Working for the man (in the red suit)


What a Boon it Was to Observe the Guys who Spend Christmas Jerking off Behind Glass

A peep show is like a urgent care clinic: open all day, every day in defiance of holidays observed in the outside world. The tableau never changes behind the glass: Nude girls languish on their cracked leatherette chaises regardless of whether it's Halloween, Thanksgiving, or the locust-thick dawn of the apocalypse. At a peep show, the sole indicator of Christmas revelry is the occasional "Naughty or Nice" novelty panty being sold, still warm, to a smitten customer. Even if every dim-sum joint in town is shuttered, it's safe to assume that peep shows and strip clubs are open. Wide open. There's no long winter's nap for the wicked.

When I was a peep show employee, I was asked to work Christmas Day. Most girls would have groaned at this mandate from on high, but I was secretly delighted. What a boon, from an anthropological perspective, to be able to observe the guys who spend Christmas-- not just a random day during the Christmas season, but Christmas proper-- jerking off behind glass. Now, I'm aware that lots of people don't celebrate Christmas, but most folks at least get the day off and spend it among family and friends. The holiday season is a time of redemption and reflection. What kind of misanthrope arms himself with lube, Kleenex, and a latex sleeve on Christmas morning?

I soon found out: all of them. My Christmas shift was brisk and businesslike, and the customers seemed unaffected by the holiday. I, however, could not rid myself of the yuletide perspective. Christmas carols wormed their way into my subconscious. Sugarplums bobbled in my head. I imagined gaily-striped candy canes where there certainly were none. And as I lay cold and squirming on my designated cot, I couldn't help but be reminded of a certain babe in a manger.

My environs just couldn't distract me from the ingrained memories of Christmas days past. And someday, when I tell and retell this holiday tale to my raptly attentive children, I will emphasize that Christmas retains its mojo in even the most cheerless of surroundings. And that batteries are always an appropriate stocking-stuffer. --Diablo Cody


We Took Revenge...One Small Appetizer Plate at a Time

The Christmas bonus made it clear the company party that followed would be time better spent at home watching Friends reruns...alone...over lukewarm soup. But the boss was bidding on a $1 million home in need of renovations--what were we expecting? To be rewarded for the bottomline results that funded his purchases?

The mood throughout the office was grim. To perk up the troops, I half-jokingly suggested that since the party was at a tapas restaurant, we should all just keep ordering, and take group revenge one small appetizer plate at a time. That night the ordering was frenzied. The boss's wife must have been short-changed too--maybe she wasn't so keen about moving to the suburbs--because she caught on quickly and enthusiastically ordered away while regaling us with tales of her husband's boorish tendencies.

He grew increasingly red-faced as the plates stacked up. By seven, he informed us the party was over. We headed for the coat check to retrieve our briefcases and his wife's mink. It created an opportunity to scold me for what turned out to be a very expensive evening--I should have anticipated how ravenous the staff would be after a day of heavy...investment management...before suggesting tapas. like I knew they'd be given cause to be so hungry for revenge.

My briefcase and Mrs. Boss' mink came with a smile. The attendant went back for the other briefcase. We watched her struggle and struggle to lift it off the floor. It wouldn't budge. Appropriately enough, it was stuck in rat poison--a nice little Christmas bonus after all. --Gayle Ronan


Ammunition, Knives and Machetes, Sniper Scopes, Stun Guns, Tasers, Pepper Spray, Police Batons-Everything Anyone Would Need to Have a Merry Christmas

Several years ago I had a temporary job over the "Holiday Season" in the warehouse of the mail-order catalogue "The Sportsmen's Guide," in South St. Paul.

"The Guide" is sort of the premiere lifestyle magazine for rednecks, survivalists, militia men, soldiers of fortune, and anybody else out there who happens to find regular occasion for dressing up in camouflage fatigues (orange or green or even khaki; they're a diverse bunch).

My job was on an assembly line, packing all the Christmas goodies they had ordered into boxes. I was like one of Santa's little elves, only instead of toy trains and candy canes, this year Santa was mostly giving away a mountain of Government Surplus and an arsenal of deadly stocking stuffers.  

