Friday, December 30, 2011

There is No Sanity Claus

A few years ago (ok, more than a few now that I’m looking at the date stamp on the photos), I was asked to play Santa at a preschool Christmas event. No, I don’t have any preschoolers from a trophy wife I’ve never told you about. Really, I don't! The director of the school was a friend and somehow found herself close to Christmas without a Santa for the school party. She asked me out of desperation.

I don’t know that she ever expected me to say yes since I’m not known as Mr. Christmas. I’ve never put up a tree in my house. I complain incessantly about Christmas shopping.  And even though I am a growing paunchier middle-aged guy, I hardly have the body of Santa. 

I know from the short black and white silent 8mm film that I saw a zillion times when I was a kid that Hopalong Cassidy came to the rescue PDQ when there was a schoolmarm in distress.  Here was a real live schoolmarm in distress, asking me to play Santa Claus. I ask you, what better role model is there than Hopalong Cassidy? How could I say no?

Fortunately my friend’s father had been an actual department store Santa, and so she had a really nice red corduroy Santa suit with all the accessories (life often comes down to the right accessories, doesn’t it?)  My duties would be to enter the party, exclaim Ho Ho Ho without sounding like I was referring to any of the moms in their party dresses; hand out candy canes, and have the kids sit on my lap and tell me what they wanted for Christmas.  Even I could do that.  Well, OK, I was a tad worried about the Ho Ho Ho part. I mean, you can’t be too sure what’s going to pass for a party frock at a preschool Christmas party these days.

The evening of the event I put on the red suit, white wig and matching beard.  I stuffed a couple of sofa pillows into my pants and tunic to make me look appropriately well fed. My black combat boots finished the outfit.  Damn, I am so workin’ Santa, I thought to myself.

When I got into my Volkswagen to drive to the party I immediately knew the first reason why Santa takes a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer: he doesn't fit behind the wheel of a car. Yikes. Just getting out of the driveway was quite a struggle. 

When I finally got to my first traffic light and a carload of jolly college boys pulled up next to me, I learned the second reason why Santa takes a sleigh that flies over rooftops (and traffic). Santa has a zillion friends and they all want face time. Hey Santa!!! Why don’t you come out for some beers with us!!  Yo Santa! Can I have a Tri-Delt for Christmas? Oh and she should have big tits! I’ve been real good. Apparently these lads could only think of "Ho Ho Ho" as a string of nouns.

Fortunately, I hit the next few lights green and didn’t have to chat up any more of Santa’s nearest and dearest. By the time I got to the party, I had decided that I was going to channel Dame Edna Everage’s close personal friend, Queen Elizabeth. In other words, I was going to make small talk, smile, and although tired, look remarkably fresh. 

That was the plan anyway.

Before too long, I was knee deep in kids who were eager to spend quality time with Kris Kringle. While Mom and Dad immortalized the moment with their cameras, the kids crawled up onto my lap and asked for toys that I didn’t know existed. I had no clue that there was a Stealth Technology Barbie or that the EZ Bake Oven came in a Locavore Edition. In those cases, I told the kids, Oh I will talk to the elves about that and we’ll see what we can do. Fortunately I have had plenty of practice with the old non-committal Sure I will try to call you in the morning voice.

After I had chatted up all the little kids and had handed out enough candy canes to fully outfit the rehab wing of a gingerbread VA hospital. I stood up and looked at my friend, expecting the old “thumbs up” sign, since, quite frankly, I was killing as Santa.  Instead as soon as I got to my feet, I was pushed into an open the closet exactly the way Ronald Reagan was pushed into the Presidential limo by the Secret Service when John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire outside the Connecticut Avenue Hilton.  Yikes! What was going on?

What was going on was that when I stood up my pants didn’t.  Call me Flasher Santa. I didn’t notice that anything was wrong because I had a pair of trousers on under my Santa suit. There were no Arctic breezes on Santa’s North Pole.  Fortunately, most of the kids didn’t notice and the moms got a quite a charge out of it.

