Yes, Virginia -- and Arizona -- there is a Santa Claus.
I say this not because of my belief, deeply held though it is, that there's a spirit of generosity and kindness and merriment and good cheer that resides in the hearts of all people. No, I say this because I'm having lunch with the man at Bistecca.
There he is -- red suit, furry white trim, woolly white beard that hangs to the middle of his chest, the whole bit -- sitting at a quiet table near the back of the Italian steakhouse at Scottsdale Fashion Square, where he's been spending a lot of time lately, hearing gift requests from kids. The staff from the kitchen was crowding around him when I came in; they'd brought out a member of the kitchen help who, they were telling him, had been naughty rather than nice, and Santa was dutifully wagging a finger at him. Suitably chastened, the kid skulked back to the kitchen.
"They told me he'd been naughty. I went over, started quizzin' him, givin' him a hard time," Santa chuckles. "He instantly reverted; he was like a little kid: 'I did not!'"
We shake hands. I start to tell him my name, but then I say: "I guess you already know me."
"I knew you as a child," he says without hesitation.
He sees me peering closely at his beard. "All me," he says, tugging at it. "Guess what else?" he adds, patting his ample belly. "No pillows. All me. When you talk to me, I am the real thing."
And as a kid, I generally got what I wanted from him. Later, I feel rude for not taking a minute to thank him for the Mouse Trap game and the Incredible Edibles set and the Strange Change Time Machine and the Apollo 11 rocket model. I'm too busy being a grown-up, trying to get something juicy out of him. What's the weirdest thing, I ask, that anyone's ever asked him for?
"You have to put weird into different contexts -- weird funny, weird scary," he says. "For weird scary, probably the oddest thing I ever had happen still gives me shivers up and down my spine. There was this really attractive little girl, maybe six years old, she looked like your stereotypical perfect little doll -- blond hair, blue eyes, in a pinafore dress. Hops up on my lap, we're talkin'. So, I always try to ask, 'What's the one most important thing you want for Christmas?' -- and she looked at me and suddenly her voice went from this little girl's voice to this weird, deep voice. It was like in The Exorcist. And she said, 'I want a knife!' And my heart stopped. And I looked at her, I'm like, 'Oh, like a pirate sword?' and she said 'No, like Rambo!' I said, 'A plastic one, a rubber one?' 'No! Real metal, that CUTS!' I was frozen. I said, 'What are you gonna do with it?' And her voice went back to the little girl, and she said, 'Somethin'.' I looked over at Mom and Dad and said, 'I think you need to have a conversation.'"
Where is this girl now, I wonder.
The waitress brings us a plate of bruschetta and runs down the toppings for us -- red pepper tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, white beans, arugula, ricotta salata cheese and olive oil. She, like everyone else on Bistecca's staff, is very attentive. "We all want good gifts this year," she says blatantly.
"Well, you're all doing a great job," Santa says, and, at her recommendation, he orders the chicken marsala. I do the same -- if it's good enough for Santa, after all . . .
"Weird funny," Santa continues, chewing the delicious bruschetta, "is how many kids come to see me that ask for a vacuum cleaner. Not a toy one, a real one. The first time this little boy asked me for a vacuum cleaner, I said, 'A toy one?' and he said, 'No, a real one!' I was like 'okay . . . you want some socks and underwear to go with it?'"
After the kid stepped away, Santa spoke to his mother. "She said, 'Yeah, we give him a new one every year, and he wears it out in a year. He vacuums every day. He loves it. I hope he never quits.'" That was 10 years ago, and the phenomenon has become more and more common ever since. He claims that this year alone, he's fielded maybe six or seven vacuum cleaner requests.
And his most poignant encounter?
"It wasn't here," he says. "It was at a corporate party. This little girl was probably nine or 10, and there's no politically correct way to say it -- she was a very fat little girl. I can say this, because I'm a very fat man. And I always ask, when the kids are a little older, 'Do you want to sit on my lap, or would you rather stand?' And this little girl said, 'I'd better stand. Daddy said I'd break your lap.' You know, for just an instant, I lost the good feelings about the season, and I wanted to go over and grab Daddy by the throat and talk to him about this. So I said, 'You know, sometimes Daddy doesn't have all the answers,' and lifted her up on my lap. And I'll tell you, it was a strain; she was a very large kid. But at that point, she was gonna sit on my lap if I had to get a forklift and put her up there. And once I got her up there, I bounced her on my knee, I jiggled her around, and at the end, I said, 'See, you're not so big. You're just a little kid.'"
There have been other moments that sting. "You learn not to ask, 'Is everybody being good at home?'" he says. He's been hit with questions like "'Are you gonna give Dad a present? He hit Mom last night.'" His response? "I said, 'That's not the right thing to do. Maybe we'll have to talk to Dad about that.' There's nothing you can say."
Our lunches arrive. The chicken sits on soft polenta, covered in plump mushrooms, with one small bone sticking up as a garnish. As we dig in, we find that this is the only bone to be found in the moist, juicy bird. It's a sublime lunch, but I keep Santa too busy talking to make much progress with it. I ask him how he got into this peculiar racket, and he turns cagey.
"I had no options. This is who I am and what I do. This wasn't one of those things where I made a conscious choice. I've always been the large, round person in the room, so it was natural that I got to be . . . who I am. I started out as a child doing this. . . . I think the very first time I was probably seven."
And where was that?
"Well . . . north." Uh-huh.
For more than a decade, however, he's been spending his holiday seasons at Fashion Square. He likes it there, he says, because visitors aren't required to buy a picture in order to have an audience with him, or to get a present. He's proud that kids of Jewish, Moslem and other faiths are among them.
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And is Santa making a decent buck?
"Yes, the money's good," he says. But, he adds, "Does the money make up for the hours and everything that goes into it? Nope. Not even close.
"Because if you've never sat completely still for six hours straight, not standing up, and had hundreds of people sit on your lap, and try to be happy, funny, jolly, and listen intently to every one of 'em . . . That's hard, hard work. The money is a nice side benefit. It's not the reason to do it. You get much more psychological and spiritual payoff than you do financial. I come away at the end of the year exhausted; sometimes I'm a total wreck physically, but between the ears, I'm a happy guy."