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Rebels With a Claus

Nigel French

In which 150 Santas yield
two arrests and no sales tax.

By Larry Smith

'Laurence David Smith," repeated Nancy from the travel agency, "your parents must have had such high hopes for you. And now you're going to put on a Santa suit and fly to Portland."

Admittedly, my desire to travel with the SF Cacophony Society for Santacon '97 was hard to explain. These are the kind of people who walk city sewers in tuxedos just for the hell of it, and create events like Burning Man. And now, 10 days before Christmas, the joke for these post-modern Merry Pranksters was dressing up in cheap Santa suits and convening in the city of Portland.

Still, how to explain why 150 people from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle get together to commit random acts of ridiculousness and senseless acts of Santa? There were lots of reasons. I thought I might experience the liberation of complete anonymity, perhaps feel some odd empowerment of dressing up as an icon. Then, of course, there was the chance to make some sort of bold statement on the commercialization of Christmas or, at the very least, determine how much fun it would be to freak out a small child.

I asked some Santas what they were doing in Portland. Answers varied.

"We have no sense of community anymore," said Santa Chris from San Francisco, "and these Santas are like a moving village."

"It is the closest you can come to severely screwing up your life and almost being thrown in jail without having done anything wrong," offered Santa Ned from San Jose.

Some offered unsolicited opinions.

"I don't know who you are or where you are going," said a woman looking on in disbelief as she passed a horde of Santas in the airport, "but God bless you."

Tipped off by the San Francisco Police Department, who had to quell a minor melée involving some red suits around this time last year, Portland's finest were ready for us. A widely distributed memo warned: "The Portland Police Bureau has received information of a possible disturbance planned for the Portland area on Saturday, Dec. 14, 1996. The individuals involved will be wearing Santa suits. Last year in San Francisco, one hundred of these culprits crashed a children's carnival, ran wild on department store escalators, stole holiday decorations and props." The missive went on to detail the weekend's events, describing such activities as "drive-by caroling," warning locals that "they have hired a Karaoke Machine," and concluding, "These events may or may not happen."

In fact, three of Portland's officers greeted us at the gate, first reading us the riot act, then asking if anyone needed a ride to the first event (they did have the schedule, after all), which was a meeting at an airport bar called Flirt's. There an officer explained to the puzzled group of Santas, booked into the cheapest hole in the city: "Portland is glad to have you here for your convention, but remember to behave yourselves--and spend a lot of money."

The fuzz became so commonplace that I started to get nervous when they weren't around.

But our relationship with the law broke down as the Santas attempted to enter the Lloyd Center, a Portland mall where we had planned major event of caroling, buying presents for orphans and holding a seance for Tonya Harding at the ice skating rink. On this major shopping weekend of the year, the cops would have none of it. It was a showdown: 100 Santas lined up against a wall on one side of the road, singing Jingle Bells, dozens of cops on the other, wearing riot gear. As one Santa Monaca observed, "You'd think we had kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby." Although the police would later arrest two Santas on shaky grounds of profanity and distributing pornography, for now, the Santas left peacefully.

Still, I observed that the power of our Santa posse was not derived by the reactions of others, but the commonality that a festive red suit and a lost weekend brings. The Santas peaked, I think, when we landed, without warning, in a strip bar called Mary's. It was the kind of homey place where, once the song is over, dancers put their clothes back on, onstage, pick another tune on the jukebox and start to undress again. One minute a young woman was lifelessly disrobing to a Blues Traveler song, the next she was shedding a loaner Santa robe and cooing, "Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight." The crowd cheered. An elf kicked up her leg in joy. A chorus of "Ho! Ho! Ho!" erupted. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted my buddy Santa David, who had managed to land on the lap of the hunky reporter from Harper's he had been eyeing all weekend. The highbrow journalist, seemingly confused just a day before, was now decked out in full Santa suit, scribbling notes furiously, as Santa David whispered in his ear, "This is hot."

And a few hours later, with a room full of Santas sitting in the back room of a Chinese restaurant, Santa Michael offered these final thoughts, "The variety of human experience is infinite, and ultimately we must remember not to take ourselves too seriously, 'cause Santa Claus is coming to town."

Santa Ned will be playing audio clips from the Santas from 2 to 6am on his show on KFJC (89.7) on Monday, Dec. 23.

More photos of the Santas.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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