Santaland Diaries
Written and performed by David Sedaris

  

I was in a coffee shop looking through the want ads when I read, “Macy’s Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sizes who want more than just a holiday job! Working as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement….”

I circled the ad and then I laughed out loud at the thought of it. The man seated next to me turned on his stool, checking to see if I was a lunatic. I continued to laugh, quietly. Yesterday I applied for a job at UPS. They are hiring drivers’ helpers for the upcoming Christmas season and I went to their headquarters filled with hope. In line with three hundred other men and women my hope diminished. During the brief interview I was asked why I wanted to work for UPS and I answered that I wanted to work for UPS because I like the brown uniforms. What did they expect me to say?

“I’d like to work for UPS because, in my opinion, it’s an opportunity to showcase my substantial leadership skills in one of the finest private delivery companies this country has seen since the Pony Express!”

I said I liked the uniforms and the UPS interviewer turned my application facedown on his desk and said, “Give me a break.”

I came home this afternoon and checked the machine for a message from UPS but the only message I got was from the company that holds my student loan, Sallie Mae. Sallie Mae sounds like a naive and barefoot hillbilly girl but in fact they are a ruthless and aggressive conglomeration of bullies located in a tall brick building somewhere in Kansas. I picture it to be the tallest building in that state and I have decided they hire their employees straight out of prison. It scares me.

The woman at Macy’s asked, “Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?”

I said, “Full-time elf.”

I have an appointment next Wednesday at noon.

I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.

I often see people on the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I tend to avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco. So, if there is a costume involved, I tend not only to accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying, “Thank you so much,” and thinking, You poor, pathetic son of a bitch. I don’t know what you have but I hope I never catch it. This afternoon on Lexington Avenue I accepted a leaflet from a man dressed as a camcorder. Hot dogs, peanuts, tacos, video cameras, these things make me sad because they don’t fit in on the streets. In a parade, maybe, but not on the streets. I figure that at least as an elf I will have a place; I’ll be in Santa’s Village with all the other elves. We will reside in a fluffy wonderland surrounded by candy canes and gingerbread shacks. It won’t be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry.

I am trying to look on the bright side. I arrived in New York three weeks ago with high hopes, hopes that have been challenged. In my imagination I’d go straight from Penn Station to the offices of “One Life to Live,” where I would drop off my bags and spruce up before heading off for drinks with Cord Roberts and Victoria Buchannon, the show’s greatest stars. We’d sit in a plush booth at a tony cocktail lounge where my new celebrity friends would lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say, “A toast to David Sedaris, the best writer this show has ever had!!!”

I’d say, “You guys, cut it out.” It was my plan to act modest.

People at surrounding tables would stare at us, whispering, “Isn’t that… ? Isn’t that… ?”

I might be distracted by their enthusiasm and Victoria Buchannon would lay her hand over mine and tell me that I’d better get used to being the center of attention.

But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.

This afternoon I sat in the eighth-floor SantaLand office and was told, “Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf.”

In order to become an elf I filled out ten pages’ worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. During the second interview we were asked why we wanted to be elves. This is always a problem question. I listened as the woman ahead of me, a former waitress, answered the question, saying, “I really want to be an elf? Because I think it’s about acting? And before this I worked in a restaurant? Which was run by this really wonderful woman who had a dream to open a restaurant? And it made me realize that it’s really really… important to have a… dream?”

Everything this woman said, every phrase and sentence, was punctuated with a question mark and the interviewer never raised an eyebrow.

When it was my turn I explained that I wanted to be an elf because it was one of the most frightening career opportunities I had ever come across. The interviewer raised her face from my application and said, “And… ?”

I’m certain that I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it, but still they hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short. One is a dwarf. After the second interview I was brought to the manager’s office, where I was shown a floor plan. On a busy day twenty-two thousand people come to visit Santa, and I was told that it is an elf’s lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity. I promised to keep that in mind.

I spent my eight-hour day with fifty elves and one perky, well-meaning instructor in an enormous Macy’s classroom, the walls of which were lined with NCR 2152’s. A 2152, I have come to understand, is a cash register. The class was broken up into study groups and given assignments. My group included several returning elves and a few experienced cashiers who tried helping me by saying things like, “Don’t you even know your personal ID code? Jesus, I had mine memorized by ten o’clock.”

Everything about the cash register intimidates me. Each procedure involves a series of codes: separate numbers for cash, checks, and each type of credit card. The term Void has gained prominence as the filthiest four-letter word in my vocabulary. Voids are a nightmare of paperwork and coded numbers, everything produced in triplicate and initialed by the employee and his supervisor.

Leaving the building tonight I could not shake the mental picture of myself being stoned to death by restless, angry customers, their nerves shattered by my complete lack of skill. I tell myself that I will simply pry open my register and accept anything they want to give me — beads, cash, watches, whatever. I’ll negotiate and swap. I’ll stomp their credit cards through the masher, write “Nice Knowing You!” along the bottom of the slip, and leave it at that.