I packed box after box brimming with Christmas goodies like ammunition, knives and machetes, sniper scopes, stun guns, tasers, pepper spray, police batons--everything anyone would need to have a Merry Christmas. And for those whose taste in gifts is even worse than the average "Guide" shopper, they offered a hideous line of "wildlife art" and home decor, as well as charming things like replicas of Nazi military artifacts such as knives and helmets, replete with jolly little swastikas.

I only worked there for about three weeks and never had the urge to buy anything, but I still get their catalogues in the mail. They've changed quite a bit it seems. The merchandise has lost a lot of its flair for savagery; it's far more mainstream than extremist. My favorite feature in it though is Ted Nugent's "Call of the Wild" column (no joke). I wonder what Ted's friends and family ordered up for him this year? Happily, I won't be the one boxing his toys up this time around. -- Ned Kelly


"We Don't Want a Black Santa. We Want a Real One."

I had no elf name while working at Santaland at Macy's Herald Square in New York my sophomore year of college. I had the Christmas spirit and was glad to pass it along, although I could have done without the eight-hour shifts of The Nutcracker Suite on repeat.

There are many elf jobs, like standing at the mouth leading towards Santa's house. We make sure that the kids can't see that there are six Santa houses. And the kids are crazy happy. Peeing themselves happy. Hysterically horrified and excited happy.

It's the parents who suck when they slyly whisper to you, "We don't want a black Santa. We want a real one."

And I just send them to the next house to get whichever Santa is on shift.

But my favorite job is when I am the Photo Elf. Because the kids come into Santa's house and they believe. So I believe, too. And on one night that haunts me even today, while waiting for the next kid to come into his house, Santa asks me what I want for Christmas.

"Financial aid so I can finish going to College," I say.

"My dear Elf, that gift is too big to fit under the tree," Santa says.

Then a little girl comes in with her parents, and when she answers Santa's question, she says, "I don't need anything. I would like World Peace."

Her parents desperately point to all the toys available for sale in the toy department hanging conveniently in Santa's House. They just want to know what to get her because she hasn't given them any clues and they are at their wit's end.

"Tell Santa what you want!"

But that little girl sticks to her answer. World Peace.

And her parents start yelling and the little girl starts to cry, and realizing that it's not cool to yell at your kid when she wants world peace for Christmas, and knowing that you can't yell at Santa, because he's Santa, they turn and they start to yell at me.

"You make her tell us what she wants. You Elf. It's your job."

And I'm no elf expert. I'm just trying to spread the cheer and take the picture.

So I softly say, "World Peace is too big to fit under the Christmas tree."

The little girl understands that. But I feel like an asshole as she points to a toy on the wall. Her parents are relieved, but they don't even thank me.

And me, I'm bummed, and so is Santa. So Santa gives me the only gift he actually has the power to give.

"Hey elf, let's take a break. Coffee's on me." --Miss Cecil Castellucci


Being Snowball Was Like Being Encased in a Straitjacket of Fake Fur

When my husband was getting his Master's at NMU, and I was flailing around career-wise like a hooked pike on the bottom of a boat, I earned pin money by moonlighting at a local department store in the housewares section. One Christmas, the store had a promotion with a stuffed "Snowball the Christmas Dog" that they gave away with big purchases, or something like that.

One day I walked in the door for a Sunday shift and the clerk who was playing Snowball called in sick. So I got to be Snowball for a couple of hours. Snowball's head was the size of one of those inflatable exercise balls, but nowhere as light, and his? her? its? body was like being encased in a straitjacket of fake fur. My predecessor hated it, and understandably so--she nearly passed out on her shift.  

Fortunately, years of science fiction fandom came in handy. (You wouldn't think that one summer spent feeding your friend Sprite and salt pills through the mask in his Chewbacca suit would be "transferable skills," but go figure.) Every 20 minutes or so, I'd get a co-worker to escort me to the ladies' room, and I'd drink about a quart of water and splash my face in the sink.

The kids were great, though. The brave ones would jump up and hug me and I'd win over the shy ones by pretending to be as scared of them as they were of me. I'd cover my huge button eyes with my paws, and cower. That cracked them up. It also cued one mom to my gender. Talking to me in the bathroom as I was taking off my head, she said, "I knew you were a woman! A woman in a costume will try to coax the kids to her--a man will huff and puff and try to scare them."

