Everyone said it had been an unusually long, hot summer. Things just haven’t been the same since global warming. Eventually, though, winter really cut in, just a few weeks before Christmas. I walked through the streets with my usual twelve layers of inner and outerwear to keep out as much cold as possible. In the winter, I try to keep my time on the street to a minimum. In fact, I have been known to transfer subway lines three times just to avoid walking a few extra blocks. You see, with me, it’s not the quantity of time that it takes to get somewhere, it’s the quality.
So, anyway, one afternoon, I was walking back to work from my lunch break, barely looking up so as to hide my face from the wind, and as I turned a corner, my nose caught the sulfur smell of a match, fresh from lighting a cigarette. I slowed down and looked up. Standing on the corner was an old man. He had no coat on, just several layers of street clothes. His trousers and shirt looked as if they had once been brightly colored, maybe some sort of red and gold, but now they were so dirty and tattered that their colors were indistinguishable from shades of brown. His hair was thick and white, as was his beard, and my eyes caught his twinkling blue ones. Something about him looked familiar and I smiled at him. He sort of bantered with himself, ignoring me, and puffed away on his cigarette. His image stuck in my mind until I got back to work. Then my brain was taken over with the stress of drudgery.
A few days later, I was underground, riding the subway downtown on my way home from work. It was one of those rush hour rides I’d put near the circus category; several people singing or talking very loudly to themselves; one or two people suddenly moaning and getting up to pace; and the usual trinket hawkers and potential subway thugs, all mixed in with the travelling workers like myself. I got lucky and grabbed the last seat. It’s not just that being able to sit down is convenient, but it kept me out of the main stream of frenzied activity.
I became absorbed in an article I was reading in a magazine about the plot of rap songs to subliminally prime us to be racist, when I just happened to look up. Seated right across from me was a large man, not obese but plump and tall, although it was hard to tell exactly how tall since he was sitting down. His clothes were loose and baggy, disguising but not hiding, his generous belly. His hair was snowy white and his skin had an ethereal glow about it. It was pink and translucent, almost glowing, the lower half covered by a white, scruffy beard. He smiled at me, as he mumbled to himself, and I looked down. Even from across the subway car, I had seen his old, cobalt eyes and they seemed to look right through me. At his feet was a dirty brown sack, like one for laundry, full and lumpy. I watched him out of the corner of my eye until we both got off at 14th street, but ascended different staircases.
Some time the following week, I was taking a shortcut to Houston Street from Spring via Crosby. It was very late at night and this cobblestoned block was dark, deserted and unsettlingly alley-like. I was hurrying down the middle of the street, to keep in the streetlight and out of the shadows near the buildings, until a rat, bigger than my foot, ran across my path and down into the sewer. I gasped, veered right and hopped up on the sidewalk, almost tripping head first into a doorway. I caught myself just in time and as I straightened up, I saw a figure sitting on a darkened step. It was a charming faced, roly-poly man, smoking a pipe. He had long white hair, a bushy beard and he winked at me. I had to rip my eyes away from him as I urged my feet to keep moving, making my escape from that at infested alley.
That night, the picture of him, in his dirty red and brown rags with pipe smoke encircling his head, would not leave my mind. What is with me, I thought, why does every homeless man I see, look like Santa Claus! It was unsettling, and I couldn’t help wanting to give my head a good shake as if I could knock something that might be loose back into place.
The next day was Christmas Eve, but I still had to work, which I felt was wrong. I come from the school of thought that says we should not only be granted holidays off, but a few days before and after, just to give us a margin of adjustment. But you can’t expect anything extra from the government and who else was there to work for at this point? So, at five o’clock on the dot, I rushed out of the office and pushed my way out of the building, through the crowd. The air was bitter cold and it hit my face with a vengeance. Why could I never get used to these arctic winters?
I had a few last minute things to do before getting together with some friends for an underground Christmas party. (This was already after the government had banned any celebration that was not connected with the church.) Part party, part meeting, my group kept abreast of political news by getting together and giving information verbally. It was safer that way, less traceable. But first I had to finish my errands. The stores were packed and as I fought the crowds, it made me nostalgic for the old days of privately owned mail order companies. In one store I was able to grab what I needed just ahead of another desperate slob and as I stood in line to pay, I started reading the government news rags propped up next to the register. The headline caught my eye:
“ANOTHER SANTA LOOK-A-LIKE MURDER! 3RD IN TWO WEEKS!”
