If this were prime-time TV, the following tale could be broadcast as A Very Merry New Times Family Christmas Special, starring Perry Como, Wayne Newton, Dinah Shore, Jim Nabors, Burl Ives, and the Muppets. I have no idea what parts they'd play, but television producers are masters at figuring out that sort of thing.
Before I begin this Yuletide memoir, however, let me explain to you the inner workings of this newspaper. Or at least as much as I know of them--which, frankly, is almost nil since I work entirely at home.
New Times president Jim Larkin NEVER calls me. Executive editor Michael Lacey phoned once, when I lived in California and he needed a place to stay. Editor Jana Bommersbach doesn't call unless she's thought of some "fun" new project that's guaranteed to take years off my life and leave my poor son fatherless at an appallingly early age. And the only time I ever hear from publisher Scott Spear is when he's determined to rope me into doing something free, in my spare time.
It is Spear's calls that I dread the most. And our last telecommunication was the ugliest yet.
"Hey, Burkett," he chirped so brightly that my gut instinct was to slam down the phone right then and there and make a career switch into the low- pressure world of professional shoe repair. "As you know, our office Christmas party is coming up. Well, we need someone to dress up as Santa Claus, and you'd be absolutely perfect!"
Can you believe it? What NERVE!
Perhaps when you're a hefty 75-year- old, feeling forgotten and useless, it would be an honor to receive such a request. But when you're a svelte (okay, semi-svelte), youthful-looking fellow just barely out of his thirties, it's tantamount to being asked to star in Oliver Hardy: The Final Years.
"Scott," I grumbled, "are you calling me old and fat?"
"Oh, no! No! Not at all!" Spear replied, doing his best to convey utter sincerity but instead sounding oilier than the Alaskan coastline. "You'd need age make-up, of course. And lots of padding. Lots and lots." The chilly silence on my end obviously alerted Spear to the fact that he wasn't being sufficiently delicate. "And LOTS," he added. "Actually, the only reason we thought of you is that you're . . . you're . . . you're . . . well, you're so jolly."
Insult had just been heaped upon injury. With a shovel. To me, the word "fat" describes people of excess girth who at least think about crash-dieting every now and then, and who might one day muster up the will power to actually do it. "Jolly," on the other hand, describes people who are fat and damn happy about it. People who have a broad face and a big round belly that shakes when they laugh like a bowlful of jelly.
Not a pretty picture, unless you're planning to enter a Roseanne Barr look- alike contest or to play Santa Claus at your office Christmas party, neither of which I had any intention of doing.
As I continued to take umbrage, Spear forged ahead with his pathetic sales pitch. "And, you know, in addition to your jolliness, there's the Dad Zone tie-in . . . "
I had no idea what the man was talking about. Perhaps his dad is a jolly, lonely, 75-year-old who likes to magnify his hugeness by draping it in untold yards of electric red--and that's the warped image of fathers Spear carries with him. Or maybe he was assuming that, because I have a four-year-old child in the house, I have surely been driven insane and could therefore be talked into anything.
Sadly, that last theory appears to be the case, since I accepted Spear's insane offer--on the condition that he would supply me with age make-up and lots of padding. Lots and lots. And lots.
Roped again by Scott Spear. Why did I let it happen? Well, for one thing, I figured I'd get at least one column out of the experience, or maybe even a six-month series if the gig went as horribly as I expected. For another, my wife and I had already planned to take our son to the Christmas party, since he does, after all, have a clear function at the paper (which is more than I can say for Scott Spear). I thought it might be sorta fun to play Santa Claus for him-- especially now that he's at the age where he'll accept anyone with a beard and a red suit as ol' Saint Nick. Even someone as remarkably thin and ageless as myself.
I told my wife of Spear's call, hoping she'd ask how in God's heaven he thought of me for the job. But all she said was, "Hmm. Old. Bearded. Fat. Jolly. Yup, it's typecasting, all right." Compared to mine, Rodney Dangerfield's rating on the respect- O-meter is only slightly below that of Mother Teresa.
And the worst cut of all was still to come. Now my wife says she'd rather our boy didn't attend the gala holiday