As I stare at the channeled Colorado River that supplies the water for Austin, Texas, my cell phone dings the notification of a text message. It is Santa saying he has delivered all the presents and will be leaving our St. Paul basement he has called home for the last six weeks.
Mall Santas have quite the job. It can include seven weeks of 10 hour days straight through Christmas Eve. Santa gets one day off on Thanksgiving Day. Pay can run anywhere from $14,000 to $18,000. That may sound rather generous, but in the case of our friend who has spent the last 18 years as a mall Santa, I would say the money is hard-earned. It is not only a grind as far as long hours spent with the equivalent of a sack of potatoes on your lap, the sack moves, talks, cries, burps or spits baby stuff all over your lap.
The culmination of the mall Santa experience generally concludes with a photo op. Understanding the child’s Christmas present wish can be trying, but often the picture with Santa is the worst part of the experience. First, he must get a sugared-up kid to sit quietly. Then he asks them to smile. My Santa tells me that the hardest part is keeping the parents from messing up the whole operation. Another point of contention is usually the un-Christmas like spirit of non-cooperation between the mall manager and the photo manager who each work for different entities, both thinking they are in charge when it is really only Santa who has achieved VIP status.
Our Santa finished this season with a Christmas Eve trip to our friend’s house. Before the night was over, he had their 17 grandchildren living the dream. As he pulled out of their driveway, he placed a "Merry Christmas" call to us in Austin. He thanked us for a remarkable stay as he drove down a wooded lane. Just then he spotted a movement across the road.
“Wow,” Santa exclaimed. “A big deer is standing in front of me.”
“It must be Rudolph!” I retorted.
Meanwhile, in my world, the snow is 1,000 miles to the north. There will be no white Christmas here in Austin, Texas. What we do have is moderate 60 degree weather, plenty of sunshine and a ton of music. We have been out to the clubs our first three nights and have already heard some of the best Texas musicians and singer/songwriters this side of the Pedernales River.
We are sitting at Donn’s Depot (six old boxcars converted into a nightclub) where my friend Chris Gage has just dedicated an old Dakota lullaby he recorded sometime in the 1970s to “Wick and all his South Dakota friends out here tonight.” Later, his wife Christine Alpert, who has also become an Austin legend, introduced me to Marcia Ball and the legendary Butch Hancock.
We are spending the next week on the Colorado River just below Mansfield Dam. We will be sharing a six bedroom house with our extended family of 12 people. The view is spectacular, especially when three swans show up daily for an afternoon swim.
Later on the agenda are the River Walk and Alamo in San Antonio. The new toll road around San Marcos and New Braunfels has an 85 mph speed limit and puts San Antonio within an hour of Austin.
The last time I had been in San Antonio was in 1972 when I decided to take my wife on a romantic weekend getaway at the much advertised Three Dollar Motel.
“That’ll be six bucks” stated the night clerk.
“But the sign says rooms for three dollars,” I protested.
“That’s three dollars per person. You want it or not?”
“Book it,” I said.
He led us to our luxurious suite as the sound of Spanish music filled the air. We spent the night on the stoop visiting with the locals, drinking beer and singing along to “La Bamba.”
Meanwhile, back to the present, we just finished a traditional Christmas feast of turkey and all the trimmings. Half-brother Tom and his partner are flying in from Vancouver, British Columbia, this afternoon about the same time as my kids arrive from California and Arizona.
Let the feasting continue. Merry Christmas and happy New Year to all!