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Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Smashing Santa Story

The events described in this last Santa Story happened twelve years ago today, on December 6, 1992. It was my first and worst year as Santa. This tale was originally posted two years ago in four parts and Laura, my girlfriend from that time and primary victim, helped recall events:

Laura always managed to duck out of tough scrapes. Here she is surrounded by thugs in downtown Cleveland.

Part 1: A Santa is Born

In the fall of 1992, I’d finished university and was wondering what the hell I was going to do with my time, besides eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Laura and I were living above a store at 711 Mt. Pleasant, just south of Eglinton and I was making ends meet by borrowing large wads of cash from my parents and doing papier mache projects. I had a little room at the back of the flat where I would work until the early morning hours slapping strips of paper together to make masks and other stuff. It was the height of the recession and jobs were scarce and my credit card was like a gasping baby bird waiting to be fed, so I took a job at the GAP at First Canadian Place. University had been four years of fun and now life seemed bleak and hopeless.

Gee, thanks! I don’t think it was that bad. My sister moved in to help with the rent. And the Sopranos next door were on your side ….

Vicky (Cleaopatra 2525, Mutant X) helped with the rent.

Oh, it was that bad: the GAP. The GAP! They paid minimum wage, so when the opportunity to top up the cash tank appeared, I jumped at it: five weeks of Santa at the Woodbine Centre Mall in north Etobicoke for $12 an hour. I’d worked with kids, I’d been a swimming instructor. It seemed like the easy money.

An aunt had pitched the Santa gig to me over Thanksgiving dinner. I set up a schedule so I could work at the GAP in the mornings and Santa in the afternoon/evenings. My parents’ lent us their blue Volvo to help with the commute.

The week before the Santa season, we had a crew meeting to get set up. The helpers were college beauty-school students and the other Santas were a bit older and unemployed, also doing the job to pick up some cash. At the meeting, the veteran helpers began wistfully reminiscing about their favourite Santa from the previous year:

“He was so sweet. Remember how he used to have to go into the Santa House and pee in the bucket! Poor guy. Too bad he died.” The girl telling the story explained that one night after his shift, Santa went home, went to sleep and never woke up. He must have been pretty frail, I thought. How hard could the job be?

All of the Santas had to suit up to make sure their suits and beards fit and we were given a little booklet explaining how to be a “good Santa”. A good Santa never says, "I", a good Santa always refers to himself as "Santa". It's similar to the Bob Dole instruction book.

On my first shift, I discovered that there was a problem with the fine-looking beards we were wearing: they were HOT AS HELL. The high quality beards and wigs we had to wear that year were exceptional. They were full, finely-crafted $100 wigs; the best damn fake-hair items I’ve ever seen or worn. And the most painful.

Woodbine is also a relatively warm mall and the Santa set was under a skylight, so if the sun was out in the afternoon, the atrium would heat up and Santa would start to melt (you can see the atrium in the movie The Freshman, in the scene where Matthew Broderick is in the mall trying to catch the runaway Komodo Dragon). After my first shift I felt sick and sore, like I’d been beaten and had the flu at the same time. I went home and slept.

The second shift was worse.

For the entire season, playing Santa involved a great deal of physical torture. The suit was hot and the beard itched and was giving me a rash around my neck and the wig was causing my scalp to go numb. Not only was the beard uncomfortable, I also wound up sucking strands of hair into my mouth and sometimes swallowed long strands. Under the suit, I was drenched with sweat.

Even though the job was knocking the stuffing out of me, others had it worse. One mall security guard spent a half-hour puking after working a sub shift when a Santa called in sick. One of the other Santa’s started getting headaches from the camera flash (I had that happen, only mildly, during my final year as Santa). Despite everything that happened later, I was the only Santa to finish the five weeks. I was the only Santa to last more than two weeks.

The pain was slowly wearing me down, but every morning I checked in at the GAP and every afternoon I did Santa.

