The woman at Macy’s asked, “Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?”
I said, “Full-time elf.”
I have an appointment next Wednesday at noon.
I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.
I often see people on the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I tend to avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco. So, if there is a costume involved, I tend not only to accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying, “Thank you so much,” and thinking, You poor, pathetic son of a bitch. I don’t know what you have but I hope I never catch it. This afternoon on Lexington Avenue I accepted a leaflet from a man dressed as a camcorder. Hot dogs, peanuts, tacos, video cameras, these things make me sad because they don’t fit in on the streets. In a parade, maybe, but not on the streets. I figure that at least as an elf I will have a place; I’ll be in Santa’s Village with all the other elves. We will reside in a fluffy wonderland surrounded by candy canes and gingerbread shacks. It won’t be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry.
I am trying to look on the bright side. I arrived in New York three weeks ago with high hopes, hopes that have been challenged. In my imagination I’d go straight from Penn Station to the offices of “One Life to live,” where I would drop off my bags and spruce up before heading off for drinks with Cord Roberts and Victoria Buchannon, the show’s greatest stars. We’d sit in a plush booth at a tony cocktail lounge where my new celebrity friends would lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say, “A toast to David Sedaris, the best writer this show has ever had!!!”
I’d say, “You guys, cut it out.” It was my plan to act modest.
People at surrounding tables would stare at us, whispering, “Isn’t that ...? Isn’t that ...?”
I might be distracted by their enthusiasm and Victoria Buchannon would lay her hand over mine and tell me that I’d better get used to being the center of attention.
But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.
This afternoon I sat in the eighth-floor SantaLand office and was told, “Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf.”
In order to become an elf I filled out ten pages’ worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. During the second interview we were asked when we wanted to be elves. This is always a problem question. I listened as the woman ahead of me, a former waitress, answered the question, saying, “I really want to be an elf? Because I think it’s about acting? And before this I worked in a restaurant? Which was run by this rally wonderful woman who had a dream to open a restaurant? And it made me realize that it’s really really ... important to have a ... dream?”
Everything this woman said, every phrase and sentence, was punctuated with a question mark and the interviewer never raised an eyebrow.
When it was my turn I explained that I wanted to be an elf because it was one of the most frightening career opportunities I had ever come across. The interviewer raised her face from my application and said, “And ...?”
I’m certain that I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stem floating in it, but still they hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short. One is a dwarf. After the second interview I was brought to the manager’s office, where I was shown a floor plan. On a busy day twenty-two thousand people come to visit Santa, and I was told that it is an elf’s not to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity. I promised to keep that in mind.
I spent my eight-hour day with fifty elves and one perky, well-meaning instructor in an enormous Macy’s classroom, the walls of which were lined with NCR 2152’s. A 2152, I have come to understand, is a cash register. The class was broken up into study groups and given assignments. My group included several returning elves and a few experienced cashiers who tried helping me by saying things like, “Don’t you even know your personal ID code? Jesus, I had mine memorized by ten o’clock.”
Everything about the cash register intimidates me. Each procedure involves a series of codes: separate numbers for cash, checks, and each type of credit card. The term Void has gained prominence as the filthiest four-letter word in my vocabulary. Voids are a nightmare of paperwork and coded numbers, everything produced in triplicate and initialed by the employee and his supervisor.
Leaving the building tonight I could not shake the mental picture of myself being stoned to death by restless, angry customers, their nerves shattered by my complete lack of skill. I tell myself that I will simply pry open my register and accept anything they want to give me-beads, cash, watches, whatever. I’ll negotiate and swap. I’ll stomp their credit cards through the masher, write “Nice Knowing You!” along the bottom of the slip, and leave it at that.
All we sell in SantaLand are photos. People sit upon Santa’s lap and pose for a picture. The Photo Elf hands them a slip of paper with a number printed along the top. The form is filled out by another elf and the picture arrives by mail weeks later. So really, all we sell is the idea of a picture. One idea costs nine dollars, three ideas cost eighteen.
My worst nightmare involves twenty-two thousand people a day standing before my register. I won’t always be a cashier, just once in a while. The worst part is that after I have accumulated three hundred dollars I have to remove two hundred, fill out half a dozen forms, and run the envelope of cash to the drop in the China Department or to the vault on the balcony above the first floor. I am not allowed to change my clothes beforehand. I have to go dressed as an elf. An elf in SantaLand is one thing, an elf in Sportswear is something else altogether.
