The white Santa beard smelled like peanut butter.
That was because the last officer that used it had stuffed his face incessantly with peanut butter filled crackers from vending machines during the previous shift. There were even crumbs still in it. The beard was also supposed to be both fluffier and whiter, but by then was old enough and ragged enough it looked like something a drunk subway Santa would wear. As that was what he was pretending to be undercover, he supposed that was alright. But it disturbed his own sensibilities of what Christmas was supposed to be.
He was part of a team of three undercover officers dressed as Santa effecting a rotating surveillance of the subway looking for pickpockets and purse thieves amongst the Christmas shoppers. The stations smelled oily and trashy, and the trains were odiferous with body odor and mold. They were crowded with tired, stressed people lugging packages and sacks on and off the trains. Holiday angst bubbled amidst a plethora of shifty characters seeking exploitation of it, half-dozen of whom he’d busted for various infractions over the past week. He stood to the side while scanning the bustle getting on and off the latest train and recognized the complete dearth of Holiday cheer anywhere around him, including within him.
He noticed at that moment a tired young woman carrying two big bags and leading a small girl by the hand. The little girl saw him and stopped dead, which pulled the woman to a stop, which clearly annoyed her, which she was also clearly too tired to fight. The little girl pointed at him excitedly. Seemed to be saying ‘mommy’. The woman sighed as the little girl pulled her towards him.
“I don’t think Santa has time…” the young woman was trying to pause everything.
“Santa!” the little girl stopped in front of him and shouted. He tried to smile at her. The young woman also tried to smile, wearingly, as he did indeed look like less than a legitimate Santa character.
“Hi, there,” he said.
As he sounded sober the young woman said apologetically, “You’re the first Santa we’ve seen.”
He sized the young woman up in a second. Clean but cheaply attired. Dragging her daughter with her shopping because there’d been no one else to watch her. No wedding ring. Carrying bags from discount stores, so not much money to spend. Worn out as she tried to squeeze Christmas shopping in between work. “What’s your name,” he asked the child, and she happily told him. “What would you like for Christmas?”
Her face lit up excitedly. “PlayStation!” she exclaimed.
Her mother gave him such a low expression he knew there was no possible way she could afford to buy her child anything even remotely close to a PlayStation. He recognized the same juxtaposition between Christmas expectations and reality that had soured his own mood. “Wow, cool!” he told the little girl, then asked, “What do you suppose I should bring your nice mommy?”
That seemed to jar the little girl’s thought process. She was still smiling, but she looked with bright eyes at her mommy. An expression came about her he’d seen in children when he knew they were subconsciously drinking in perceptions well beyond their ability to understand. “Well,” she began after a pause, “My Mommy would really like a better job. And a coffee maker that actually works.”
He knelt closer to her. “I’ll try really hard, OK. Jobs are very difficult for Santa, but maybe if you help me. If you’re the best girl you can be, help mommy around the house and stuff, maybe together you and I can make it happen.”
“Okay!” the little girl said happily. She looked back to her mommy, then back to Santa, then said, “Maybe you could just put that PlayStation towards a coffee maker. That and a toaster!”
“You’re a good girl,” he told her, “I’ll tell the elves to get busy on it!”
“Thank you, Santa!” she beamed as her mother half pulled her away, mouthing a ‘thank you’ as she did.
The officer watched them disappear up the stairs and actually felt something akin to Christmas come over him, but with as much lament as warmth; warmth that he had tried to do something good, lament that it wasn’t enough. If he knew where they lived, he’d have a Mr. Coffee on their doorstep that very day. And a toaster.
But he didn’t. And now smelling both regret and peanut butter, he looked up and saw a woman halfway down the platform, trying desperately to hold onto the thin strap of her purse while a guy tried to yank it off her shoulder, and he shouted, “Stop immediately” and sprinted towards them.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.