Friday, December 5, 2014

Is it okay to get a needy child a dog toy for Christmas?



      Eleven months a year we get to be as selfish as we please, maximizing our advantage, straddling our small piles of loot, grinning, marveling at the view.
      But come December, well, a new dynamic kicks in. Echoes of a birth long ago, if you prefer, or a cultural cross check, a glance at society’s weakest members before we all plunge into the icy slush of winter and our hearts freeze up along with everything else.
     We don’t start caring for just anybody, of course. That would strain our delicate systems. So I’m not being called upon to buy some 24-year-old dishwasher those Dr. Dre headphones he’s had his eye on. 
Children, though, are a different matter. Somehow their poverty registers, cuts through our fog of self and raises a tingle in our anthracite hearts, as strangers are asked to help out their struggling parents. 
      The display went up in our office. Tinsel. Christmas stockings. Ornaments. A basket of letters from boys, a basket from girls—an odd distinction. Perhaps a bid to encourage response by tossing gender solidarity into the mix. A chance to buy a firetruck or doll for that son or daughter you never had. 
     Why should I take the time and money to benefit an unknown kid? One known only by a single, hand-scrawled note? Because I am a sap, and can imagine the poor kid staring at the empty spot beneath the tree if I don’t. Life disappoints soon enough. It shouldn’t disappoint you when what you want most in the world is a remote control dune buggy. 
     Sighing—sap, sap, sap—I pick the top letter, from a 1st grader at Burroughs Elementary, where 99 percent of the students live in poverty. “Dear Santa,” it begins, promisingly. “How are you? How are the reindeer and Mrs. Claus? When I go to school I always do my best...” And so on. “Can you please bring me a soccer goal net, soccer goalie gloves and soccer shoe spikes...”
     Hmm...that’s quite a request. I envision myself at the register at Dick’s Sporting Goods. “That’ll be $312.47, please, Mr. Sap.”
     Perhaps just picking the top letter shows a failure of initiative on my part. Maybe the letter underneath it is even more worthy.
    "Dear Santa Clause" - a future lawyer, perhaps - "I have been very good. How is Mrs. Clause?" Etc. "I would love a new pair of sneakers or legos and a game for a PS3 it's called Batman arkham Asylum. Please!"
     The specific game gives me pause. Not for the price, but the quest. I remember racing miserably from store to store as time ran out - should have ordered online! Looking for a certain doll, a Little Miss Twisted Bodi Image, ending up with its generic equivalent, the Miss Tax Free Industrial Zone Young Person Figurine, knowing I was both going to trouble and disappoint a child.
     I realize that, left on my own, I will paw through the letters until I find a child asking for old notebooks, so beseech a young co-worker to just pick a letter for me. She does.
     "Dear Santa," begins Rashel, a first-grader. "Good evening Santa Claus. How are you? And how are the reindeer? Can you tell me? I help my mama a lot with the washing can you please send me a stuffed santa claus toy, a one Direction cd? Or a doll. Please bring me these. I will be happy."
     Off to Target. The CD is easy; the stuffed Santa, not so much. I don't wander Targets much — are the other shoppers always so stunned looking? Kinda grim. Like survivors stumbling out of a disaster. Plenty of Santa ornaments. Santa hats. I spy the perfect stuffed Santa. Cute, nylon, $9.99. Well, that was easy. As I get closer I notice a possible sticking point. Santa is a dog toy. No worries, I think: the tag can be clipped off and the child no wiser. I pick it up. An entire cloth saddle hangs below. A "Santa Rider" dog toy designed to ride on the back of a dog. Insulting and cruel. I examine the juncture between Santa and the brown saddle. Perhaps it could be cut away. I put it back, thinking of both the brown residue at Santa's bottom and the shame of buying a needy child a dog toy for Christmas.      
     Michaels? Nothing. Pier One? A soft Santa beckons. No, he's a wine bottle cover. Hurrying through the aisles, a big, round, friendly, Santa bobs into view, his coat a soft wide twill. Hardly daring to hope, I pick it up; not a tea cosy, not a purse. Just a stuffed Santa, hands flung wide, waiting to hug a 6-year-old girl. I check the price, can't find it, shrug. These things are made by slaves in China; how much could it be? To the register: $32. I gulp. Guess they're treating those sweatshop workers better lately. Easier to pay the freight than continue the quest.
     If a person as selfish and cheap as myself can do this, so can you. You can get your letter to Santa by visiting suntimes.com/Santa, or calling 312-300-4193 until Dec. 16.

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