Oh well, even the best Santas have and occasional off day. 

Interestingly enough they asked me to come back the following year. What’s a wardrobe malfunction among friends? 

This time, I resolved to skip shoving pillows into my tunic since I heard more than once that they made me look more like Jane Russell than Santa Claus. I went to the Penn State Theatre Department's costume shop and borrowed a fat suit. There they were on hangers, each with a name:  Winston Churchill, William Howard Taft, Orson Welles, and so on. Who knew? 

And since driving was a chore the last time, I recruited a friend to go along as an elf. As that eminent authority on Santa, David Sedaris, will confirm, all the better Santas have a posse. One elf, my trusty wingman, would have to do. I found him an elf costume with green felt tunic and a hat. The tights, of course, were my friend’s idea. There was plenty of room for Santa in Mr. Elf's truck.

At the party it was the same drill as the year before, ho ho ho-ing, candy canes, and listening to what the kids want for Christmas. By this time I knew all about Stealth Barbie, and the new hot video game, Super Mario Meets Faye, the Progressive Insurance Chick. While I entertained the kids, Mr. Elf chatted up the hot moms.

The son of one of my friends was at the party, and he reported in to his mother as follows: 

Preschooler Son: I thought Rick was going to be Santa, but that’s not Rick, that’s Santa.

Mom: How do you know that’s Santa and not Rick?  

Preschooler Son: Because none of Rick’s friends are elves. 

He was right. None of my friends are elves. 

But plenty of my friends are fairies, and so after the encore performance as S.C. we segued over to Chumley’s, the local gay bar. There is never a better time to take a straight guy to a gay bar for the first time in his life than when he’s dressed as an elf, with big pointy ears, a brightly colored felt tunic, and wearing red and green tights. You are guaranteed to be the life of the party.

We hit another bar (we had to walk right by, the crowd inside waved to us; it would have been rude not to go in) on our way back to Santa’s Workshop. A table of MILFs asked Mr. Elf and me to join them. We had a great time, but I lost my wig in the process. At least I didn’t lose the keys to the sleigh.

I didn’t get the Stealth Barbie or The Valley of the Dolls Xbox game for Christmas that year, but I got lots of better things. I got to show my friend the schoolmarm and her students that there really is a Santa Claus. The outings reinforced my belief in the old guy, too, since there is nothing like being around a bunch of little kids who are incredibly excited about Santa to make you believe, too. And mostly importantly, I got to take someone to a gay bar and to say Hands off, buster. That elf’s with me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Festive Excursion

The other day I went to the Christkindl Market in Mifflinburg. It's one of my favorite festivals. Then again, I say that about just about every festival I go to. I even like the Reedsville Fireman's Carnival, since that's where I learned to make cotton candy. Yes, I did manage to get it in my hair, on my clothes and all over the cotton candy trailer, my teacher, our coworkers, and the visiting delegation of notables from Minot, North Dakota. None of that comes as a surprise, I suppose. Anyway, it takes a pretty crappy festival for me not to find something that I like.

Mifflinburg is about an hour to the east of State College on Route 45. There are lots of interesting sights on the trip: farms, both Amish and otherwise; cute little towns, the Hanover vegetable cannery, and Woodward Camp. There are plenty of outposts of the United States of Generica, too: self-storage places, drive-in banks, mini strip malls, and still more self-storage places. The little town of Hartleton used to be known only for its speed trap. Now it can be known as the home of the church that's closed during Advent.

The Mifflinburg Christkindl Market celebrates the town's German roots. The Festival starts on Thursday evening and lasts through Saturday. It's sponsored by seemingly everyone in town, except the tattoo parlor. Yes, there is one in Mifflinburg. Captain Howdy's Tattooing had the good sense to know that cold weather wear would be covering all the "body art" of skulls wearing Amish hats, Harley-riding distelfinks, and Olde English script proclaiming "Kissin' Don't Last, Tattooing Do".