What? What was going on here? Did that mean I wasn’t the only one seeing Santa doubles? And what did they mean murdered? I grabbed the paper off its rack and rifled through the pages for the story. It seemed that three bums, who all shared a mysterious resemblance to Santa Claus, had been shot point blank and found a few days apart. Shot? The only legal guns were owned by street soldiers and priests. I hadn’t seen an illegal guns in years. It was too risky and anyway there were plenty of other weapons to be had.
I was already late to the party and I still had a subway ride ahead of me. It was after eight when I descended the long staircase down to the Rapid Transit. It was almost deserted. Politically smart people were home and inside by this time, and who wasn’t trying to be politically smart these days. Only a few others waited on the platform with me. The silence somehow had an echo to it. The air was damp, barely warmer than outside. I puffed impatience out of my mouth in a steamy cloud. An uptown train came, everyone got on except me, and it screeched away. I leaned against a tiled column, wishing there was graffiti or advertisements to read, anything besides the usual government warnings and bulletins. I shivered and pulled my collar tighter around my neck.
Then, footsteps. They had an authoritative sound to them. I looked up. A black clad figure walked toward me from the far end of the tunnel. But there was no entrance down there. He must’ve climbed up from the tracks. It was hard to tell from a distance but he looked like a priest. He came closer and then I could see for sure, he was wearing the white collar and the back wool topcoat of the upper level clergy. He passed me and I nodded politely. He smiled a smug, cold-as-steel smile that made me shiver.
I saw the bulge around his shoulder where his holster would be and – wait a minute – something on his left earlobe. That didn’t make sense, priests didn’t have to wear those metal ear clips, those were only worn by soldiers. It was the dog tag that held their serial number. Did soldier-priests have to wear them? No, no I was sure not. He rounded the corner toward the stairs and disappeared.
Still no sign of my train, so I edged to the end of the platform where the pseudo priest had come from and looked down the tunnel to see what I could see. Nothing. It was too dark to tell from there. Should I venture further? Normally I wouldn’t risk it, but no one else was in the station, and it might be something to report to my group at the get together tonight. I carefully climbed down the five metal stairs to the tracks. It seemed even darker once I got down there and I kept close to the wall, afraid that any minute a train would come. I pushed my feet slowly sideways, feeling my way. And then my foot ran into something on the ground. Something that was blocking my path, something soft and large. I felt in my pockets for a match, but I knew it was futile, I don’t even smoke. Then, far away, a tiny light appeared and quickly grew. My train. It only took a few seconds for the light to get bright enough for me to see what the object at my feet.
Santa. Another Santa look-a-like. Dead. And I had practically witnessed the murder. I turned and scrambled back up the stairs before the train could pull into the station. Now there were other people on the platform, waiting for this train, including a few soldiers. The train shrieked to a halt and I jumped on the last car. Now what? I certainly wasn’t going to tell the street soldiers, the murder was probably committed by one of them. I sat there with my head in my hands.
Suddenly, there was a loud whining creak coming from the door between subway cars and I jumped. Four subway soldiers came through the door, their guns out and their two-way radios blaring garbled voices. Could they – could they want – me? They saw me and came right toward me. I had nowhere to go, so I stood. They grabbed me by the shoulders, searched me and chained my hands and feet.
No use asking what was the charge or trying to defend myself. I wouldn’t get my street rights back as long as they believed I was the culprit. I’m sure I had a file as a trouble-maker as thick as a brick. I knew my participation in the meetings had been risky, but I didn’t care. It was the only way my brain could survive the kind of life I had to lead. If I was lucky, they’d give me a quick execution without the usual torture session. After all, they had seen me crawl out of that subway hole, they probably had a camera recording it. It must’ve been a set up. They’d probably been following me for weeks, just waiting for the right time. Those other ‘Santas’ I had seen, probably died minutes after I left them. That meant they could place me at every scene.
The way I look at it, I was probably lucky to get these last three weeks of freedom. If you could call them free. What can I say? In a way it’s a relief. Who wants to live in a world without Santa, anyway? Maybe he’ll be around in the next life. Merry Christmas, Santa Claus.