The SantaLand Diaries

I was in a coffee shop reading the want ads when I read: "Macy's Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sizes who want more than just a holiday job! "Working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement!'' I brought the ad home and Rusty and I were laughing about it and he dared me to call for an interview. So I did. The woman at Macy's said, "Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?'' I said full-time elf. I have an appointment next Wednesday at noon. I am a-33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf. I often see people on the street dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I usually avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed up as a taco. So if there is a costume involved I tend to not only accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying "Thank you so much,'' and thinking "You poor son of a bitch.'' This afternoon I accepted a leaflet from a man dressed as a camcorder. Hot dogs, tacos, video cameras, these things make me sad because there is no place for them, no community. They don't fit in on the streets, in a parade maybe but not on the streets. I figure that at least as an elf I will have a place. I'll be in Santa's village with all the other elves. We'll live in a fluffy wonderland surrounded by candy canes and gingerbread shacks. As an elf I will be where I belong. It won't be quite as sad as being some big french fry out on a street corner. I am trying to look on the bright side. I have to admit that I had high hopes when moving to New York City. In my imagination I went straight from Penn Station to the offices of "One Life To Live.'' In my imagination I went out for drinks with Cord Roberts and Victoria Buchanan, the show's biggest stars. We'd sit in a plush booth at a tony cocktail lounge and they'd lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say "A toast to David Sedaris! The best writer this show ever had!'' I'd say "You guys, cut it out.'' People at the surrounding tables would stare at us, whispering "Isn't that?...Isn't that?...'' I might be distracted by their enthusiasm and Victoria Buchanan would lay her hand over mine and tell me that I'd better get used to being the center of attention. But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Instead someone will say "What's that shoe size again?'' and hand me a pair of 7 1/2 slippers, the toes of which curl to a point. Even worse is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn't even find work as an elf. That's when you know you're a failure. A week ago I laughed myself breathless over Macy's "Elf Wanted'' ad in the Village Voice and this afternoon I sat in the 8th floor SantaLand office and was told "Congratulations Mr. Sedaris, you're an elf.'' In order to become an elf I filled out 10 pages worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious lunatics. During the second interview we were asked why we wanted to be elves which, when you think about it, is a fairly tough question. The woman next to me, a former waitress in her late 20s, said "I really want to be an elf? Because I think it's really about acting? And before this I worked in a restaurant? Which was owned by this really, really wonderful woman who had a dream to open a restaurant? And it made me think it's like, really, really important? To have a dream?'' Everything this woman said had a question mark at the end of it. I told the interviewers that I wanted to be an elf because it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard of. I figured that for once in my life I would be completely honest and see how far it got me. I failed the drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it but still they hired me and honesty had nothing to do with it. They hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Everyone they hired is short. I am one of the taller elves. After the second interview we were brought to the main SantaLand office where we were shown a floor plan and told that on a busy day 22,000 people come to Macy's to visit Santa and that it is an elf's job to act merry in the face of adversity. We were told to keep in mind that there is nothing more enchanting than SantaLand at Christmas. I will try to keep that in mind. This afternoon we learned the names of various elf positions. You can be, for example, an "Oh My God!'' and stand at the corner near the escalator. People arrive, see the long line around the corner, and say "Oh My God!'' and your job is to tell them that it won't take more than an hour to see Santa. You can be an Entrance Elf, a Water Cooler Elf, a Bridge Elf, Train Elf, Maze Elf, Island Elf, Magic Window Elf, Emergency Exit Elf, Counter Elf, Magic Tree Elf, Pointer Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Usher Elf, Cash Register Elf, or Exit Elf. We were given a demonstration of various positions in action, acted out by the returning elves who were so "on stage'' and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach. I don't know that I could look anyone in the eye and exclaim "On my goodness, I think I see Santa!'' or "Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish!'' Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it!!!!! It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way. I prefer being frank with children. I'm more likely to say "You must be exhausted,'' or "I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.'' I am afraid I won't be able to provide the enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.This afternoon we were given presentations and speeches. We were told that during the second week of December Macy's hosts something called "Operation Special Children'' at which time welfare children receive free gifts. There will be another special day for terribly sick and deformed children. On that day it is an elf's job to greet the children at the Magic Tree and then run back to the house to brace our Santa. "This next one is missing a nose,'' or "Caroline has burn scars covering 90 percent of her body.'' Missing a nose! Santa might say "Let me guess what you want for Christmas.'' We were given a lecture by the chief of security who told us that Macy's Herald Square suffers $30 million worth of employee theft per year. As a result, Macy's does not trust its employees any farther than it can throw them. Cash rewards are offered for turning people in and our bags are searched every time we leave the store. We were shown videotapes in which supposed former employees wring their hands and rue the day they ever thought to steal a leather jacket. The video thieves face the camera and explain how their arrests ruined their future, their family life, and their friendships. One fellow stared at his hands and sighed, "There's no way I'm going to be accepted into law school now. Not anymore, not after what I've done. Nope. Nooooo way.'' A lonely reflective girl sat in a coffee shop considered her empty cup and moaned, "I remember going out after work with my Macy's friends. God, those were good times. I loved those people. Well, needless to say, they're not calling any more.'' Macy's has two jail cells on the balcony floor and apprehends 3000 shop-lifters a year. We were told to keep an eye out for pickpockets in SantaLand. Interpreters for the deaf came and taught us to sign "MERRY CHRISTMAS! I AM SANTA'S HELPER!'' They told us to speak as we sign and to use bold, clear voices and bright facial expressions. They taught us to say "YOU ARE A VERY VERY PRETTY BOY! I LOVE YOU! DO YOU WANT A SURPRISE!'' My sister Amy lives above a deaf girl and has learned quite a bit of sign language. Amy taught some to me so now I am able to say "DO YOU WANT A TERRIBLE TERRIBLE SURPRISE FROM SANTA?'' "SANTA HAS A TUMOR IN HIS HEAD THE SIZE OF AN OLIVE! DO YOU THINK IT WILL GO AWAY TOMORROW? I DON'T THINK SO.'' "SANTA'S MOTHER USED TO GIVE HIM MONEY BUT NOW SHE IS IN MONEY TROUBLE. SORRY!'' "I HELP SANTA IN THE DAYTIME BUT IN THE NIGHTTIME I AM FREE TO EXPERIMENT.''Today we continued elf training which included a tour of SantaLand. SantaLand is beautiful, it really is. It's a wonderland with 10,000 twinkling lights and diversions. People enter and walk through a maze which affords views of mechanical dancing penguins, train sets, spinning bears, and really big candy canes. They walk through a quarter mile of maze and wind up at the Magic Tree, at which point they brace themselves for Santa. The tree is a tunnel, designed to resemble a complex system of roots. The child is supposed to think "I can't believe that I'm inside a tree!'' but instead I think it looks like a large scientific model of the human intestinal tract. Once you pass the Magic Tree the light dims. It's dark beyond the tree. It is dark because Macy's does not want people to know that there are six houses. Macy's wants people to think that there is only one Santa and that he lives at Macy's. They constantly refer to the movie Miracle on 34th Street but even if someone believed in one Santa why would they believe that he lived in a department store? Nobody lives in a department store. The Santa houses are cozy and intimate, laden with toys. Each house has a hidden camera.Today was elf dress rehearsal. The lockers and dressing rooms are on the 8th floor, directly behind SantaLand. People have gotten to know one another over the past four days of training but once we took off our clothes and put on our costumes everything changed. Amy, the woman in charge of costumes, handed out our uniforms and gave us a lecture on keeping things clean. She held up a calendar and said, "Ladies you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don't tell me 'I don't wear underpants, I'm a dancer.' If you were a real dancer you wouldn't be here. You're an elf and you're going to wear panties like an elf.'' My costume is green. I wear green velvet knickers, a yellow turtleneck, a forest green smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform. During dress rehearsal I worked as a Santa Elf for house number two. A Santa Elf greets children at the Magic Tree and leads them to Santa's house. When you work as a Santa Elf you have to go by your elf name. My elf name is Crumpet. The other Santa elves have names like Jingle and Frosty. They take the children by the hand and squeal with forced delight. They sing and prance and behave like cartoon characters come to life. It frightens me.Today was the official opening day of SantaLand and I worked as a Magic Window Elf, a Santa Elf, and an Usher Elf. The Magic Window is located in the adult "Quick Peep'' line. My job was to say "Step on the Magic Star and look through the window and you can see Santa!'' I was at the Magic Window for 15 minutes before a man approached me and said "You look so fucking stupid.'' I have to admit that he had a point. But still. I wanted to say that at least I get paid to look stupid, that he gives it away for free, but I can't say things like that because I'm supposed to be merry. So instead I said "Thank you!'' "Thank you!'' as if I had misunderstood and thought he had said "You look terrific.'' "Thank you!'' He