If you think that being rejected by six mall Santas in a 12-hour period is the low point of my career, you would be very wrong.
Still, talking to a litany of for-hire St. Nicks is today’s assignment, and I am the most logical person to take it on. In the short time I’ve been writing professionally, this has become my calling card, the sort of novelty journalism that plays directly into the manic pixie dream aesthetic that has enchanted the first six or so weeks of every relationship I’ve been in. It can easily be reduced to, “Hey, she doesn’t belong here!” which is a genre I’ve been deeply critical of when performed by other writers and defensive about when I do it myself; kind of like self-medicating or revealing your deepest insecurities to men who you know will not text back, it is only okay when I do it.
First, I make a map. Most Santas in the city are relegated to weekends only, but this close to the holiday, there were seven identifiable locations where they could be found, in malls and open-air plazas, for up to 12 hours a day. Los Angeles is a staggeringly large city, so every stop needs to be planned accordingly, lest you end up in a 45-minute traffic jam, wrecking your piece, and spiking your blood pressure. I decided to start in Glendale, then go to Leimert Park near Inglewood, head over to the Grove in mid-city, book it to Beverly Hills and finally, make the trek to parking nightmare and tourist haven Santa Monica.
I put on far too much makeup in the hopes of making a mall Santa horny enough to talk to me, which I remind myself is funny and not sad because if it’s funny and not sad I can leave my apartment in one piece. This is what today is going to be and it is my job to make it look fun.
First of all, I don’t have a driver’s license. My mom will ask me on the phone sometimes if I’m in the car, to which I’ll either say no or that we don’t talk about that. I don’t know why I don’t just fucking get it, but I’ve owned and driven a beat-up Corolla for six months and haven’t gotten legal permission to do so. All this to say, parking garages make me involuntarily tighten every hole in my body.
My first stop is the Americana, one of those expansive outdoor shopping plazas with a fountain in the middle. I’ve been fingered in the movie theater here, and it felt very elegant.
Glendale is an area that more closely resembles an upper-middle class suburb than it does a place ten miles from downtown LA, betraying its proximity to Hollywood only by its wealth of absurdly hot families and straight men in v-necks and fedoras. There is also the fact that there are somehow fifty families available to bring their children to meet Santa at ten in the morning on a Tuesday. This is an element of the city that still baffles me, that everyone could dress so nicely but be available at all hours of the day, seemingly taking pleasure in talking in elongated hippie-speak. There is an angry New England woman who lives a few layers beneath my skin that wants to kick their ass, but thats a different novelty journalism piece.
Scott is the exception to this rule, as he works for the mall. He’s a squat, extremely put-together gay man with an iPad and equal parts disdain and pride for the job he’s doing, which right now is telling me to fuck off.
“Santa’s really busy today, appointments only,” he tells me with white teeth and dead eyes as one of his teenage elves rattles off facts to a bored family in sunglasses. Did you know that Santa was born over one thousand years ago? Did you know that in Finland, they call Santa “Joulupukki” (pause for laughter)? The premium package is $70. There’s a mall across the street, though, Scott advises, and that one is usually less busy.
Fair enough. Scott is right, and the more traditional indoor mall Santa across the street has no line and three employees hanging on to his beard. I approach, knowing I only have so many capable social interactions a day to work with.
“Hi, I’m a reporter whos interviewing all the mall Santas,” I begin. The woman at the Glendale Galleria is immediately exhausted, then says she’ll consult Santa. She does, then returns. “Do you have a business card?” I don’t. “How old are you, anyway?” Okay, no need to be an asshole.
I am then told to fuck off, and it takes me an hour to find my illegal car in the parking structure.
A forty-five minute drive from the Americana and its fedora’d families is the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall in Leimert Park, right on the border of Inglewood. I used to live minutes from here with an extremely unstable woman whose ex-boyfriend once threw rocks at my window, and would shoplift from the Walmart that apparently closed since I moved away.
What the mall does have is what are advertised as Black Santa hours, touting one of the nation’s only non-white mall Santas. This is a predominantly non-white neighborhood, so it makes sense. For over ten years the Baldwin Hills Santa has been played by 80-year-old Langston Patterson — Santa Langston, he is known here — and he’s the first Santa of the day willing to speak with me.
Santa Langston is no stranger to the press, as his ascension to the throne was covered on the front page of the LA Times in 2013. He has been the subject of many a soft news package throughout his tenure at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. He’s rumored to be the only black Santa Claus in the LA area, and while Patterson is not a formally trained like the potbellied men who attend the International University of Santa Claus; of 2013 there were only three black men who had ever attended the school. Theres a little resentment internally, the head of mall marketing informs me, that the Mall of America has gotten so much publicity this holiday season and apparently posted a photo of Santa Langston instead of their own in some early press materials. Santa politics, I have learned, involve a lot of red tape and long-held grudges.