The crowds really come out for the event. Of course Central Pennsylvanians, a large bunch anyway, take up even more space in bulky winter coats, so it doesn't take all that many of us to fill a street. Nevertheless, there are lot of people there. Mifflinburg's Market Street is lined with wooden storage barns (in place of the standard non-Teutonic white tent) where they sell all sorts of German stuff from cuckoo clocks and Hummel figurines to Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker action figures. (Yes, they were clearance items.)  I have more than enough East German memorabilia at home, so I pay more attention to the food rather than the gift-y items. The chicken corn soup with rivels made and sold by the Hartley Township Volunteer Fire Department is reason enough to go to the Christkindl Market. If Calvin Trillin were to taste that soup he would seriously consider joining a hunting camp in Hartley Township just to have a regular source of the stuff.

Mr. Sticky (or would that be Mr. Stickys, since there is no apostrophe?) is the former brother-in-law of Mrs. Moist, the maker of Homemade Pennsylvania Dutch Style Intimate Wipes.

The folks in Mifflinburg clearly are serious about their buns. You do not want to make Mr. Sticky--or the trenchermen behind you--mad by slowing down the line. I noted that low calorie is not one of the bun options.

It's not just the sweet, but there is plenty of savory, too. Unlike the sticky buns, the scrapple sandwich does not come with ordering instructions.

I think the penguin has had enough Hungarian Goulash. The Gabor sister working behind the counter is taking a break to get married or attend a Green Acres reunion, or maybe both.

The rolling electric Christmas tree is one of my favorite parts of the festival. It cruises through the Christkindl market playing Christmas tunes, acting like a cross between Cousin It from The Addams Family and a Fraser Fir.  It was on the fritz (I couldn't resist that not exactly pro German metaphor) when I first walked by. Since I was a friendly and available guy (well, not emotionally available, but we didn't get into that), one of the women trying to get it moving asked me to go inside the tree and to jiggle two wires together to jump start it. There is a hidden hatch on the side of the tree, and it opens a bit like an Mercury space capsule. Unfortunately I am neither an arborist nor a mechanic, and I wasn't able to get the sap (or the motor) up and running. Someone on the festival committee came by not too long after me and in a jiffy the tree was back to its bright and musical old self.

This is actually a giant gingerbread man at once of the entrance gates. Even the Festival's decorations look like something tasty to nibble on.

The strudel was warm, flaky, and tasty, just as Sergeant Schultz always imagined it to be. 

The residents of Mifflinburg living near the Christkindl Market decorate for the holidays, too. There are luminaria sprinkled liberally along the town's side streets. Lots of buildings have electric candles in the windows, and there is the occasional house with a little bit of everything: a Santa, a Nativity scene, an inflatable snowman, and some candy canes, just for good measure. Then there are the decorations that I couldn't figure out, like this one. I don't know about you, but my takeaway from the Mifflinburg Christkindl Market will always be that there is no place like gnome for the holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Lights, New Jersey Style

I love the Jersey Shore in December.

As you can see, there aren't many people about, at least on a weekend night in Stone Harbor. Lots of the "locals" have already decamped for Naples or Bonita Springs. The stores are open, and virtually everything is on sale, except at The Christmas Shoppe, which is filled to the rafters with Christmas ornaments and mostly hideous, ok, make that "not to my taste" tschotskes. Looking for hand carved ornaments of various figures of the Orthodox Church? They have 'em. You want a Nun's Beach ornament featuring Santa and Sister Mary Margaret riding tandem on a longboard? It's the place to go. And if you are lucky, you will get to hear the dulcet tones of the old-bag-in-chief as she makes snarky but sotto voce comments to the gardening program on the small radio that's behind the counter. It's Christmas music for the browsers in the back of the store, but New Jersey Public Radio (with live commentary about rutabagas) for the customers making a purchase.You can't get much more Christmas-y than that!