This afternoon we were given presentations and speeches in a windowless conference room crowded with desks and plastic chairs. We were told that during the second week of December, SnataLand is host to “Operation Special Children,” at which time poor children receive free gifts donated by the store. There is another morning set aside for terribly sick and deformed children. On that day it is an elf’s job to greet the child at the Magic Tree and jog back to the house to brace our Santa.
“The next one is missing a nose,” or “Crystal has third-degree burns covering 90 percent of her body.”
Missing a nose. With these children Santa has to be careful not to ask, “And what would you like for Christmas?”
We were given a lecture by the chief of security, who told us that Macy’s Herald Square suffers millions of dollars’ worth of employee theft per year. As a result the store treats its employees the way one might treat a felon with a long criminal record. Cash rewards are offered for turning people in and our bags are searched every time we leave the store. We were shown videotapes in which supposed former employees hang their head and rue the day they ever thought to steal that leather jacket. The actors faced the camera to explain how their arrests had ruined their friendships, family life, and, ultimately, their future.
One fellow stared at his hands and sighed, “There’s no way I’m going to be admitted into law school. Not now. Not after what I’ve done. Nope, no way.” He paused and shook his head of the unpleasant memory. “Oh, man, not after this. No way.”
A lonely, reflective girl sat in a coffee shop, considered her empty cup, and moaned, “I remember going out after work with all my Macy’s friends. God, those were good times. I loved those people.” She stared off into space for a few moments before continuing, “Well, needless to say, those friends aren’t calling anymore. This time I’ve really messed up. Why did I do it? Why?”
Macy’s has two jail cells on the balcony floor and it apprehends three thousand shoplifters a year. We were told to keep an eye out for pickpockets in SantaLand.
Interpreters for the deaf came and taught us to sign, “MERRY CHRISTMAS! I AM SANTA’S HELPER.” They told us to speak as we sign and to use bold, clear voices and bright facial expressions. They taught us to say, “YOU ARE A VERY PRETTY BOY/GIRL! I LOVE YOU! DO YOU WANT A SURPRISE?”
My sister Amy lives above a deaf girl and has learned quite a bit of sign language. She taught some to me and so now I am able to say, “SANTA HAS A TUMOR IN HIS HEAD THE SIZE OF AN OLIVE. MAYBE IT WILL GO AWAY TOMORROW BUT I DON’T THINK SO.”
This morning we were lectured by the SantaLand managers and presented with a Xeroxed booklet of regulations titled “The Elfin Guide.” Most of the managers are former elves who have worked their way up the candy-cane ladder but retain vivid memories of their days in uniform. They closed the meeting saying, “I want you to remember that even if you are assigned Photo Elf on a busy weekend, YOU ARE NOT SANTA’S SLAVE.”
In the afternoon we were given a tour of SantaLand, which really is something. It’s beautiful, a real wonderland, with ten thousand sparkling lights, false snow, train sets, bridges, decorated trees, mechanical penguins and bears, and really tall candy canes. One enters and travels through a maze, a path which takes you from one festive environment to another. The path ends at the Magic Tree. The Tree is supposed to resemble a complex system of roots, but looks instead like a scale model of the human intestinal tract. Once you pass the Magic Tree, the light dims and an elf guides you to Santa’s house. The houses are cozy and intimate, laden with toys. You exit Santa’s house and are met with a line of cash registers.
We traveled the path a second time and were given the code names for various post, such as “The Vomit Corner,” a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree, where nauseous children tend to surrender the contents of their stomachs. When someone Vomits, the nearest elf is supposed to yell “VAMOOSE,” which is the name of the janitorial product used by the store. We were taken to the “Oh, My God, Corner,” a position near the escalator. People arriving see the long line and say “Oh, my God!” and it is an elf’s job to calm them down and explain that it will take no longer than an hour to see Santa.
On any given day you can be an Entrance Elf, a Water Cooler Elf, a Bridge Elf, Train Elf, Maze Elf, Island Elf, Magic Window Elf, Emergency Exit Elf, Counter Elf, Magic Tree Elf, Pointer Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Usher Elf, Cash Register Elf, Runner Elf, or Exit Elf. We were given a demonstration of the various positions in action, performed by returning elves who were so animated and relentlessly cheerful that it embarrassed me to walk past them. I don’t know that I could look someone in the eye and exclaim, “Oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa!” or “Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish!” Everything these elves said had an exclamation point at the end of it!!! It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. I feel cornered when someone talks to me this way. Doesn’t everyone? I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, “You must be exhausted,” or “I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of your.”