was a brawny wiseguy wearing a vinyl jacket and carrying a bag from Radio Shack. I should have said, real loud, "Sorry man, I don't date other guys.'' People would have turned and looked our way and he would have curled into a little ball and died.This afternoon I worked as an Exit Elf, telling people in a loud voice "THIS WAY OUT OF SANTALAND.'' A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her idea of a picture, while her son lay beneath her kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said, "Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself Santa's not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for.'' The child said, "He is too going to bring me toys, liar, he already told me.'' The woman grabbed my arm and said, "You there, Elf, tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.'' I said that Santa no longer deals in coal. Instead, if you're bad he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself Santa was going to take away his tv and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. "All your appliances, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It's going to be so cold and dark where you are, man, Riley, are you ever going to suffer. You're going to wish you never heard the name Santa.'' The woman got a worried look on her face and said, "Alright, that's enough.'' I said, "He's going to take your car and your furniture and all the towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.'' The mother said, "No, that's enough, really.'' This morning I got stuck at the Magic Window which is really boring. I'm supposed to stand around and say "Step on the Magic Star and you can see Santa!'' I said that for a while and then I started saying "Step on the Magic Star and you can see Cher!'' And people got excited. So I said, "Step on the Magic Star and you can see Mike Tyson!'' Some people in the other line, the line to sit on Santa's lap, got excited and cut through the gates so that they could stand on my Magic Star. Then they got angry when they looked through the Magic Window and saw Santa rather than Cher or Mike Tyson. What did they honestly expect? Is Cher so hard up for money that she'd agree to stand behind a two-way mirror at Macy's? The angry people must have said something to management because I was taken off the Magic Star and sent to Elf Island which is really boring as all you do is stand around and act merry. At noon a huge group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and after seeing them for 15 minutes I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it. Two New Jersey families came together to see Santa. Two loud, ugly husbands with two wives and four children between them. The children gathered around Santa and had their picture taken. When Santa asked the 10 year old boy what he wanted for Christmas his father shouted "A WOMAN. GET HIM A WOMAN SANTA.'' These men were very loud and irritating, constantly laughing and jostling one another. The two women sat on Santa's lap and had their picture taken and each asked Santa for a KITCHEN-AIDE brand dishwasher and a decent winter coat. Then their husbands sat on Santa's lap and, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, one of the men yelled, "I WANT A BROAD WITH BIG TITS.'' The man's small-breasted wife crossed her arms over her chest, looked at the floor, and gritted her teeth. The man's son tried to laugh.I've met elves from all walks of life. The recession has hit New York very hard. Most of the other elves are show business people but several of them had real jobs at advertising agencies and brokerage firms. Bless their hearts, these people never in their wildest financial dreams figured that there was a velvet costume waiting in their future. They're the really bitter elves. Many of the elves are young, high school and college students. They're young and they're cute and one of the job perks is that I get to see these people in their underpants. Unfortunately many of the cuter elves tend to wear bathing suits under their costumes, jams I believe they are called. The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Richie. His elf name is Snowball and he tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I generally gag when elves get that cute but Richie is hands down adorable--you want to put him in your pocket. Yesterday Richie and I worked as Santa elves and I got excited when he started saying things like "I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet.'' It made me dizzy, this flirtation. By mid-afternoon I was running into walls. By late afternoon Richie had cooled down. By the end of our shift we were in the bathroom, changing our clothes, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by five Santas and three other elves--all of them were guys that Richie had been flirting with. Richie just leads elves on, elves and Santas. Later on we were in the elevator and I heard him say to his friend "I don't know what those guys all want with me. It gives me the creeps the way they stare.'' Richie is playing a dangerous game. It's one thing to get a child fired up but you really don't want to be working under a jilted Santa.At least a third of Santa's visitors are adults--couples, and a surprising number of men and women alone. Most of the single people don't want to sit on Santa's lap. They just stop by to shake his hand and say a few words. Often the single adults are foreigners who just happened to be shopping at Macy's and got bullied into the Maze. One moment they're looking at china and the next thing they