Anyway, back to Santa Langston. If he didn’t get his Santa accreditation, how did he score the gig?
“I was sitting eating here in the mall about fifteen years ago,” he told me, “and they asked, ‘How would you like to be our Santa?’ First I said no, but then I thought about it and you know what, I thought it’d be interesting. I started that same year.”
Patterson is a retired grandfather, and the Santa season is the busiest he gets. He told me a number of stories about photos he’s taken with fifteen-member families, LAPD officers, and other locals. His favorite memory: the handful of years the city’s fire department harnessed and lifted him above Leimert Park to yell “ho ho ho” to the kids below.
“It just comes naturally to me,” he says of being St. Nick. “Santa’s for everybody, no matter what color they are, no matter what people they are.”
Santa Langston does not tell me to fuck off. He takes a picture with me and asks me to please send it to marketing because he is “old school” and does not have a Facebook.
The Grove is a mall identical in every way to the Americana in Glendale, from its its phallic fountains and Barnes and Noble employees who strut around like they’re fucking Princess Di or something, to the fact that I’ve also been fingered in the movie theater. The Santas here and at the Americana (as well as the Santa Monica Place) are all run by the same company. They are also all white, and are housed in elaborate North Pole structures complete with concrete candy canes.
The people running Santa’s lap-sitting lounge ask me where I’m from. I say I’m from Inverse. They say no. I say I’m from Harper’s magazine. They also say no. I say I am the President of the United States. They ask that I please fuck off, but I can get in line to take a picture with the gingerbread man for free if I want. I cut a baby in line and do so.
It’s been six hours and everything I’ve eaten today has been from 7-Eleven. I can afford marginally better food and sometimes do purchase it, but today’s task doesn’t feel like it warrants anything more than a hot dog covered in nacho cheese. This meal guarantees I will not have a bowel movement for two to three days, followed by a traumatizing one.
The thrill of Santa Langston has worn off and I smell like dog shit and there’s no way these Beverly Hills Santas are going to want to talk to me. I putz around in the Disney Store at the Beverly Center for a few minutes, figuring I may as well fully lean into being an adult woman looking like a misguided pervert in a sea of families, and summon the strength to approach the fifth Santa of the day. Because this is the Beverly Center, a woman who is fifty but has been surgically altered to look thirty is the one with the power.
“We’re only available to take paying customers, so if you’d like to take a photo,” she says, gesturing to her imposter of a coworker. “No thanks,” I tell them.
End up like the people on my Facebook feed so desperate for ironic validation that they’d pay for a photo with a mall Santa? No. I prefer to express my neediness through long, overwrought novelty journalism. On an unrelated note, I can’t afford the photo.
There is a line of sexy children forming behind me. It is time for me to fuck off.
The sixth Santa is at an outdoor plaza in Beverly Hills who is already packing his stuff up by the time I pull up. He offers me a frown, so I flip him off and keep driving.
Santa Monica and, Eventually, Death
According to that Facebook function that reminds you how long it’s been since you broke up with your high school boyfriend, it is three years to the day that I finished college. And look at me now. “Things are great,” I tell myself. Then I drink a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, eat 7-Eleven cheeseburger and illegally drive my car an hour away to Santa Monica Place, where I will inevitably be told to fuck right off.
I don’t get a sentence into my request before the exhausted teenager dressed as an elf does an impression of a beleaguered political spokesperson and tells me that Santa “isn’t taking questions at this time.” I don’t fight her. I knew he wouldn’t be, and I’ve developed the timeless “Santa is corporate bullshit” attitude in self-defense to avoid the harsh reality that I, a fragile and mentally ill person, have been rejected by six mall Santas today.
It’s an hour drive home. I know that tomorrow morning, I will begin to write a piece about how I drove 100 miles without a driver’s license for a mission I should have known would fail long before it started. I will also make a series of other ill-advised decisions in my personal and professional life that I would be highly critical of in other people, but I think it is okay when I do it. Is the best one can hope for, exactly three years out of college, to have the ability to wax their lady mustache during office hours? I don’t know, but I make a note in my phone to do it because it’s starting to become visible again.
Some conclusions: Mall Santa culture is not unlike life in that it is fraught with conflict, confusion, disappointment, and ultimately feels like more trouble than it’s worth. Most of them are assholes hiding behind corporate regulations and defended by tired, underpaid workers. Every once in awhile, one will take a picture with you and make you smile and feel like seeing The Nutcracker. Some of them are well-compensated but frequently pissed on by small children, and most of them are less well-compensated but frequently pissed on by small children. Some of them are dismissive of a novelty journalist willing to drive one hundred miles unlicensed. All of them are closer to death than not.