By Lars Trodson
Photos by Joan McCabe
The bus careened down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. I would guess we were at 135th street, and I was looking into the lighted windows of the apartments, just as I did when I came in on the bus to New York on the way to school more than 30 years ago.
It was a cool crisp night, and we lurched into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at about 5:45 -- we were an hour late coming down from Providence -- and the Peter Pan bus pulled up to the gate and we all emptied out.
I walked down to the subway and got on the A train to go downtown to West 4th street and I sat next to three guys who were discussing a new haircut one of their members had just received. When I got on the train this new haircut was the first thing I saw. The back of this guy’s head, which was still glistening with product, looked vaguely like a tangled black fishing net with a bunch of crap caught in it.
The two other guys were telling the other guy who good he looked, but when New Haircut Boy got off at 14th street, one of other guys immediately said, “Dude looks ridiculous.”
They were selling Christmas trees right there on 6th Avenue, right in front of the CVS as I crossed the street, which was full of revelers and movie-going people, and just a little while later I was at the Barrow Street Theatre watching Michael Shannon in “Mistakes Were Made” -- a shaggy-dog tiny little wisp of a play but during which Shannon doesn’t ever leave the stage or stop talking. It’s a 90-minute monologue, with one minor character coming on stage at the end, and Shannon pulled this thing off with more artistry than maybe the play itself deserved. Shannon, you may remember, played the disturbed son of Kathy Bates in “Revolutionary Road.” He was the only good thing in that disaster, and he was nominated for an Oscar.
The next day my friend Joan and I were walking up to Washington Square, and I pointed out that this was where I first saw some kids break dancing, this was back in 1979 or 1980, and it was the first time I had ever seen such a thing, and you knew you were looking at something completely new.
We saw some Santas drifting through the Square, more than one, these elves dressed up in such a way that made you realize they had no pretense of making children happy, and one of the Santa Claus’s, lighting up a cigarette, had dropped his hat. A woman came over and yelled, “Hey, Santa, you dropped your hat!” and so Santa went laughingly back and she gave it to him and he and three or four other Santas stood on the corner smoking.
This was my introduction to SantaCon 2010, a five-year old tradition in which thousands of people dress up as the merry old elf and walk around the city in a free-style revel.
It was a few hours later when the entire city-wide congregation of Santas seemed to have drifted down to Greenwich Village, there were Santas coming in from every direction, many of them already on their way to some kind of yuletide nirvana, and they poured into a square tooting their horns and flirting and yelling and screaming and drinking out of cups and water bottles.
Suddenly everyone walking by had a smile on their face, and everybody took out their cameras and cell phones and videocams. Everyone was laughing, and there was a mixture of Santas like you have never seen in your life.
I don't want to bother distinguishing whether a man or a woman was a Santa or an elf helper, they were all Santas, no matter what their sex, on this day.
There were Santas dressed in military fatigues, construction worker Santas in yellow hard hats, porno Santas with huge woolly vaginas glued to their stomachs, rasta Santas, jogging Santas, ALF santas (you remember the TV show), body building Santas, some real and some with those horribly fake body costumes, Santas doing shots on the corner of W 4th and Grove Street, all kinds of Santas in striped leggings, looking like candy canes of red and white and green and white rings going up their legs, Santas with real beards, Santas with fake beards, Santas with no beards, Santas wearing nothing except cocktail dresses, dancing Santas, one lone Santa with a potted plant on her head, a Scottish Santa wearing a kilt, one Santa asking another Santa “Are we going to Hoboken?”, another Santa with a sign that read, “I’m Santa’s illegitimate son - Have you seen my dad?”, groups of people yelling out “Santa!” with huge groups of Santas yelling back, “What?”, Hasidic Santas, Santas dressed up in Halloween-type costumes that looked like Christmas present boxes, Santas with shiny wrapping bows in their hair, Santas with balloons, Santas with sparkling gold and silver cleavage, Santas in high heels and with blinking Rudolph red noses, there were court jester Santas, scooter riding Santas, regal Santas in top hats and tails, Santas was sleigh bells wrapped around their chests like Mexican bandits that jangled as they walked across the street, Santas yelling out, “I need a liquor store!” and German tourists taking pictures of the Santas and asking a stranger to take a picture of them with the Santas -- and, later, groups of Santas hugging one another in vain trying to sing drunken Christmas carols, and Donnie Darko Santas, a Santa asking, “We’re we gonna go?” and Santas fixing their makeup in the reflection of a car window, and a guy selling some junk out of the trunk of his car asking a mini-skirted Santa “Do you know what I want for Christmas?” “What?” “You.” And I didn’t know if he was going to pull that off or not but later I saw her walking with her friend and without the pickup artist, there were ghoul Santas and bell-ringing Santas and Santas in cabs. There was a gang of Santas outside the Barrow Street Ale House and when two cops walked around the corner and saw the size of the crowd one cop turned to the other and said, “Holy shit!” There were flaming red haired Santas and Santas climbing up street sign poles to get a better picture. Later, there were Santas in bathrobes and Santas taking up every seat at every table at every bar as far as the eye could see and Santas walking up Jones Street where Bob Dylan had the famous picture taken for his record with Suze Rotolo, and Santas hanging outside the Pink Pussy Cat and the Papaya Dog and the Four-Faced Liar, and everything was calm, and pretty soon, as the light faded, some of the Santas were doing their best to steer their companion Santas in the right direction, one or two were crashed on the sidewalk, passed out, “Santa down!” someone yelled, but then, later on, as the night came, the streets were calmer and clearer and there was maybe a leftover wig, or a gaggle of Santas huddling on the sidewalk, but everyone had gone. If you ever needed to reach Santa nirvana, this was it. The cumulative effect of the event was that you believed.
After the movie was over, I was putting on my coat and I realized there was a man standing behind me, and so I turned around and the man said, “I met Spalding once, on the train.”
“He was a talented man,” I said, not really knowing what to say.
“Yes he was,” said the man, who was smiling. “We talked.”
The next morning, early morning, I got on the C train heading back to the Port Authority. The subway was clean and bright and there were only a few other passengers. Just across from me a young man sat down and he was holding a bouquet of flowers. There were only four flowers in the bunch, but they were beautiful, and he held them gently and he looked at them.
We both got off at 42nd street and he raced by me, flowers in hand, up the stairs, headed off to somewhere in the rain.