All we sell in SantaLand are photos. People sit upon Santa’s lap and pose for a picture. The Photo Elf hands them a slip of paper with a number printed along the top. The form is filled out by another elf and the picture arrives by mail weeks later. So really, all we sell is the idea of a picture. One idea costs nine dollars, three ideas cost eighteen.

My worst nightmare involves twenty-two thousand people a day standing before my register. I won’t always be a cashier, just once in a while. The worst part is that after I have accumulated three hundred dollars I have to remove two hundred, fill out half a dozen forms, and run the envelope of cash to the drop in the China Department or to the vault on the balcony above the first floor. I am not allowed to change my clothes beforehand. I have to go dressed as an elf. An elf in SantaLand is one thing, an elf in Sportswear is something else altogether.

This afternoon we were given presentations and speeches in a windowless conference room crowded with desks and plastic chairs. We were told that during the second week of December, SantaLand is host to “Operation Special Children,” at which time poor children receive free gifts donated by the store. There is another morning set aside for terribly sick and deformed children. On that day it is an elf’s job to greet the child at the Magic Tree and jog back to the house to brace our Santa.

“The next one is missing a nose,” or “Crystal has third-degree burns covering 90 percent of her body.”

Missing a nose. With these children Santa has to be careful not to ask, “And what would you like for Christmas?”

We were given a lecture by the chief of security, who told us that Macy’s Herald Square suffers millions of dollars’ worth of employee theft per year. As a result the store treats its employees the way one might treat a felon with a long criminal record. Cash rewards are offered for turning people in and our bags are searched every time we leave the store. We were shown videotapes in which supposed former employees hang their head and rue the day they ever thought to steal that leather jacket. The actors faced the camera to explain how their arrests had ruined their friendships, family life, and, ultimately, their future.

One fellow stared at his hands and sighed, “There’s no way I’m going to be admitted into law school. Not now. Not after what I’ve done. Nope, no way.” He paused and shook his head of the unpleasant memory. “Oh, man, not after this. No way.”

A lonely, reflective girl sat in a coffee shop, considered her empty cup, and moaned, “I remember going out after work with all my Macy’s friends. God, those were good times. I loved those people.” She stared off into space for a few moments before continuing, “Well, needless to say, those friends aren’t calling anymore. This time I’ve really messed up. Why did I do it? Why?”

Macy’s has two jail cells on the balcony floor and it apprehends three thousand shoplifters a year. We were told to keep an eye out for pickpockets in SantaLand.

Interpreters for the deaf came and taught us to sign, “MERRY CHRISTMAS! I AM SANTA’S HELPER.” They told us to speak as we sign and to use bold, clear voices and bright facial expressions. They taught us to say, “YOU ARE A VERY PRETTY BOY/GIRL! I LOVE YOU! DO YOU WANT A SURPRISE?”

My sister Amy lives above a deaf girl and has learned quite a bit of sign language. She taught some to me and so now I am able to say, “SANTA HAS A TUMOR IN HIS HEAD THE SIZE OF AN OLIVE. MAYBE IT WILL GO AWAY TOMORROW BUT I DON’T THINK SO.”

This morning we were lectured by the SantaLand managers and presented with a Xeroxed booklet of regulations titled “The Elfin Guide.” Most of the managers are former elves who have worked their way up the candy-cane ladder but retain vivid memories of their days in uniform. They closed the meeting saying, “I want you to remember that even if you are assigned Photo Elf on a busy weekend, YOU ARE NOT SANTA’S SLAVE.”

In the afternoon we were given a tour of SantaLand, which really is something. It’s beautiful, a real wonderland, with ten thousand sparkling lights, false snow, train sets, bridges, decorated trees, mechanical penguins and bears, and really tall candy canes. One enters and travels through a maze, a path which takes you from one festive environment to another. The path ends at the Magic Tree. The Tree is supposed to resemble a complex system of roots, but looks instead like a scale model of the human intestinal tract. Once you pass the Magic Tree, the light dims and an elf guides you to Santa’s house. The houses are cozy and intimate, laden with toys. You exit Santa’s house and are met with a line of cash registers.

We traveled the path a second time and were given the code names for various posts, such as “The Vomit Corner,” a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree, where nauseous children tend to surrender the contents of their stomachs. When someone vomits, the nearest elf is supposed to yell “VAMOOSE,” which is the name of the janitorial product used by the store. We were taken to the “Oh, My God, Corner,” a position near the escalator. People arriving see the long line and say “Oh, my God!” and it is an elf’s job to calm them down and explain that it will take no longer than an hour to see Santa.

