Santa Round-Up Part Five: The Crying Game

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This and every Christmas season the most important person is the baby Jesus, with a bearded, white-haired toy factory owner coming in a close second. Every year we flock to the malls to sit in our kids down on Santa's lap. Sometimes they run off screaming, while others take to the old guy just like they would an elderly relative.

Santa Round-Up #5

Sunday December 21, 2008, 1pm Sharpstown Mall

"I was involved in a volunteer-only military action in Cambodia back in the sixties" Santa Paul informs me in a thick and satisfying New England accent. "Not many people have heard of it," he says as he waves at a little Hispanic girl in a red jumper. The little girl's family can't afford a picture with him.

This will not be the first time I am confronted with the yearnings of a child stuck inside a holiday that hinges so much on the monetary. I realize that I am not in the suburbs anymore; no one is walking around toting Abercrombie bags with pretty young studs plastered on the side. I'm at Sharpstown Mall off Highway 59, and I feel like I am at a hospice for shopping malls.

Santa Paul's station is built near the food court, near the vacant movie theater and the lone toy store. Parents are walking in, but not leaving with anything. Paul's photo attendant sits at her register listening to music on her disc player, as he waves at children peering through the picket fence that surrounds him.

I wish I could take free pictures for the kids with my own camera, so their parents don't have to choose between groceries or gas and a Christmas memory every child deserves. Hell, what am I going to do with the money? Buy another round of shots at a hipster bar, or a new tattoo? It doesn't seem right. But Santa Paul has been seeing this all holiday season.

Paul joined the Marines at seventeen in the late fifties, doing his boot camp out at Parris Island in South Carolina. He did a three-year hitch and turned around and enlisted in the Army in search of a position dealing with tanks. That was when he got involved in the Cambodian business. I don't press any further into that situation, because not all veterans are so ready to boast of past glories or otherwise. I learned that from the Santa at the Galleria a few weeks back.

This is Paul's first foray into performing in Texas since enlisting as a Santa in 2003, originally practicing in the San Bernardino area, going down as far to Chula Vista. His off time is spent hanging around the hotel, visiting our Asian restaurants and listening to NPR. He chose this part of Houston not for the glamour, but for himself. It would be easy to listen to rich kids rattling off a laundry list of wishes, but this is more rewarding for him.

"I don't hear kids wanting Wii's or Barbies. They want Daddy to come back, they want socks and shoes," he tells me adjusting his red hat, taking in the cool breeze from the fan pointing directly at him.

In California, a man was posing with his fiancée when he popped the question right as the flash bulbs went off. The couple promised to come back in a few years with a baby for Paul to pose with. This is a life-affirming tale in a sea of stories that make you shudder and mist up.

The saddest one of them all is the story of one holiday season back in California. He noticed at least a dozen families bringing up kids who were wearing crisp new clothes, seemingly right off the rack. They in fact were.

"The parents were buying clean outfits for the kids to pose with me in, then stripping them back down to their regular clothes and returning the newer ones to the department store" he explains. Small kids can't see the desperation in this, but adults like us can. Poor people searching for some sort semblance of dignity for their families in the middle of a cash-driven season. It's easy for people in Friendswood to buy an outfit expressly for a five-minute experience. Not so much off Fondren.

Paul has one gimmick that thankfully lightens up our afternoon. He's become the "Crying Santa." When a child comes up teary-eyed and fighting Mr. Claus, he follows suit. He also cries, with the parent's permission of course. The pictures I see on the computer are hilarious. Twin boys letting off the waterworks as Paul's face is reddened and pained as well. It makes for a picture that families will remember forever.

We have to take one of these for the article. So I do my best grimace, and Paul takes of his hat and let's out a hearty mournful bellow. The whole mall laughs at us, and the sound echoes off all the empty store fronts like a church bells ringing on Sunday morning.

-- Craig Hlavaty

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