Note: Brett was not his usual cheerful self during this time. Quiet, moody, and slightly sad. Just what you want your boyfriend to be at Christmas time. Brett was also susceptible to any and all colds, flus, and runny noses passed on from the snotty kids on his knee.

That’s right, if a kid was sick, I caught it and sometimes felt like I had a few colds and flus running simultaneously. By the second week, I was a mess. Not in great condition for driving.

At least things couldn't get worse.

Part 2: Things Get Worse

A couple of weeks in, my schedule and the grueling Santa shifts began to take their toll. At first I expected to build up endurance but instead I was getting sicker and sicker and more worn out each day. My parents felt sorry for me and arranged a family visit to Santa – the family, my grandma, a couple of aunts and a few cousins all came and had their pictures taken and after my shift, they took us out for dinner.

December 6, 1992: the relatives visit. Hey, it's young Merv!

Afterwards, at home, Laura and I set out on one of our holiday chores: getting the cats used to the car. We had two cats and both were nervous in the car, so to help them prepare for the trip home at Xmas, we took them out for a short drive around the block every night.

That evening (a Sunday) we drove down Mt. Pleasant with the cats in the back and at the intersection at Davisville, I simply blanked out and drove through the red light. I remember flashes of what happened … seeing the car outside the right-hand window, maybe seeing smushed metal … and then everything moved in slow motion for a second after the impact. Everything not bolted down became airborne and I realized that we’d been hit and that we were airborne and we were rolling over. There was a bit of a thud when the car landed on its roof and then the sound of the pavement scraping on the roof. And then everything stopped.

The car was broadsided, but we didn’t roll. The car was thrown in the air and flipped in mid-air. When we landed, upsidedown, the impact was really immense. We then skidded kitty-corner through the intersection, sliding into a bus shelter.

I was strapped into the seat by my seatbelt, hanging upside down and I look over to see if Laura was okay and her seat was empty. It hit me: she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. I looked down and saw her lying on the ceiling and she wasn’t moving. I undid my seatbelt and dropped down and froze because I realized that it was possible she was dead. I asked her if she was awake and finally she started asking what happened and I explained that we were in an accident. She said that he didn’t have time to be in an accident, she had too much homework.

Didn’t respond right away because I couldn’t breathe or talk. I could hear you frantically trying to get me to talk, but I was unable to move or respond. Finally, when a guy came to see if I was ok, I was able to whisper to him to tell you I was alive. I don’t think I started thinking about homework until later. By the way, it was exams, not homework.

I vaguely remember a guy at the window. A crowd was gathering outside but I don’t remember much about what was going on, I was pretty worried about Laura and was focused on keeping her talking to get a sense of what kind of shape she was in. A TTC bus had stopped and radioed for help and soon the fire department and ambulance arrived.

Luckily, the bus had been behind us and able to call for help right away. I was stunned and unconscious for a few minutes before opening my eyes. When I did, a woman who was standing there and looking at me, started to scream. “she’s alive, SHE'S ALIVE!” Then the guy came over to ask if I was ok. Dumb question, really. But it was really nice to have someone to focus on until the ambulance arrived. I was in a lot of pain, and very confused. Brett was wandering around, I think. Didn’t really know where he was.

My door was cut off and I stepped out of the car and an ambulance attendant grabbed me and put me in a spinal hold and shouted, “Holy crap!”

I said, “I’m not hurt, I’m okay.”

And the attendant said, “That doesn’t matter! You don’t just let someone stand up after and accident like this! You never know, you could have a broken neck!!!”

And they stuck me on a board and loaded me into an ambulance. I started babbling at that point and a cop came to take my statement and I explained the Santa thing, the exhaustion, that I’d ran the light and blanked out … etc. The cop charged me with running a red.

My exit from the car was not so smooth. They cut the door off, but I couldn’t get out. I was lying on the roof of the upsidedown car. But I was having trouble breathing and couldn’t move. So they had to find a way to get me out of the car, gently and safely. On impact most of the windows had blown out – feature of Volvos. The only window left was the back one, and that’s the one they needed to drag me through. So they put a blanket over me to protect me from the glass, and broke the window. Basically over top of me. Then they had to cut off all of the head rests to drag me out.

