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Sunday, December 25, 2005
Gone were the Saturday night college boys and their make-believe dates, the representatives from the great state of New Jersey, the (presumably) off-duty cops and firefighters, and the sweet young thangs who know all the words to every Gretchen Wilson song.
There was one dude, however, who really looked out of place. He sat alone at a table near the men's room, thus having to evade the mixed fluids which sometimes runneth over onto the floor. No one paid much attention to this old dog, as often happens to senior citizens who venture into the self-segregated world of the young. But his long, white beard, clear spectacles, red jeans and cowboy hat, and growing collection of empty Lone Star beer longnecks suggested that he was not from around these parts, and maybe was supposed to be somewhere else.
"Hi, I'm Eddie," I offered, and he just grunted in response. "From around here?" I inquired.
"What are you, the NSA?" he shot back.
"No," I countered, "they're on that pay phone in the back."
"Now that's funny," he said, a saying I vaguely remembered hearing earlier that day somewhere.
"Listen, before you ask," he continued, "the answer is 'Yes, I'm him.' "
"Who?" I asked as if I didn't know, trying to be polite, which is unnatural for me to attempt.
"Old St. Nick. Kris Kringle. I go by a lot of names, but you probably best know me as Santa Claus."
Now, he didn't look as bookish as Edmund Gwenn and I certainly don't look like John Payne (and the remake just doesn't count), so maybe we were just having our own little miracle on 76th Street.
Though the skeptic that I am, I nonetheless decided to play along. After all, there are far worse lies told every night in this very bar.
"So Santa, what the hell are you doing here tonight of all nights? I mean, I know the jukebox is good and the beer is cheap, but it's like that every night, just more crowded. It's past midnight, so aren't you supposed to be jumping down chimneys or something by now?" I asked.
"Nobody needs me anymore," he moaned, his speech starting to become about as muddy as the leftover beer in the cans and bottles decorating most every flat surface in the joint.
"What do you mean?" asked I. "I thought that even those religious fanatics barking 'Merry Christmas or else!' wanted the stores like Wal-Mart to keep celebrating Christmas, and not make it some serious, boring holiday, for crissakes."
"That's part of the reason," he said, as he seemed ready to begin an explanation.
"Years ago, when kids wanted toys like a Red Ryder BB gun , me and all the elves had all the work that we could handle."
"So what happened? You got sued for shooting their eyes out?"
"No, it wasn't even that. Most people don't know this, but there's a lot of oil in the North Pole, so we hired some sleazy New York lawyers to settle. I think they also represent some boxing promoters," said Santa.
Now the old feller sat up a bit in his chair, and seemed ready to drop the bomb.
"It's the Internet and all this new-fangled hi-tech stuff," he said, now almost shouting over the Merle Haggard song playing on the jukebox.
"If you want a book or a dress or even some food, you can order it online. And music -- that's killing me more," he went on, his face now once again drooping onto the wet table in front of him.
"If they want music, there's nothing for me to pack and bring! How do I tell those elves to stick some dang MP3's in my gunny sack, anyway?"
He then looked straight into my Hubble Space Telescope glasses, aware that I, like everyone else, had no answer.
"We've been downsized, a bunch of the elves and even a few reindeer have been thrown out of work, and now the North Pole federal government says we may not even be able to collect our pensions," he shot out.
"Well, look," he added, suddenly in a friendlier tone. "I know this isn't any fault of yours, and you probably think it all sucks, too. So let's have a beer together and toast the holidays."
Trying to be friendly, I began to say, "Merry ....", but before I could finish he put his gnarled right index finger up to his lips.
"Nah, 'Happy holidays' is good enough for me these days," the old man stated. "It's more inclusive and besides, it gives me more opportunities to find work."