In December of 1995, with only six months of Night Crawler under my belt, I was invited to follow an insurgent bunch of Cheap Suit Santas on their second annual tour through San Francisco's upper-crust hotels and department stores. There were over 100 Santas and, from a distance, they were an ominous sight, like jolly red ants spreading across an unprotected Christmas pudding. Up close, they were more disquieting still, tousled and unkempt, with jovial eyes hidden behind sinister laughs; they drank cheap booze from brown paper bags, smoked repellent cigars, ate foodstuffs off tourists' dinner plates, and concocted lewd Christmas carols. Toward the end of the night, they lynch a fellow Santa, kicking and screaming, from a Market Street lamp. There were looks of horror from holiday shoppers, and some smiles of recognition. There were two arrests for "un-Christmas-like behavior" (one for indecent exposure, the other for assault with a wreath), but I had been warmed by the holiday cheer and, discovering some long-lost friends under those stained woolly beards, I filed the experience away as one of my most pleasant Christmas memories.
Since 1995, Santarchy, as it's known, has spread across the country. Groups of wild-eyed St. Nicks have surfaced in Portland, where they've sung carols to police in riot gear; in Los Angeles, where they've frolicked along Muscle Beach and into the Church of Scientology; in New York City, where they've "stimulated" the staff at Tavern on the Green and climbed the Brooklyn Bridge; and in at least a half-dozen other major cities, where the words "Santacon" and "Santa Rampage" have appeared on police and media radar. But Santarchy started here, and, after a four-year local hiatus, the Cheap Suits promised to return home.
Of course, they say you can never go back, but feeling inordinately Grinchy this holiday season, I shell out $2.99 for a Walgreens hat, tack a white boa to a nearly discarded reddish get-up, and jump on a bus to Pier 41, where the relocated Oakland contingent is due to arrive. But there are no Santas. Not a speck of cheap felt or a discarded Jim Beam bottle to be found glistening in the bright morning light. I duck into game rooms and souvenir shops along Pier 39, hoping to find straggling holiday icons stealing game tokens from little boys, but there's nothing. I ponder the unlikely possibility of fast-moving Cheap Suit Santas and scuttle toward the next pickup spot, asking folks for info along the way. For nearly 200 yards, word on the street is "lots of weird Santas straight ahead," then suddenly the trail goes cold. Confused, I look around for an open bar but, seeing nothing in sight, continue until a blur of red catches my eye: Four unusually thin Santas on a street corner looking a little confused. I join them, followed by four or five more. Feeling comfort in numbers, we head over to the Farmers' Market to feast on "reindeer sausages on potato-rosemary bread, the yuppie Santa's tasty treat." The vendors point and smile at the charming ensemble of holiday well-wishers, and we wave back, forcing smiles past our very dark sunglasses. Then the second wave arrives - 30 or more Santas with satchels slung over their backs, already smelling of hard alcohol. We greet them with a spurious military-style "Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!" and Paul Trapani emerges from the group, looking a little worse for wear with a cockeyed Santa hat shoved over his fishing cap.
"We found your photographer," says Santa Ed, leering over small wire-rimmed spectacles. "We gave him a few drinks. Santa likes your photographer." Santa Ed pulls a present from his bag and offers it to me with the kindest of smiles: porno-wrapped coal. I couldn't be happier.
A couple of impetuous 9-year-old girls spy the bag of presents and insert themselves in the Santa mob.
"We want one," says a girl, with the assumed smile of innocence. Santa Ed hands her a piece of unwrapped coal. The girl rolls her eyes and sneers, "Oh, grrrreat," before fixing Santa Ed with her most hateful fourth-grade stare and storming off.
Smaller children approach and Millennial Santa offers them stickers, candy canes, and festive figurines.
"Santa thinks some children are naughty," says a Klaus in a miniskirt, picking up on the North Pole-style of always speaking in the third person, "and some children are nice. Santa doesn't always give out toys and stock shares."
The children recede and Santa Christ, in a cape and horns, lifts the lace doily covering the crotch of his Santa suit and dares to itch in front of a gourmet pasta stand.
