Monday, February 02, 2009

Life With Iron Giants: Small Town Santa

This is February and I realize the tinsel trees have been taken down (hopefully) and all traces of the holiday removed to attics and garages but it it does only seem like yesterday......
     Our house is progressing and I'll be talking more about this in detail, but I need to catch up first on the joys of living in a small town.  Before we came here I lived in a city where anonymity was practiced with zen focus and although I shopped, ate, and walked with regularity in the same places there was no true connection with those around me.
     Not that it was someone else's fault: I'm not like my husband or my brother Will who chats up the counter girl or the restaurant server and is likely to be remembered from one time to the next. And since I'm not a coffee-in-the-morning person I couldn't even count on the friendliest person on earth, the Starbucks barrista, to do the work for me.
     But when I moved to San Pedro with its two-street, funky downtown collection of shops, cafes and the occasional upscale restaurant, my attitude changed.  This diminutive scope seemed far more manageable and it wasn't long before I began to understand the meaning of community so long absent from my life.
     Besides the neighbors who I can now call on to look after Sweetpea in a pinch or borrow a pinch of something for a meal, the shopkeepers I visit not only know my name and my preferences, but they love and dote on our daughter, who is growing up in a place where such things can happen.  In particular Anniko and Mishi, who have a small cafe where they bake their wonderful home-made strudel, have become something akin to extended family.  We discuss their business as it has grown and expanded, family matters as they crop up, and recently I helped them with planning a high tea service they are giving for Valentine's Day customers.  And when Sweetpea comes once a week after ballet class they shower her with hugs and sweets.  They've even been to dinner at our house.

     I can't do enough to support the small businesses in our town and I've become much more conscious of the inter-dependency we have to nurture our way of life.  Without us, Mishi's Strudel wouldn't survive.  And without them, my sweets, and my life would be much more of a cookie-cutter, big-box experience.
     So what has this to do with Christmas, you ask?  Part of being a regular anywhere is getting to know the other regulars.  And one of them in particular, Alex,  is as salty and irascible as he is fascinating and kind.  A retired sea-captain, he's a big man with an even bigger past and you never know what story will come out of a casual sit-down if he's in residence at Mishi's Strudel. Alex has plied his trade up and down the oceans of the world and the Great Lakes too,  worked with Jacques Cousteau, and was on the crew that located the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. For those who are not Gordon Lightfoot fans, this is a 1960's Great Lakes ship made famous by poem and song when it sank in stormy weather with all hands on board. 
     Alex resembles a couple of notable historical figures, Papa Hemingway and his cousin, Santa Claus.  So when the holidays came around (and Mishi's Strudel one-year anniversary), Alex decided to offer his services as Santa for visiting kids.  
     For two weekends in late December Santa set up shop on the velvet sofa in the cafe.  And he brought with him an amazing array of beautiful gifts he'd purchased himself.  Giant stuffed animals, puzzles, badminton sets, books, puzzles, and games galore.  All stuffed into a big red velvet bag and ready for the taking.  It was a perfect set-up for Alex because he loved nothing better than to hang out at the cafe with strudel and hot chocolate at his beck and call (caption for photo above). 

     I read in the local paper that 500 kids came out to see the Santa at a popular restaurant in the tonier section of San Pedro but I can guarantee they missed out big time when they failed to visit the kinder and certainly more generous Santa downtown in the little cafe that cares.  Some of the children I saw were in awe of the gift they received from the jolly old elf with the real beard and belly.  
     Which was great except when five-year-old Sweetpea came in for her regular visit to find Santa holding court with many adoring children by his knee.  A fake beard would have come in handy in this instance because after a moment of critically examining the figure before her she greeted him with, "Hi, Alex," then turned to me with disdain and said, "What happened to the REAL Santa?"  
     I had a lot of explaining to do before Sweetpea would calm down.  But happily she saw the real thing two days later at our Unitarian church party, ill-fitting suit, pillow belly, cotton-candy beard and all.  I don't think she noticed his life-partner, Greg, was taking all the photos.  

Sometimes reality is a bit too much to handle.