What got to me was one little boy who kept asking me questions: "Do you have kids, Snowball? What do you like to eat? Where do you live?" And as I went back to the bathroom for the last time, "Will you come home with me? I'll take really good care of you!"

I'll bet he would have, too. --Cecile Cloutier


The Elderly People Handed Me a Chainsaw and the Keys to a Faded Red Tractor

Having lived in Los Angeles my entire life, where phrases like "windchill factor" and "windshield defrost" hardly register to sleeveless Sunset Boulevard shoppers, my winters were overcast at worst. But last December, through a series of capricious decisions, I found myself in the city of Rochester, New York, meandering through 50 acres of pines in a 10-degree hell as I assisted scores of flanneled families in finding their ideal Christmas tree.

I had never heard of a Christmas-tree farm before moving to Rochester. The idea of people trekking around a frost-bitten forest to cut down their very own Douglas Fir seemed inane, if not insane. When I arrived I discovered the grounds were owned by an elderly couple, who promptly handed me a chainsaw and the keys to a faded red tractor, rusted the color of tobacco juice. Along with two sunken-eyed, equally bewildered trainees, I was forced to go out and pre-cut a few hundred trees so that when customers showed up, they could finish the job with a few chops.

The first day the rain fell like flesh-piercing thumbtacks. After a few loops, the tractor dug ruts in the mud, which I mistook to be a good thing until the third day when the grooves froze solid. Every hour, as I chauffeured trusting men and women between trees, it took a small miracle to avoid skidding out and plunging head-on into the hillside. I drove the same loop every day, dropping off and picking up Bobby Knight look-a-likes with their high-decibeled wives, hoisting their prized trees into the attached flatbed and tying them down with extra-strength twine. Tips were appreciated but rare in appearance. Sometimes a smiley-faced, bashful boy would hand me a dollar as his mom urged him onward. I made sure to deposit it in my piggy bank alongside my tooth-fairy money.

For lunch I looked forward to what was allegedly chicken soup but more realistically what my bosses soaked their dentures in. "Sandwiches" consisted of bread, bologna, and bread. And best of all, I was forced to wear an orange bib and cap, similar to an elementary-school crossing guard, so as not to be mistaken for a rabid moose or ferocious grizzly bear. Instead of postponing hunting season, it was our responsibility to evade the men with guns. Every half hour a huge BOOM would shake snow from the branches and instinctively cause my knees to buckle, my chin to tuck, and my arms to rise up as if I were being pummeled by Mike Tyson. To this day the sound of a car backfiring triggers thoughts of tasteless broth, razorblade winds, and crisp diesel gasoline. --Eric Bromberg


A Pint Bottle of Peppermint Schnapps Was My Emergency Anti-Freeze

After 23 years in the Caribbean, I look back with fondness on life in Minnesota, something hard to describe to islanders who think a "cold snap" is around 65 Fahrenheit.

My worst winter job was a pre-Christmas stint in a vacant lot in Bloomington alongside 494, selling Christmas trees. I did it for two weeks, but it seemed more like two years. Let me try to describe the experience.  

A car pulls into the lot. My cohort doesn't stir; it's my turn to leave the warm shelter and attend to the customer. A woman gets out and I put on my salesman smile and greet her. Her husband, being a smart guy, sits in the car with the kids, engine running.

"How about this one?" I ask hopefully.

"Too short, we need a taller one."

"No problem" I say. "This one, then."

"Nope, too skinny."

This one? Has a bare spot.

This one? Looks funny.

Continuing this procedure, we look at every single tree on the lot, at which point yours truly has lost: (1) his interest in selling a tree; (2) his patience; (3) his feeling in his fingers and toes.

The good news is that she is freezing too, so she heads back to the car to warm up. The bad news is that it is her husband's turn to come out and continue the quest for the Perfect Tree. Unlike his wife, he doesn't look at every tree, but still wants to explore the entire lot. At this point, my smile has become a frozen grimace and I step behind a stack of trees for a furtive slug from a pint bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, an emergency anti-freeze for survival purposes.

But now dad is cold, so their tag team switches once again and mom comes out for another tour. At this point, we plod behind, beaten into submission.

