An Army of Santas Can’t Be Beat (1995)
San Francisco Santacon (#2)
S. Cape Claus, reporting:
photo by Shelley Fern Diamond
Shortly before Christmas I saw in a weekend newspaper an alarming photo of a department store Santa Claus in Tucson under police protection. Santas in Arizona have reportedly received death threats in the mail.
Clearly these are hard times for all–but if St. Nick, the patron saint of this holiday season, is on the run, where does that leave us?
Being an empathetic, sensitive kind of guy, I thought I’d check out what it’s like to wear the red suit and white beard, and surround myself with Christmas zealots. Surrendering to this impish impulse, I bought a Santa suit Saturday morning after breakfast.
My housemate jeered, saying I’d never find Santa drag in the predominantly Latino Mission District where we live, but within one block it was eureka in the Woolworths. The cashier was so friendly on espying my purchase, she gave a 20% discount, making me a Santa for less than 20 bucks–such a deal.
photo by D.S. Black
Boarding BART, I was taken aback to see three other Santas going downtown. “Merry fucking Christmas,” one spat.
Perhaps it’s best for Santas to avoid one another–reminding me of another recent news story of two Santas in France who came to blows in a territorial dispute over a street corner.
Once down at the Embarcadero I saw what can only be described as a mob of maybe a hundred Santas rallying behind the skating rink. I thought, it may be a long way to the North Pole, but these are my kith and kin. One handed me a card for the “Kris Kringle Institute–the Santa Specialists.” I knew then that I’d arrived.
It was a meeting of Santa and Anti Claus, in all their myriad guises. Guys and gals were decked out in red duds with preposterous white wigs and beards, offset by absurd flourishes: dark glasses, candy cane leggings, dominatrix paraphernalia, with plenty of attitude to spare.
photo by David Duprey
ONLY SANTA CAN SET YOU FREE, read a sign carried by Santa posing as a caped crusader.
“An army of Santas can’t be beat,” said another.
A map was distributed showing the route for the night’s ramble (rumble?) about town. The Santa who prepared the route signed himself “Claus von Bulow.” Hmm.
To the extent that this Santanalia was organized, the San Francisco Cacophony Society rounded up its usual suspects from across the art-mutant spectrum. Bad-asses involved included guerrilla artists from Survival Research Laboratories (known for their gladiatorial robot shows), Burning Man, and other Bay Area anarcho-nihilistic prankster groups. This was a chance to “take it to the streets” and generally Fuck Shit Up.
After a brief reading of their art riot act, the Santas hoisted white garbage sacks of toys, pulled on their hipflasks, fired up smokes, and plunged into the holiday crowd of shoppers counting down the days to Xmas.
“Are you guys on strike?” asked one concerned parent.
“Lady, we are going to paint this town red,” replied a Santa with horns sprouting through his merry red cap.
Another one added, by way of example, this oft-heard benediction: “Ho. Ho ho. Ho ho ho. Ho!” This minimal incantation was not without menace, a subversion of the Holiday Paradigm?
Santas kept busy checking a constantly changing, goggling crowd for signs of Who’s Naughty and Who’s Nice. Most were naughty, naturally.
photo by D.S. Black
And paint it we did, with flowing spirits, celebratory cigars (purchased at the Fairmont) and lusty, ribald remarks (for male or female, Santa’s lap does itch). Our bonhomie was for the most part infectious in the bars and restaurants that we cycloned through.
We stormed the Hyatt Regency, panted up to the Mark Hopkins, the Drake, and the St. Francis. Security in these SNob Hill hotels were not generally pleased to hear we were “with the Kringle Institute party,” searching their registers in vain.
Down the hill, they received us–”ho ho”–with startling aplomb at Planet Hollywood–probably thinking we were just another special effect ordered up by a hypersteroidal Terminator celebrant.
The mood at Emporium was a frenetic lockstep: panic shoppers. Santas chanted, hoping to grease the wheels of consumer industry, “CHARGE IT, CHARGE IT,” while the disbelieving customers wondered if this was how Santa could set them free.
photo by D.S. Black
A vindictive security guard later accused two Santas of molesting this department store’s Christmas ornaments and had them arrested.
On Market St. at Powell the Santas paused to kick hell out of one of their own–whether he was a scab or “trying to go union” was never clear. After some fussing with a noose (and, one assumes, a safety harness) he was hung from a stoplight post by the neck until he soon cheered up.
This Santa was obviously made of strong stuff, or had lives to spare, for he quickly regained his wits on being cut down, before the police arrived. In the ensuing imbroglio, a female Santa was cited after flashing her breasts at the cops.
photo by Scott Beale
By this point, 50 diehard Santas escaped on the Geary bus, but were stopped by several police cruisers, who required each Santa to exit the bus with beard lowered and eyes seared by squinting flashlights so they could identify and arrest the Santa 2 who had offended Emporium.
There was brief pandemonium as some jettisoned their costumes, while others emptied their swag under the seats. One of the gifts a few Santas had to relinquish were clear plastic bags containing white rocks, a spoon, a book of matches, and a toy syringe. The label identified this as “Santa’s Heroin-Cooker Kit.”
When it became clear we could not save our Santa-neros now in handcuffs, we continued to the Palace of Legion of Honor to crash the Christmas party of the San Francisco Chronicle.
One free-lance Santa was surprised to encounter his editor (from a rival newspaper) lounging with a plastic cup of fruit juice by a Rodin sculpture. Even with a beard (thrust aside by drink), the editor easily recognized him, remarking acidly, “I never saw such a sorry lot of Santas, in all my life.”
“Well even Santa has bad hair days,” his Santa-scribe replied.
A few minutes later, despite furious shmoozing, the Santas were asked to leave, perhaps out of respect for the finger food, which they had seized with ravenous glee.
Outside it was wet and cold. The Santas glumly considered the plight of the two who’d been jailed out of an excess of puritan zeal.
Eventually the “strong arm robbery” charges were reduced on the Santa 2 to misdemeanors: “obstructing a business operator” and public drunkenness. Punitively, these Santas were kept in the klink for two days before being released on bail. One is planning a counter-suit for mistaken identity.
With Salvation Army bell-ringers now banned from some department store doorways, it should come as no surprise that unauthorized, irregular Santas are everywhere on the run, subject to arrest and intimidation by the Scrooge-minions of law and order.
As we lurch into the late 90s, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guys.