"Santa can get itchy," observes Santa K. in a bullet-riddled Santa suit.
"Santa can get shot at," observes another Santa.
"Santa never dies," they both agree, before the Santas march off down the road with a "Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!" Safety Santa, in her reflective vest, arranges for special Santa crossing at most intersections.
At one corner, Santa K. lays down some ground rules: "Santa doesn't want to go to jail. If you are a police officer, please identify yourself." Three Santas in mirrored sunglasses raise their hands. "Don't steal stuff. Don't hurl too many kids against walls, and when security asks Santa to leave, Santa should leave." The Santas grumble and head toward North Beach. Cars honk, children wave, the Santas "Ho! Ho!" until a passing driver in a Santa hat becomes "One of us! One of us!" (His white truck is a Santa Utility Vehicle, and his large dog is, obviously, a reindeer.) But all of this clever Santa-think has Santa exhausted and needing beer, so the procession stops at Vesuvi-Hos, where the surly, hungover bartender is less than pleased with his roomful of off-color merrymakers -- all that red, all that beer, all that fake beard left on the rim of the pint glasses. Threats of naughty-listing do nothing to change his mood, and the Santas tromp off to Chinatown, where they cram themselves into the tiny Buddha Bar just as a funeral procession and brass band pass. Considerate of grief, the Santas remove their hats and watch the caravan from the windows, instead of the street, but to no avail: The sight of dozens of maladjusted Kringle noses pressed against the glass raises an inappropriate grin on the face of one of the younger mourners. The Santas feel guilty, but Christmastime carries on.
On the way to Union Square, the Santas rate pedestrians naughty or nice (the very old and very young are mostly nice; the very attractive are very naughty), and beat on a Bank of America building. They cram themselves into a telephone booth, mostly, and Santa Ed takes a piss in an alley, explaining to passers-by that "Santa has to pee." Overwhelmed by street singer Michelet Innocent, the Santas swoon and prostrate themselves, then "infiltrate" the teenage carolers from the New Artist's Guild. They pass under a banner quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, "Life without art is a mistake," into Saks Fifth Avenue, which proves more tolerant than the Gap, Old Navy, and Virgin Megastore combined by offering to spritz each Santa with holiday cologne. The Santas take in more libations at the Gold Dust Lounge, and Santa Ed gets very, very friendly with a couple of dowagers from Sacramento. Then it's a game of how many Santas fit in a cable car, followed by a standing-only ride to the Powell Street turnaround in exchange for a photo-op with the turnaround operator (taken by a drunken Santa who photographs his own eye). At the Sony Metreon, things don't fare as well for the Santas. After a little nap and a quick session of grass-angel-making on the lawn, the Santas march to the top of the building complex with security guards in tow, and ooh and aah at folks waving from the grounds below. Outside, the Santas are approached by a friendly woman in uniform who says very dangerous Santas at the WTO protest make us highly suspect.
"Guilt by association sucks," says one Santa (they all start to look the same after a while). Millennial Santa and her cohort, Y2Katie, are asked not to pass holiday stickers to the youngsters.
Rousing their holiday spirit, the Santas head to Zeum, where they ride the carousel, climb the world, and pose for pictures with some crazy family that follows for the next half an hour. Then it's off to beers at 111 Minna, and a stumble to the Oakland ferry for impromptu judging of the Oakland Lighted Yacht Parade.
The next night, after an aborted attempt at crashing the corporately sponsored Santa.com Parade, the Cheap Suit Santas console each other at the Naughty Santas Black Market crafts soiree held at SOMAR. Discussing sprained ankles, splitting hangovers, and plans for next weekend's Seattle Santacon, the bedraggled Kris Kringles find the merry might to beat on a junked car with golf clubs and sledgehammers for charity.
"It's been a pretty mellow weekend for Santa," says a Santa. "Just a few drinks with friends, really. It's a tough job, and it takes a pretty vigorous Santa. Luckily, we've got a few laying around."
Ho! Ho! Ho?
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