On any given day you can be an Entrance Elf, a Water Cooler Elf, a Bridge Elf, Train Elf, Maze Elf, Island Elf, Magic Window Elf, Emergency Exit Elf, Counter Elf, Magic Tree Elf, Pointer Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Usher Elf, Cash Register Elf, Runner Elf, or Exit Elf. We were given a demonstration of the various positions in action, performed by returning elves who were so animated and relentlessly cheerful that it embarrassed me to walk past them. I don’t know that I could look someone in the eye and exclaim, “Oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa!” or “Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish!” Everything these elves said had an exclamation point at the end of it!!! It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. I feel cornered when someone talks to me this way. Doesn’t everyone? I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, “You must be exhausted,” or “I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.”

I am afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I’ll be a low-key sort of an elf.

Today was elf dress rehearsal. The lockers and dressing rooms are located on the eighth floor, directly behind SantaLand. Elves have gotten to know one another over the past four days of training but once we took off our clothes and put on the uniforms everything changed.

The woman in charge of costuming assigned us our outfits and gave us a lecture on keeping things clean. She held up a calendar and said, “Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don’t tell me, ‘I don’t wear underpants, I’m a dancer.’ You’re not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”

My costume is green. I wear green velvet knickers, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.

My elf name is Crumpet. We were allowed to choose our own names and given permission to change them according to our outlook on the snowy world.

Today was the official opening day of SantaLand and I worked as a Magic Window Elf, a Santa Elf, and an Usher Elf. The Magic Window is located in the adult “Quick Peep” line. My job was to say, “Step on the Magic Star and look through the window, and you can see Santa!” I was at the Magic Window for fifteen minutes before a man approached me and said, “You look so fucking stupid.”

I have to admit that he had a point. But still, I wanted to say that at least I get paid to look stupid, that he gives it away for free. But I can’t say things like that because I’m supposed to be merry.

So instead I said, “Thank you!”

“Thank you!” as if I had misunderstood and thought he had said, “You look terrific.”

“Thank you!”

He was a brawny wise guy wearing a vinyl jacket and carrying a bag from Radio Shack. I should have said, real loud, “Sorry, man, I don’t date other guys.”

Two New Jersey families came together to see Santa. Two loud, ugly husbands with two wives and four children between them. The children gathered around Santa and had their picture taken. When Santa asked the ten-year-old boy what he wanted for Christmas, his father shouted, “A WOMAN! GET HIM A WOMAN, SANTA!” These men were very rude and irritating, constantly laughing and jostling one another. The two women sat on Santa’s lap and had their pictures taken and each asked Santa for a KitchenAid brand dishwasher and a decent winter coat. Then the husbands sat on Santa’s lap and, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, one of the men yelled, “I WANT A BROAD WITH BIG TITS.” The man’s small-breasted wife crossed her arms over her chest, looked at the floor, and gritted her teeth. The man’s son tried to laugh.

Again this morning I got stuck at the Magic Window, which is really boring. I’m supposed to stand around and say, “Step on the Magic Star and you can see Santa!” I said that for a while and then I started saying, “Step on the Magic Star and you can see Cher!”

And people got excited. So I said, “Step on the Magic Star and you can see Mike Tyson!”

Some people in the other line, the line to sit on Santa’s lap, got excited and cut through the gates so that they could stand on my Magic Star. Then they got angry when they looked through the Magic Window and saw Santa rather than Cher or Mike Tyson. What did they honestly expect? Is Cher so hard up for money that she’d agree to stand behind a two-way mirror at Macy’s?

The angry people must have said something to management because I was taken off the Magic Star and sent to Elf Island, which is really boring as all you do is stand around and act merry. At noon a huge crowd of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering toward Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and after watching them for a few minutes I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.

Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it.

This evening I was sent to be a Photo Elf, a job I enjoyed the first few times. The camera is hidden in the fireplace and I take the picture by pressing a button at the end of a cord. The pictures arrive by mail weeks later and there is no way an elf can be identified and held accountable but still, you want to make it a good picture.

During our training we were shown photographs that had gone wrong, blurred frenzies of an elf’s waving arm, a picture blocked by a stuffed animal, the yawning Santa. After every photograph an elf must remove the numbered form that appears at the bottom of the picture. A lazy or stupid elf could ruin an entire roll of film, causing eager families to pay for and later receive photographs of complete, beaming strangers.

Taking someone’s picture tells you an awful lot, awful being the operative word. Having the parents in the room tends to make it even worse. It is the SantaLand policy to take a picture of every child, which the parent can either order or refuse. People are allowed to bring their own cameras, video recorders, whatever. It is the multimedia groups that exhaust me. These are parents bent over with equipment, relentless in their quest for documentation.

I see them in the Maze with their video cameras instructing their children to act surprised. “Monica, baby, look at the train set and look back at me. No, look at me. Now wave. That’s right, wave hard.”