Stone Harbor store clerks are also very welcoming and even provide a free drink and age appropriate gift to children who have become separated from their parents. How thoughtful is that?  AND you can get 50% off a tank top! Tube tops, the national garment of Lower Delaware, are not marked down.

There is a sand sculpture of "Sanda Claus" on the vacant lot (aka "park") that's in the middle of downtown Stone Harbor. It looked about as animated as someone laid out at Altoona's Jones Funeral home. But hey, it's not every day that you see a girl with a muff in a sand sculpture.

At my favorite bar in Stone Harbor (now also serving pretty good food) every single person in the restaurant turned to look at my friends and me as we walked in for dinner recently on a Friday night. I almost expected some laconic cowpoke dressed in black to mosey up to us and drawl "We don't get many strangers in these here parts."

Saturday meant getting the house ready for the winter. The drill is picking up the detritus left behind by friends, vacuuming madly, scrubbing the bathroom, shaking out rugs, cleaning out the refrigerator, alphabetizing the spice rack, and drinking the dregs from the not quite empty liquor bottles. Experience has taught me that you get better results if you do the alphabetizing before you polish off the last little bit of Jim Beam.

After the cleaning frenzy it was time for dinner at Lucky Bones in Cape May.

The place was packed, and the food delish.  After dinner, one of my friends suggested that we drive through Cape May to check out the Christmas decor. I was all set for folks in Dickensian costume passing out Bob Cratchit Victorian Christmas Fudge outside The Fudge Kitchen, or a a giant inflatable Clement Clarke Moore, coming out of an outhouse holding the a copy of A Visit from St. Nicholas in the yard of the Emlen Physick Estate. Merry, merry!

However, before we found either of those attractions we were caught in the tail end of the West Cape May Christmas Parade. I didn't even know that West Cape May had a Christmas Parade. They do, and it's quite something. We missed the Mummers (oh my), marching bands, and the Lima Bean King and Queen (drat), but we did see lots of fire trucks swaddled in strands of Christmas lights. There was some sort of blockage (perhaps a coup attempt involving the Lima Bean King, a la Anwar Sadat) that kept the parade stationary for some time. That was just the excuse the fire trucks needed to let loose with every horn, whistle, bell and other honking device that they had on board. It was great!

It's not done until it's overdone is apparently the motto of both florists and firemen.

Lights on an ambulance mean that ambulance chasing lawyers get even more opportunities to enjoy the exuberant joy of holiday decorations.

It would have been a good night for arsonists in every little town in Cape May County, since all the fire trucks seemed to be in the parade.

There is nothing like a manger scene rendered in Evinrude outboard motors to fill me with the Christmas spirit.

After the rigors of the parade, it was time for a drink at the Congress Hall, one of the more chic destinations in Cape May.

The hotel's Brown Bar is quite stylish and often features a pianist--this time someone doing Elton John numbers. The bar attracted the usual suspects, such as the canoodling twenty-something hipster couple in skinny everything, but drinking umbrella drinks, in addition to lots of parka-clad parade goers.

I sat a few seats from a rode hard and put away wet woman in a Canadian tuxedo (matching jeans and denim jacket) who had a New Jersey trifecta going on: false eyelashes, a glass of red wine, and chewing gum. There was a steady parade of fashionable people in evening wear wandering in and out of the wedding reception in the banquet room next to the bar. After about the third person, I wanted to shout "Is Next Evening Wear!" as in the old Wendy's commercial.

The night's grand prize went to the woman who was dressed as Snooki's interpretation of Ali McGraw in Love Story--just as crocheted, but tighter and covering less overtanned flesh. I met her when she came into the men's room and made herself at home in the stall next to me, while I used the urinal. I was peeing with all the vigor that a 50-some year old guy can muster, when all of a sudden it sounded as if I were standing so close to Niagara Falls that I could have gone over in a barrel. I so did not know that women sound like that in the john! And then just as quickly as she came in, she was gone, without washing her hands. I shouldn't have been surprised at that, after all, she had been, as they say, "overserved". However, I am a tad disappointed that I didn't at least get a Yuletide fist pump.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lewistown, Our Neighbor

We tend to ignore the things that are practically in our back yards. New Yorkers don't go to the Statue of Liberty and lots of San Franciscans have never hopped on a cable car and pretended that they were in a Rice-A-Roni commercial. I'm fairly confident in saying that people from State College rarely go to the nearby burgs just to poke around.

