Happy holiday, friends! I wrote this piece on Medium last year and thought I might share it again here this holiday season. Enjoy, and see you in 2018.
I was 19. Young, in art school, and living in the East Village. A friend of mine had told me about a seasonal job that he had for the past couple of years and recommended that I go in for an interview when Macy’s put out a casting call in November. It paid well, he said, and at $10 an hour the pay indeed seemed like a fortune at the time. Plus, if you did a good job being an elf, you were invited back every season and your pay increased by a dollar every year. Seemed like easy money for easy work. I mean, how hard could being an elf at Macy’s Santaland be?
The interview room, which was more like a casting call, was filled with all sorts of people, but mostly young out of work actors and actresses looking to make some extra money during the holiday season. I, on the other hand, had no acting experience. I was also a bit shy then and started to wonder what the hell I was doing there as I stood against a wall watching various actor and dancer-types practice voice projection and being as elf-like as they could muster. But much to my surprise, I was hired immediately. Outside of babysitting and tutoring gigs, it was my first official job.
At a wardrobe fitting a week later, the woman in charge of costume looked me up and down, paused, and declared that I was the elfiest looking elf that Macy’s ever hired. Was it my left ear that always stuck out from underneath my long hair and bangs that inspired her remark (during those late teenage years, more than a few people commented that I resembled a Gelfling from The Dark Crystal)? Or the fact that I was waifish? Years later, it dawned on me that I probably looked “exotic” to her, which back then meant that I wasn’t white and maybe Macy’s was looking to hire more diversity in their elves. I mean, let’s be real here. There weren’t a lot of Asians–or other people of color for that matter–auditioning to be elves at Santaland in Mayor Dinkins era New York City.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, I commuted on the R train 4 days a week up to 34th Street from my apartment on St. Mark’s Place and stepped into my elf costume, transforming myself into one of Santa’s magical helpers. If you lived in NYC before the early 90s, you’ll remember what a shithole most of New York was back then. Times Square was still teeming with sex shops, a general cesspool of humanity. Bryant Park was an outdoor drug haven that was to be avoided at all costs. And the East Village, where I lived while attending art school in the neighborhood, was still reeling with tension after the Tompkins Square Park riots. As dirty and crime-ridden as the city was back then, you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t colorful and interesting. Maybe not so much when we were living in the moment, but looking back, it’s hard to resist romanticizing the East Village of the 1980s even though it really didn’t deserve to be. We were right at the cusp of gentrification, but the squatter movement was in full force and it seemed no matter what you identified yourself as (if at all) – whether it was artist, anarchist, hippie, poet, activist, vegan crust punk, or squatter – we were all part of the scene that made up that community. So you can imagine how surreal it must have been to step in from the gritty, dirty streets of the Lower East Side and into this manufactured glittery Christmas fantasy land that was Macy’s Santaland some 34 blocks north.
Now, I gotta say, I never believed in Santa as a child. As an immigrant kid who got dropped into 1970s NYC when I was 3, my parents didn’t perpetuate the holiday fairy tale of the fat, red suited man who magically flew around the globe dropping presents to all the children in the land. I didn’t blame them—they didn’t grow up with Santa, after all. In the aftermath of war torn Korea, I’m fairly sure that Santa wasn’t a thing– at least in their part of the world. Working at Santaland was, therefore, fascinating to me because the powers that be went to great lengths to protect the illusion that there was only ONE Santa on the premises at Macy’s. We were all trained (and sworn) to protect the sacred lie. The real truth is that there are multiple Santa houses working simultaneously to manage the huge crowds that visited Santa every week. Our jobs as elves required rotating among stations. We would sometimes greet visitors as they entered (or alternatively, entice people to come in when it wasn’t busy) or work inside the Santa house and guide the children from the lines to Santa’s lap. Other times we would be out on the floor. Part of our jobs as elves was to distract the children and do crowd control on the lines that wove around Santaland in a maze towards the path to each Santa house. During peak visiting hours on the weekends, Santaland was filled with babies ands kids–some adorably patient and others crying in terrible tantrums. Dealing with frustrated parents, as I recall, was one of the hardest parts of the job. Long lines created short fuses, and when you’re 19, you have zero ounce of sympathy or understanding for what it must be like to be a parent. This job, at times, was the greatest form of birth control one could imagine.
But not all times were crazy at Santaland. During the week, it got downright quiet with only a few visitors trickling in during the slow hours. This is when the fun would begin. Bored, we would sometimes hide among the christmas trees and penguin displays in the middle of the maze and jump out and scare the unsuspecting children that turned the corner as they zoomed through the maze to Santa’s house. Other times we would try to fetch the coins that people would toss in the decorative model villages and trains as they waited in the snaking lines. These were behind tall plexiglass so we had to engineer some ingenuity to retreive the coins. We didn’t consider it stealing; we considered it “tips” and “payback” for dealing with impossible parents. Now, there were always stories of certain elves hooking up with Santas in their houses when visitors were few, but I don’t know much about that. My circle of East Village misfits and I had too much fun making mischief out on the floor for any of that, but I’m sure it happened. It probably happened often, in fact.
Much like life, working at Santaland wasn’t all fun and games. The worst was when teenagers would come through the maze, for pure entertainment, and make fun of us elves in our costumes. Let’s talk about these elf costumes for a minute. It would seem like we would be cute, right? WRONG. The outfits were, in fact, hideous. They were unisex so the leggings were loose, like long johns instead of being cute tights with skater skirts, for example. And the leggings extended down to cover our shoes, almost like the way ice skaters have their tights cover the entirety of their skates to create a more streamlined look. But ours never really stayed on our shoes properly; they ended up looking like sad flaps of fabric flapping against the tops of our shoes as we pranced around Santaland. The upper part of the costume was a smock-like contraption over knickers in various forest and earth tone shades. My costume was brown?—?there was nothing Christmas-y or festive about it. Oh, and we wore pointy hats on our heads, yes. We looked more like garden gnomes than elves and as annoyingly embarrassing as it was to be heckled by teenagers our own age, we totally deserved it. We looked ridiculous.
It was the last weekend before Christmas, the busiest weekend of all, when my career as an elf came crashing down. I was working the house elf shift?—?an important role during peak Santa visiting hours. I had to be cheerful, but patient and as elf-like as possible as I escorted each kid to Santa. I don’t know if it was the combination of heavy crowds and the high energy of the space, but the next thing I knew as I was leading a child into Santa’s house is that I saw black.
Some time later, I woke up staring up at the bathroom ceiling, a crowd of worried elves peering down at me. Apparently, I passed out from dehydration and heat exhaustion, causing quite a commotion among the Santa visitors. My body had to be dragged out-of-sight in public view by a few elves. After I was deemed ok, I took my poor elf self out of Macy’s and into the cold air. I took a cab and headed home.
I finished out the remaining few shifts of the season after the fainting incident, but management put me in low profile stations just in case it happened again. Needless to say, I didn’t get invited back to be an elf the following year, despite the fact that I was the elfiest looking elf ever hired. To this day, I still haven’t been back to Macy’s Santaland, not even to bring my kids to Santa when the girls were little and still believed in that sort of thing. Living in the city of your childhood is like walking through ghost towns of your past, memories encased in street corners and addresses even if the facades and storefronts change. But some are better left to live in the memories of our youthful past, and in the form of stories to be told years later.