know they're standing at the Magic Tree being asked how many in their party are here to see Santa. "How many in your party?'' And they answer "Yes.'' How many in your party is not a yes or no question. Then someone takes them to Santa's house and the confused foreigners smile and stare for a short while before leaving.This afternoon a man came to see Santa, a sloppy, good-looking man in his mid-40s. I thought he was a confused foreigner so I reassured him that lots of adults visit Santa, everyone is welcome. An hour later I noticed the same man, back again to see Santa. I asked what he and Santa talk about and in a cracked and puny voice he answered "Toys. All the toys.''I noticed a small dent in his forehead.During his third visit he got so excited that he peed on Santa's lap.Santa Curtis was visited by an elderly widow who sat on his lap and sobbed. Her husband had recently died and she came to ask Santa for a reason to go on living.Two Santas are black and both are so light-skinned that, with the beard and make-up, you'd never know they weren't white. Yesterday a black woman got upset after having requested a "Santa of color,'' she was sent to Earl."He's not black,'' the woman said.Sharon assured the woman that yes, he was black and the woman said "Well he isn't black enough.'' Earl is a difficult Santa, moody and unpredictable. He spends a lot of time staring off into space. When a boss tells Earl that we need to speed things up Earl gets defensive and says, "Listen, I'm playing a role here. Do you understand? A dramatic role that takes a great deal of preparation. Earl encourages children to enter the field of entomology. He says "Entomology, do you know what that is?'' He tells them that the defensive spray of the stink bug may have medicinal powers that may one day cure mankind of communicable diseases. He says, "Do you know what a communicable disease is?'' That's an odd question, especially coming from Santa. I was the Pointer Elf this afternoon when a woman approached me and whispered, "We would like a traditional Santa, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.'' I sent her to Earl. Last Saturday Snowflake was the pointer and a woman said, "Last year we had a chocolate Santa, make sure that doesn't happen again.'' Snowflake sent her to Earl. So far in SantaLand I have seen the old Simone from "General Hospital'', Sean Cudahy from "All My Children,'' Walter Cronkite, and Phil Collins. Last year one of the elves got fired when she asked Goldie Hawn to sign her hand, so we have been warned to leave the stars alone. Walter Cronkite was very tall and I probably wouldn't have recognized him unless someone had pointed him out to me. Phil Collins was small but well groomed. He came with his daughter and an entourage of three. I don't care about Phil Collins one way or the other but I saw some people who might and I felt it was my duty to tap them on the shoulder and say, "Look, there's Phil Collins!'' Many of Santa's visitors are from out of town and enjoy seeing a star as much as I do. I'd point out Phil Collins and people would squeal with delight. Seeing that it is my job to make people happy, I didn't have any problem with it. Phil Collins wandered through the Maze, videotaping everything with his camcorder and enjoying himself. Once he entered the Magic Tree he was no longer visible to the Maze audience so I started telling people that if they leave now and take a left at the end of the hallway they can probably catch up to Phil Collins after his visit with Santa. So they did, people left. I had no problem with that but the managers did because as soon as Phil Collins left Santa's house there was a crowd of maybe 20 people waiting for autographs. When the managers came looking for the big mouth I said, "Phil Collins, who's he?'' This afternoon I was stuck being Photo Elf with Santa Santa. I don't know his real name, no one does. During most days there is a slow period when you sit around the house and talk to Santa. Most of them are nice guys and we sit around and laugh but Santa Santa takes himself a bit too seriously. I asked him where he lives, Brooklyn or Manhattan, and he said, "Why, I live at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus!'' I asked what he does the rest of the year and he said, "I make toys for all of the children.'' I said, "Yes, but what do you do for money?'' "Santa doesn't need money,'' he said. Santa Santa sits and waves and jingles his bell sash when no one is there. He actually recited "The Night Before Christmas'' and it was just the two of us in the house, no children. Just us. What do you do with a nut like that? He says, "Oh Little Elf, Little Elf, straighten up those mantle toys for Santa.'' I reminded him that I have a name, Crumpet, and then I straightened up the stuffed animals. "Oh Little Elf, Little Elf, bring Santa a throat lozenge.'' So I brought him a lozenge. Santa Santa has an elaborate little act for the children. He'll talk to them and give a hearty chuckle and ring his bells and then he asks them to name their favorite Christmas carol. Most of them say "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'' Santa Santa then asks them if they will sing it for him. The children are shy and don't want to sing out loud so Santa Santa says ,"Oh Little Elf, Little Elf! Help young Brenda to sing that favorite carol of hers.'' Then I have to stand there and sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,'' which I hate. Half the time young Brenda's parents are my age and that certainly doesn't help matters much.There