I ran across this gem in the McCoy House, the home of the Mifflin County Historical Society, in Lewistown Pennsylvania. The McCoy House was the home of General Frank McCoy, a now mostly forgotten U.S. Army general who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. During World War I, he was the commander of the "Fighting" 69th  Regiment of the Rainbow Division.  I am glad they specified that it was the "Fighting" 69th, since fighting isn't typically what I think of when the number 69 comes up in conversation.

Wow real china at the Mifflin County jail ! Who knew? It was Melmac--a product of American Cyanamid--in the Bryant house when I was a kid. I thought inmates used metal plates and mugs and then banged the cups on the bars when something was up in the cell block. At least that's what they did in Jimmy Cagney movies of the 1930s (no, not the ones where he was a song and dance man) from which I gleaned my encyclopedic knowledge of early twentieth century penal practices.

Lewistown used to be a very prosperous place. Now it's a place people from State College whiz by driving as fast as possible on Route 322. Downtown Lewistown is filled with great houses in addition to handsome but often forlorn commercial and public buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Embassy Theatre is a good example of what's there. It was built as a silent movie house and then adapted to show "talkies" when they became common. The group that owns the theatre has done a super job restoring the marquee, and it's illuminated each year during the Lewistown Festival of Ice in early December. Unfortunately the rest of the building is in sort of a Miss Havisham state, long ignored, kinda dusty, and ready to go up in flames. The locals are working on a plan to restore the place and who knows, their plans just might work out.

This is in the so bad that it's good category. On second thought, perhaps it's still bad. Too many items from Column A and not enough from Column B, I think.

The Lewistown Elks Club building has fallen into disrepair and seems to be vacant. It must have been quite something in its day, when everyone knew that B.P.O.E. (Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks) really stood for "Best People on Earth."  If the place were in good repair, it could pass for a building on the Yale University campus. If it weren't for that "location, location, location" thing it would be a fun project to buy and bring back to life. I haven't been inside, but am quite curious about what it's like. There's probably a little stable where they kept the donkeys used in initiation rites. Or, wait, that wasn't at an Elks' initiation, it was a "variety" show in Baltimore.

Then there is the Lewistown Municipal Building, a wonderful example of Moderne architecture. The eagle at the top of the entrance exedra looks as if it has been designed by Albert Speer.

Downtown Lewistown has lots of buildings that other towns or college campuses would love to have. Unfortunately most of the industry that made Lewistown prosperous has gone elsewhere. In addition, the retail climate in the United States has changed, and people no longer go to downtowns to shop at Mom and Pop stores. Today we shop at in strip developments that look just like every other strip development. At the local outpost of Mega Lo Mart we park for "free" and then push a gigantic plastic cart with a bum wheel around the store. We taste bits of all sorts of sampled crap, and then load up the cart with stuff made in Chinese prisons. Of course we have to be happy with one brand of fishnet stockings (no reinforced cotton crotch, not in your exact size, nor quite the color you wanted) and the fact that mucilage only comes in a 7-pak with a free bottle of White Out. But hey, Utz BBQ potato chips are practically free in the bigger than you thought possible bag, and they have barrels of $5 DVDs (The ZaSu Pitts Collection, Vol. 2) that people find hard to resist.

There still are some good reasons to go to downtown Lewistown. There are a couple of good places to eat, and if thrift shops are your thing, it's the Mother Lode. If you want a Bugs Bunny, or better yet, a Bugs Bunny in a pot bellied stove, it should be on your short list of places to go.