"What exactly are you looking for, lady?" I ask through gritted teeth.

"We'd just like a full, perfect tree.... these all have something wrong with them."

"Lady, there is no such thing as a perfect tree. They are all flawed, just like everything else in the world. What the hell is wrong with you?"

This last one is what I wanted to say. What I really said was: "How about this one?"

Like I said, I've lived in the Caribbean for 23 years. I sometimes play music in the hotels, and people from all over the world have asked me "What made you move to Barbados?"

Except for Minnesotans. They never ask. Instead, it's taken as a given. --Lee Sorenson


New Year's Eve at the Chapel of Love in the Mall of America

The bride wore a gown of ivory embroidered with gold thread. Her curls were piled high in an elaborate up-do. She looked stunning.

"When is your baby due?" I asked.

"Next month," she grinned, the size of her belly ensuring there was no "is she or isn't she?" on my part.

It was New Year's Eve at the Chapel of Love in the Mall of America.

This bride was one of several getting married that day. Each couple had different answers for why she chose New Year's Eve. One groom said he wanted to be sure to remember his anniversary. Another bride said they picked the date for tax purposes. A news crew had come out because of the holiday.

The couples on that New Year's Eve were pretty typical of people who got married at the Chapel of Love. Some were young, some were not. Some were pregnant, some were not. Some had been married before, some had not.

When I worked at the Chapel of Love, the question most people asked when they walked through the door was, "Do people really get married here?"

"Yes," I replied so many times. "They do."

The question they meant to ask, though, was probably, "Why do people got married at the Chapel of Love?" I wondered the same thing before I worked there.

Most people assume that the couples who get married there specifically want to be married in a mall, or in this case, THE mall. While I was there, I didn't find that to be true. Sometimes a couple didn't belong to a church. Sometimes they did, but their church wouldn't marry them.

Often a couple wanted a simple ceremony, but didn't want it in the impersonal chambers of a judge.

Lots of different people get married at the Chapel of Love. What made working there interesting, on New Year's Eve and on so many other days, was being able to move beyond those boring questions of whether couples really got married there, and why. I got to know, if only briefly, the people getting married, like the lovely, eight-months pregnant bride.

That wasn't only interesting; it was actually a pleasure. --Kristin Boldon


What's Depressing Isn't Realizing That You Can Be Bought, It's Discovering Just How Low Your Price Is.

Like the guy who delivers your morning paper or holds the door open when it's raining, as a teacher I get presents at holiday time. Which makes me feel a tiny bit condescended to but mostly grateful. As a friend once pointed out, what's depressing isn't realizing that you can be bought, it's discovering just how low your price is. While we try to display properly adult indifference to the whole thing, it turns out that teachers' little-kid side, if anything, gets amplified by spending 40-plus hours a week around teenagers.  

You can get jealous over what the somebody gave the teacher at the next desk (irritatingly, female colleagues get snazzy scarves), or creepily anxious about prospects from the kid who gave you something as a freshman but might not as a senior. And woe betide anyone who returns to the office after the holiday assembly ("Hallelujah" chorus, Sandler's inevitable "Hanukkah Song" from the Jewish kids) to discover a desk without at least a token gift atop it. It's worse than a lump of coal.

And it's too often a seller's market for me to get complacent. Even though I wrote a college letter for one of her daughters, I missed getting on Danielle Steel's list. Her personal assistant sends out boxes of candy (the big ones, with the full assortment, not the little ones with a few basic pieces) to those who've been nice and apparently purges the rolls only every five years or so, which makes for a nice perk as long as it lasts. (I did, however, score about three gallons of homemade kimchee my first year, which served my spicy-condiment needs well past their eat-by date, resulting, three months later, in a congealed brew of astounding potency.)

To my chagrin, somehow I've tended to attract mostly givers of conceptual presents, which sound snappily ironic in theory but feel poutingly insufficient in practice. I've amassed history-measuring rulers, little ceramic apples (for, y'know, the teacher), both Democratic and Republican plush mascots (made in China), and lots of doodads that say "teacher" on them. Can I subtly convey an unspiritual grubby desire in this area without losing credibility? --Jesse Berrett

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