was a big "Sesame Street Live'' extravaganza over at Madison Square Garden so thousands of people decided to make a day of it and go straight from Sesame Street to Santa. We were packed today, absolutely packed, and everyone was cranky. Once the line gets long we break it up into four different lines because anyone in their right mind would leave if they knew it would take over two hours to see Santa. Two hours, you could see a movie in two hours. Standing in a two-hour line makes people worry that they're not living in a democratic nation. People stand in line for two hours and they go over the edge. I was sent into the hallway to direct the second phase of the line. The hallway was packed with people and all of them seemed to stop me with a question: which way to the down escalator, which way to the elevator, The Patio Restaurant, gift wrap, the women's restroom, Trim-A-Tree. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom and one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asked "Which is the line for the women's bathroom?'' I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. She said, "I'm going to have you fired.'' I had two people say that to me today, "I'm going to have you fired.'' Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume, it doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? "I'm going to have you fired!'' and I want to lean over and say, "I'm going to have you killed. You're not going to live to see this Christmas because I've got connections and everyone hates you.''The elves in the cafeteria were talking about last night's Pixies concert. Elves love the Pixies.Lately I am feeling trollish and have changed my Elf name from Crumpet to Blisters. Blisters, I think it's cute. Today a child told Santa Curtis that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles.Last year a woman decided she wanted a picture of her cat sitting on Santa's lap so she smuggled it into Macy's in a duffel bag. The cat sat on Santa's lap for five seconds before it shot out the door and it took six elves 45 minutes before they found it in the kitchen of the employee cafeteria.A child came to Santa this morning and his mother said, "Alright, Jason. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him what you want.''Jason said "I...want...Procton and...Gamble to...stop animal testing.''The mother said "Procter, Jason, that's Procter and Gamble. And what do they do to animals? Do they torture animals Jason? Is that what they do?''Jason said yes, they torture. He was maybe six years old.I got stuck with Santa Santa again this afternoon and had to sing and fetch for three hours. Late in the afternoon a child said she didn't know what her favorite Christmas Carol was. Santa said, "Rudolph? Jingle Bells? White Christmas? Here Comes Santa Claus? Away in a Manger? Silent Night?'' The girl agreed to "Away in a Manger'' but didn't want to sing it because she didn't know the words. Santa Santa said, "Oh Little Elf, Little Elf, come sing 'Away in a Manger' for us.'' It didn't seen fair that I should have to solo so I told him I didn't know the words. Santa Santa said, "Of course you know the words. Come now, sing!'' So I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sang if she'd put out a Christmas album. "Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.'' Santa Santa did not allow me to finish. I photo-elfed all day. Many of the parents don't allow their children to speak at all. The child sits on Santa's lap and the parent says, "Okay, Maureen, go ahead. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him you want a Baby Alive and a Fashion Barbie and My Pretty Ballerina.'' The parents name all the gifts they have already bought. They don't want to risk the child naming anything they don't intend to purchase so instead they simply don't allow the child to talk at all. The parents talk through the entire visit and then they say, they always say, "What do you say to Santa?'' The child says, "Thank you Santa.'' It is sad because you'd like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they had been handed a script. All the adults say, "I'd be afraid to sit on Santa's lap. I'm afraid I'd break it!'' How do you break a lap? It's like people saying "Don't work too hard'' while you're working. It's such a tired thing to say, everyone's heard it a thousand times. All of us take pride and pleasure in the idea that we're unique but I'm afraid that when it's all said and done it only comes down to fingerprints. It frightens me because I hear these people and they're all the same so I have to realize that I'm the same too. I went with Tiffany to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. It was shoulder to shoulder packed, and Tiffany said, "Where did all these fucking people come from?'' But we're the crowd too, she and I. People go to Europe and return saying, "The only problem was that there were SO MANY tourists.'' But what are they, natives? It's a massive lie that we're all unique but it is a lie we desperately need to hold onto. All of the adults ask Santa for a gold card and a BMW and then they laugh like crazy, thinking perhaps that they are the first person brazen enough to request such pleasures. Santa laughs back and says, "I'll see what I can do!'' It's a lot easier to believe people are unique when you don't work with the public. As soon as I leave work I become the public too. We're not called The Public for nothing.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

What you can do:
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