Once out, they loaded me into the ambulance and took me to Sunnybrook, prepping me for trauma on the way.

Blue Volvo
Precious and warm the memory
Through the years
And I still can see Blue Volvo
Through my tears

Part 3: Emergency

BLAMB: We went in separate ambulances to Sunnybrook hospital. And were a few stalls apart in the emergency room.

In the stall between us, a guy was being questioned by a doctor about his condition and the patient was mumbling about ‘space diseases’ and ‘biofilters’. After lying on the stretcher for about half an hour, I was given teh once-over and allowed to leave. I saw that the guy had wired himself up with car batteries and wires and duct tape: his home biofilter.

Laura was in the end stall and things weren’t going well. She wasn’t allowed to have painkillers until they’d fully assessed her injuries and the intern who took her blood was having a difficult time and there was blood splattered on the wall.

No painkillers. I was in excrutiating pain. It would later be revealed that I had 5 broken ribs, all along the back. And I was lying flat on my back in emergency. I was dizzy from the pain. The intern was funny; she was trying to get my blood gas, but couldn’t find the vein or something. She kept stabbing me over and over, getting more frustrated. I tried to lighten the situation by noting the blood on the ceiling, which wasn’t mine. Asking her if it belonged to the last guy she took blood gas from. She was not amused. And left in a huff. Later, when she came back and informed me she was giving me a rectal exam/probe to make sure I didn’t have a rectal puncture, I refused and told her to find someone who knew how to do it. This made her reallllllly mad. But she didn’t do the probe, and no one came to do it. Kind of makes you wonder ……….

I was kicked out of emergency and had to go wait in the lobby, so I started making phone calls. My first was to Johnny O, and I explained what happened. Then I called my parents and after that I was allowed back in to see Laura again. She was about to go get x-rays and they were about to give her painkillers.

I told Brett not to call my parents until we knew if I was ok. Brett called many people that night, freaking most of them out.

I didn’t remember being told not to call them, I felt guilty that I didn’t.

I waited in the lobby some more and then I was informed that Laura was coming back down from getting x-rayed. As they wheeled her down the hall towards me, I could see that she was laughing … painkillers?

No painkillers yet. Just delirious from the pain. Scared and trying to make myself not scared.

As they wheeled her past me, I asked, “How are you feeling?” and she blurted out with a big smile, “WHO’S THIS GUY? I’VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE IN MY LIFE! HAW HAW HAW!!!”

I did not laugh. I was teasing, but you didn’t know I was teasing. You looked so scared and freaked out that I didn’t recognize you. I felt a bit bad about that.

Early that morning I took the early morning bus to Eglinton and then walked home. It was snowing, big fluffy flakes and everything was covered in a warm, white blanket. It was quiet, the city was just waking up, Laura was stranded in the hospital and the cats were gone. And Santa and the GAP were still waiting for me ...

The cats? As you know, when the car was hit the windows blew out so they bolted when it came to a stop. The evening after the accident, I put up a bunch of 'lost cats' posters but no one responded.

About two weeks later, Laura was back after spending a week at her parents and she had this sudden urge to go to the Humane Society. She recruited a few of our friends to take her (since I was still playing Santa) and despite being in great pain from her five broken ribs, hobbled to the animal shelter (it should be mentioned that she also went to the Xmas party that year). There, in one of the cages, was Legsy, who was less than a year old at the time. Laura broke down and started blubbering. We never saw the other cat again.

Where are they now?
Legsy still lives with Laura's parents up in Bruce County. Laura still lives in Toronto, is married and has a daughter and new son. Santa Claus still appears in malls across North America. And me? Three months later, I escpaped the GAP and started doing the art with kids. And I had this idea for replacing Santa with a new holiday mascot who would be a skinny, naked hairless guy ... but that's another story.


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