Oh. Hi Jay. Rob Bieselin here. I’m calling you for the new iPhone.”

 

"You bought one?” he asked. “I was gonna tell santa to get you one for Christmas.”

 

“No. I didn’t buy it yet.”

 

“Oh good, you still want it?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s not as cool as I thought it would be.” I said, handling the thing for the first time – all plastic and metal with lotsa hype bells and whistles, the thing had everything but lacked personality. It was cold and sterile, looking the part, but offering little beyond novelty and marketing hype. There was no authenticity. There was no spirit – sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

“So what do you want instead?”

 

"I'd rather have a baseball glove," I said. "No, wait – maybe a ham and cheese sandwich and a pickle. I dunno… Which would you rather have.”

 

“Well, I try to keep kosher, so probably the glove, but I can have Santa bring you another sandwich and a pickle if that’s what you want.”

 

“Yeah. That would be nice,” I said before hanging up and handing the phone back to the bewildered salesman. “Thanks Jay.”

 

 

Ham sandwiches and pickles: that’s what it’s all about – the unexpected little things that the universe offers to those willing to pay attention: free lunches, hand-me-down shoes and baseball gloves, smiles that transcend religion, unhindered hugs from oft-unresponsive children. These are the items tallied on our real wish-lists. These are the real reason folks dress up like Santa. 

 

There’s warmth won from the merge of anonymity and charity. A warmth for which Ray’s willing to keeps his thick beard through the hot summers and for which he retains those spirited glance even through the bitter human days that test patience and faith. This is why parents let their kids caress oddly-dressed strangers, whispering to them the desires of their tiny hearts.

 

It’s a matter of belief. 

 

As Beesley said, it has to do with sharing and an intangible idea bigger than one man can ever hope to be. 

 

“I love being Santa and I want to be Santa for as long as I live,” he said twinkle-eyed and smiling. “One of my sons asked me, ‘when you [die], do you want to be buried in your [Santa] suit?’ I said, ‘no, don’t you dare. you pass that suit on to some one else who can make another child smile.’”

 

“That’s what being Santa is all about.”

 

 

© 2009-2018 by Robert Bieselin