I am afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I’ll be a low-key sort of an elf.
Today was elf dress rehearsal. The lockers and dressing rooms are located on the eight floor, directly behind SantaLand. Elves have gotten to know one another over the past four days of training but one we took off our clothes and put on the uniforms everything changed.
The woman in charge of costuming assigned us our outfits and gave us a lecture on keeping things clean. She held up a calendar and said, “Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don’t tell me, `I don’t wear underpants, I’m a dancer.’ You’re not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”
My costume is green. I wear green velvet knickers, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.
My elf name is Crumpet. We were allowed to choose our own names and given permission to change them according to out outlook on the snowy world.
Excerpted from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris Copyright © 2008 by David Sedaris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.Continue reading the main story
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Santa's helper, many MORNING EDITION listeners are awfully glad it was one of the jobs held by David Sedaris before he became the bestselling writer and humorous that he is today. David once worked as an elf at Macy's. His reading of an excerpt from his "Santaland Diaries" has become a MORNING EDITION holiday tradition. So here, once again, is David Sedaris as Crumpet the Elf.
DAVID SEDARIS: I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SEDARIS: I've spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless Macy's classroom, undergoing the first phases of elf training. You can be an entrance elf, a water-cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, magic-window elf, usher elf, cash-register elf or exit elf.
We were given a demonstration of various positions in action, acted out by returning elves, who were so onstage and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach. I don't know that I could look anyone in the eye and exclaim: Oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa. Or can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish?
Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it. It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
SEDARIS: Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well behaved. Today, I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. The back hallway was jammed with people. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom. And one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asks: Which is the line for the women's bathroom? And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. And she said: I'm going to have you fired.
I had two people say that to me today: I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I'm going to have you fired, and I want to lean over and say: I'm going to have you killed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SEDARIS: The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Ritchie. His elf name is Snowball and he tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I generally gag when elves get that cute, but Snowball is hands-down adorable. You want to put him in your pocket.
Yesterday, Snowball and I worked as Santa elves, and I got excited when he started saying things like: I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet. It made me dizzy, this flirtation. By mid-afternoon, I was running into walls. By late afternoon, Snowball had cooled down.
By the end of our shift, we were in the bathroom changing our clothes, and all a sudden we were surrounded by five Santas and three other elves. All of them were guys that Snowball had been flirting with. Snowball just leads elves on - elves and Santas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SEDARIS: This morning, I worked as an exit elf, telling people in a loud voice: This way out of Santaland.
A woman was standing at one of the cash registers, paying for her pictures while her son lay beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said: Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa is not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for.
The child said: He is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me.
The woman grabbed my arm and said: You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.
I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark.
The woman got a worried look on her face and said: All right. That's enough. I said, he's going to take your car and your furniture, and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said, No, that's enough - really.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SEDARIS: This afternoon, I was stuck being a photo elf for Santa-Santa. Santa-Santa has an elaborate little act for the children. He'll talk to them and give a hearty chuckle and ring his bells. And then he asks them to name their favorite Christmas carol.
Santa then asked if they'll sing it for him. The children are shy and don't want to sing out loud. So Santa-Santa says: Oh, little elf, little elf, help young Brenda here sing that favorite carol of hers.
Late in the afternoon, a child said she didn't know what her favorite Christmas carol was. Santa-Santa suggested "Away in a Manger." The girl agreed to it, but didn't want to sing because she didn't know the words. Santa-Santa said: Oh, little elf, little elf, come sing "Away in a Manger" for us.
It didn't seem fair that I should have to solo, so I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sang if she'd put out a Christmas album.
(Singing) Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
Santa-Santa did not allow me to finish.
This evening, I was sent to be a photo elf. Once a child starts crying, it's all over. The parents had planned to send these pictures as cards or store them away until the child, who's grown and can lie, claiming to remember the experience.
Tonight, I saw a woman slap and shake her crying child. She yelled: Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about. Then she sat Rachel on Santa's lap and I took the picture, which supposedly means on paper, that everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be - that everything is snowy and wonderful.
It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "O CHRISTMAS TREE")
MONTAGNE: Writer and humorist David Sedaris reading from his "Santaland Diaries."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
(SOUNDBITE OF CREDITS)
MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.
WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.