I'd spent about five weeks at the North Pole, and had never really met Santa.
People talked about him customers mostly, asking me where his house was and whether he was there that day. I never knew the answers. My orientation tour at the start of the summer had been pretty bare: "Here's the bathroom, here's where you eat, here's a singing elf in a "gay purple outfit,' here are the rides you'll run."
At first, when asked about Santa's whereabouts, I fell over myself apologizing and explaining that I was new. But it wasn't long before I tired of the question. I started directing people to a hill, in this Cascade amusement park made of nothing but hills, and then described a building using two attributes that are true of every building there.
"Hey, bud, where's Santa's house at?"
"Just head that way, over the hill. It's by the building with the roof and some stripes."
Its a dirty job
Santa would come up in conversation again during lunch, when the other ride operators and I would sit in the green metal employee shack, shielded from the paying customers, so the kids wouldn't see us smoking or hear us cursing.
We were an odd group. The foreign-policy ideas of the man sitting across from me involved converting most of the Middle East and Asia into "a glass parking lot." Behind me, a high-school-aged kid tried way too hard, wearing slip-on shoes and cargo pants and claiming he was in a gang. He was laughed at by a woman in her mid- to late twenties who had already been through hell in ways I'd never had to think about before. She once uttered the sentence, "You name it, I've done it in a Wendy's."
Rumor had it that Santa was paid considerably more than we were.
"He earns it," said a guy who'd been at the North Pole for a while. "Do you know what he goes through? He gets peed on every day."
but somebodys got to do it
I felt like I kind of knew Santa's pain. Little children begged their mothers, and then me, to allow them to ride the same park rides over and over again.
My employment hinged on saying, "Sure!" And cheerily.
I took pride in the little victories, like forcing the pleading children to first exit the ride before they could get back on. It was petty, and, actually, it just made more work for me. But after entire days spent doing absolutely nothing but standing on a foot pedal and pleading with people to stop endangering themselves, I had lost my ability to be a reasonable human being.
I was an elf, apparently, and an ornery one at that.
Later in my time at the North Pole, a friend suggested that I get to know Santa. She had this vision in which he and I would sit together and talk about the human condition over lunch. We would form a great, dramatic friendship born of hopelessness.
When I finally saw the big man in red, he was on his break, looking just as broken as everyone else. I smiled and waved, and he affected a grin that barely contained his apathy. If there was a spark within him, it was buried pretty deep.
It was on my last day as a North Pole employee when I first become the proud recipient of a customer compliment. A woman called me the nicest person in the park. I smiled over the irony of the fact that I wouldn't be there the next day.
Operating the most difficult ride in the park demands the ability to count to eight. The ride I was working that day didn't even really require opposable thumbs. And, as it was still early in the day, I was able to bask in my own pleasure. I could barely hear the Phil Collins Disney music, which was inexplicably played over the park's PA system almost as often as the overtly religious Christmas songs. When the breeze picked up, I couldn't hear anything at all, except the occasional chirping bird or screaming child.
There was a time, for about 15 minutes, where everything was so placid that I began to actually wonder if I might wind up regretting my decision to leave.
Then a day-care group began its approach.
I heard them first. Then the front-runners appeared over the crest of a hill, yelling and panting and waving on the others. The rest followed like a medieval army of miniature orcs.
A few seconds later, as they poured through the gate, arms flailing wildly, a tiny fist made solid contact with my unsuspecting crotch. Its owner was already trying to haul someone out of a seat by the time I was able to stand upright again.
If only Santa and I had forged that friendship. Forget coal I'd have made sure that, for Christmas, that kid would be gifted the opportunity to work at the North Pole.