And what healthy young American male could resist the chance to make $50 just by standing around on a street corner for a few hours? Sure, I had to wear a big red suit and a long white beard, and yes, thank you, I had to stuff a pillow under my coat, but I wasn't taking donations, and nobody sat on my lap.
It was the fall of my senior year in high school, closer to Halloween than Christmas, but the gig called for someone to go stand out on Charles Street and draw attention to a charitable Christmas sale taking place out of sight from the street.
It all seemed innocent enough, but there should be a warning label on those Santa suits: Avoid contact with teenager and his buddies: harmful when mixed. It was almost as good as having your parents leave town with the liquor cabinet unlocked. When I picked up the suit, it promised all the adventure of a night commencing with a climb down the holly tree outside my bedroom window, hours after curfew.
The first order of business as I confronted my hard weekend of work was to huddle with my friends Friday morning and set out to cause as much trouble as we could concoct at our school. Wearing a Santa suit gives you license to misbehave in ways I had never imagined, from disrupting classes to badgering little-old-lady librarians.
Wielding cartons of chocolate milk and chortling "ho ho ho's," my friends and I proclaimed our own on-campus holiday, enlisting unwitting accomplices from the cafeteria cooks to the head of the school, relishing the free rein that comes with impersonating an icon of goodwill.
Had the timing been any better, we would have shown up at Memorial Stadium, leading cheers for the Colts and partying in the upper deck, maybe making the video screen for the first time, and probably picking out a pack of Jets fans to rumble with. And with a Hollywood scriptwriter and Ferris Bueller playing my part, we surely would have ended up down at The Block, Baltimore's historic red-light district, ordering a table dance for old Saint Nick and making the most of the traditional "stocking stuffing," armed with a fistful of singles for all the good little girls.
But after taking stock of our low-end budget of finances and courage, we limited Santa's after-hours pursuits to a trip to Jerry's Tavern for a 12-pack of Coors, imported from the Rockies for those who liked living large. The drinking age was 18, so most any 15-year-old could pass, and we had wallets packed with fake I.D.s, thanks to the oldest cool classmate, who came of age in October.
But there was an element we liked about sending good ol' Kris Kringle out to get the beer, and, as we expected, you don't ask for I.D. when Father Christmas hands you a twenty.
The actual job of being Santa promised to be anticlimactic, biding my time on a lonely street corner far from the pedestrian traffic on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. I drove a mile to the site, turning heads at the stoplight as people gawked at Santa, stuffed into his hand-me-down Vega. As it turned out, I had underestimated the appeal of The Man in Red, and after settling into work, I got an odd satisfaction out of inducing the passers-by to wave at me, finding the good-cheer-mongering inspirational and addictive.
When a city bus passed, half-loaded with passengers, there was an extra sense of accomplishment in getting the driver to wave to me, but if the Maryland Transit Authority didn't already have a section in their drivers training manual concerning salutations to Santa, I can assure you, they do now.
At about 25 mph over the speed limit on a wet, slick road, the driver lost control, swerved into the opposite lane of traffic and finally veered completely off the road, running over a large tree and finally stopping on impact with a red brick row house.
The road was left littered with smashed cars which had bumped and sandwiched each other to avoid the path of the bus. People staggered around in a daze, or sat dumbfounded, heads against the wheel, muttering nonsensically to themselves in their newly compacted cars, only to find jolly Old St. Nick poking his head in the window, checking them twice as part of a quick triage. A small fleet of ambulances arrived on the scene, though no one was seriously injured, an improbable Miracle on Charles Street.
Whether I wanted to or not, I couldn't leave the job behind when I clocked out later that afternoon, having drawn more attention than $50 normally buys. The curse of Kris Kringle followed me to Chicago, along with teams of bloodthirsty lawyers who tracked me down in college a year later when the case went to court and the star witness left a forwarding address of a North Pole workshop.
For every hour I spent with a lawyer, I got wined and dined at one Chicago eatery after another, never sure of who was courting my testimony or what I could offer beyond the obvious facts: The road was wet, the bus was speeding, and the driver lost control while waving to Santa Claus.
I told my tale, answered their questions, ordered another beer on the law firm of the week and paid close attention to the little voice inside my head, the repetitive mantra that made such good sense to an impressionable college freshman: "Eat, Santa, eat!"