12 Noon Sunday 16 December 2012 Nunhead Heights, London
My Uncle Shimmy met Santa Claus in the North Pole. Not only had he met Santa, but he was given a tour of Santa’s Workshop.
I was a kid in the 1960s and my mother’s older brother, my Uncle Shimmy, was the family clown.
He looked like Kramer from Seinfeld. He was like Kramer from Seinfeld. He would dance for strangers on the Coney Island Boardwalk, feed the ducks in Prospect Park with salami because he thought they wanted some meat with all the bread. He’d often buy groceries for poor people where he lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He drove a delivery truck so he couldn’t have much money himself.
My father didn’t think much of my mother’s family, or anyone, for that matter. My father wasn’t a generous man. When Uncle Shimmy would visit us on Long Island my father would announce derisively, ‘Everybody! Santa Claus is here!’
Often my mother was in the hospital sick during the holidays, suffering from a ‘chemical imbalance’. Our holidays were often dark and lonely times.
Uncle Shimmy would bring me and my sister small gifts. He once gave me a P51 airplane model – worth about a dollar – which I cherished. Then, he’d look around to see if my father was listening, and when he was sure he wasn’t he’d tell us how he’d met Santa Claus.
He told us that in the 1950s he was working on the DEW Line – the ‘Distant Early Warning Line’. He was helping build the string of monitoring stations across Alaska, Canada and Greenland for NORAD that kept America safe from Russian attack. Americans were very afraid of the Russians during the Cold War.
The conditions were hellish – well, the opposite of hell – freezing. He was living and working in blinding snowstorms with temperatures so low that ordinary thermometers would crack.
One morning he was flying around with his partner in the snow tractor hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. A snow tractor was like a car with tracks like an army tank – able to ride on snow and ice. They hit a crevasse and crashed through the ice. Down into a hole they fell into Santa’s workshop like Alice in Alice in Wonderland.
Santa’s workshop wasn’t what they thought it would be like, he’d tell us.
‘Do you know the office your father works in at American Machine and Foundry in Manhattan?’ he asked. ‘It’s like that but bigger. There were hundreds of desks and phones, teletype machines, Rolodexes with thousands of names, IBM adding machines, typewriters, and a giant computer.’
Santa rushed out of his office to see him. He wasn’t even a man Uncle Shimmy told us. ‘He’ was a woman.
My sister and I would giggle, ‘Mommies don’t do stuff like that!’
‘Why can’t a woman be a Santa Claus? There were all sorts of people who were Santas. I saw the paintings and photographs of past Santa Clauses on the wall! Chinese Santas, young Santas. There was even a Negro Santa. Can you believe that? That was years before they let Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.’
You could sense the shame and anger he felt that his America wasn’t as fair as it should have been.
He’d continue, ’Santa was screaming at people at the workshop, “How could you have let this happen!? Why was the roof so weak!!” An angry Santa? True. She swore like a sailor!’
The Workshop roof had never had big snow tractors driving across it before. She calmed down and showed my Uncle and his partner around the place, down corridors and offices.
‘Did you see reindeer?’ I jumped in.
‘A few. They were kept as pets.’
‘What about elves?’ my sister demanded to know.
I didn’t even know what an elf was. We weren’t really raised with Christmas, except the presents. We didn’t even have a Christmas Tree. We got our presents on Hannukah because we were Jews but we knew we were getting presents because every boy and girl got presents in December because of Christmas.
‘No elves. People. Normal people were on the phones, calling around the world,’ he answered.
‘Did you see them make the toys?’ we quizzed him.
He laughed, ‘The toys were made in Japan!’
We laughed. That is where they made toys then. Now they’re made in China.
‘Well, what does Santa do if he… ummm … she… doesn’t make the toys, and if she doesn’t deliver the toys to nice boys and girls? And if he doesn’t have the elves helping him… I mean… helping her?’
Uncle Shimmy got serious, ‘Two thousand years ago there were only a few kids who wanted toys at Christmas – just a few Christian kids. He… she… could manage. But now? Now there are hundreds of million of Christian boys and girls. And today Jewish kids, Indian kids, even kids who don’t believe in God – expect presents! That’s BILLIONS of children!’
‘Do you think Santa has the time to make that many bicycles and dolls and games and then deliver them to all those kids? NO WAY!’
‘Well, what does he… she… do?’ we wanted to know.
‘She gets department stores to have regular people pretend to be Santa Claus. And she gets musicians to write funny songs about seeing Santa kissing mommy. You know all those ads with Santa Claus? That’s what she does. All so people don’t believe in Santa Claus.’
Outside the house Uncle Shimmy had his big brown van. He drove the van for living. My father was embarrassed for him. My father was a lawyer and almost all my friends’ dads worked in offices in Manhattan. I knew no one whose father drove a truck. That is something my parents left behind when they made money and moved to the suburbs from Brooklyn.
‘Is there a bicycle in there? Can I have a new bicycle?’
‘Not from me. Your Mommy and Daddy are getting you another bicycle,’ he whispered.
‘They have the money and even though your Mommy is sick and in the horse pistol, she loves you.’ Horse pistol is what he called the mental hospital my mom used to go to when he was chemically imbalanced – the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s still there.
‘I’m going to bring bicycles to a few children who don’t have mommies or daddies, or whose mommies and daddies are too poor to buy them presents, or whose mommies and daddies believe in Santa Claus and don’t think they have to get their children presents for Christmas.’
‘Are you Santa?’ we would ask Uncle Shimmy.
‘No, I’m just helping Santa,’ he gently shook his head. ‘Though if I’m very, very good maybe, one day, maybe I’ll get asked to be the Santa. That would be a great responsibility but a great honor.’
My father would sneer. ‘If he keeps this up he’s going to be the Santa in the horse pistol. And he’s going to get fired by the UPS for using their van without their permission.’
I knew I shouldn’t tell anyone or I would be making Santa’s job harder. I couldn’t keep a secret. I still can’t keep secrets. I only told my best friends, Clifford and Mark, what Uncle Shimmy had told me. They laughed at me and called me a baby for believing in Santa.
When I was eleven Uncle Shimmy stopped visiting us.
I’d ask my father if Uncle Shimmy would be coming back and my father would shrug his shoulders. First my mother went away, and now Uncle Shimmy.
The next year my father went out and bought toys and dolls and games from Gertz’s Department Store in Great Neck Plaza and the small toy shop next to the dry cleaners on Middle Neck Road.
My sister and I helped wrap them and load them into the Buick. We went to the scary rundown apartment buildings by the train station and gave them to the poor Black and Spanish families who lived there. On the way back home we stopped by the pond in Allenwood Park and my father gave us salami to feed the ducks.
‘We’re just helping Uncle Shimmy until he comes back,’ my father told us.
My friend Neil McLennan helped me tell this story.
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