"I wish you wouldn't say that," my wife said.
"Say what?" I replied.
"Say, 'I'm not a social service,'" she said, mimicking some pompous dope's voice; me, apparently.
A favorite phrase of mine when I'm ducking some do-goody task somebody feels I ought to do.
"Well, I'm not!" I blustered. Helping people is a fool's errand.
When I saw the table set out in the newsroom for the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust's Letters to Santa program this year, my first, unvarnished thought was: Hell no! Not AGAIN! I've done that in the past. Talk about a hassle. You have to track down some obscure toy for an anonymous child. One year I was late getting it, and was forced to drive to West 123rd Street to deliver the gift. I bet you didn't know Chicago has a West 123rd Street; it sounds like it should be in New York City, and by the time you drive there, it might as well be. I ended up being pressured into meeting the recipient at a shelter, face-to-face. It was awkward and ate up half a day.
Besides, it costs money. I've got two boys in college. I'm helping kids plenty already.
And then I would have to write one of those stiff Letters to Santa" columns trying to gull others into joining me in perdition. Who reads those?
Well, I do. At least I read Dan Mihalopoulos' Nov. 17 article. I noticed his name and picture and figured, "Maybe he's blowing the lid off the whole Letters to Santa scam. The toys end up being burned into the fireplaces of Bruce Rauner's nine homes, because the sight of flaming toys intended for underprivileged kids is the only thing that can bring a smile to his thin, cold, lipless face....
No. It turns out that Mihalopoulos was merely promoting the program, how it's "making wishes come true" for impoverished kids at Christmas.
Fuck you, Dan, I thought. If you think you're better than me, you have another thing coming.
I marched over to the table, intending to grab a letter. But which letter? Not a girl's letter, obviously — outside of my skill set, maybe even creepy. I'd end up lingering by the Barbies, trying to find the specific outfit demanded by my tyke, only to catch the paranoid attention of some gimlet-eyed mom and, trying to explain my mission find myself arrested. "EX-COLUMNIST NABBED LOITERING IN BARBIE AISLE."
The first letter off the boys pile wanted a pair of soccer shoes and a soccer ball and a soccer net and maybe an entire soccer team, too, for all I know. I stopped reading and tossed it back: too expensive. The next few seemed similarly unpromising, until I hit upon one from Diego O., age 7, a second grader from the Burroughs School. He did not, like other kids, begin his letter "Dear Santa," but "Dear santa's helper." As if the boy saw through the entire charade. He knew he wasn't appealing to the supposed good nature of some ludicrous aged elf who, despite his morbid obesity, nevertheless brings presents to good little boys and girls in one physically impossible orgy of global generosity each Dec. 25. He knew he was trying to touch the heart of some anonymous henchman who, like himself, was trying to navigate a harsh social structure maze built on guilt and lies. A kindred spirit.
He continued: "tonk you for the gifts I will receive...."
I'd offer that "tonk" as an indictment of the Chicago Public School system, but I distinctly remember taking a spelling test in 2nd grade where we were asked to spell "of" and, stumped, I wrote down "ove." Another commonality; we were also brothers in poor spelling.
Diego went on:
I hope you have a great christmas with your family. I would like you to bring me toy soldiers, minecraft legos or a sniper nerf gun. may god bless you and all your family? I greatly appreciate it, you are truly a nice person for thinking about the child from school.Laying it on a bit thick, aren't we kid? Still, I admired the fulsome praise in return for expected benefit — he could have a future in Chicago politics. And "thinking about the child from school." The third person, it was, well, somehow touching.
There are no toy stores anymore, but Target had a whole section of Minecraft Legos, ("Minecraft," I assume, is a video game where the play constructs roadside bombs). Minecraft Lego sets topped out at $110, I noticed with stomach-dropping dread. But I found a set that didn't look too paltry for $21, and then went over to the armory of Nerf weapons. No designated "sniper" gun, so I picked a long rifle that looked like something Oswald left behind in the Texas School Depository, only with orange parts to encourage member of the Chicago Police Department not to shoot him if he's bold enough to play with it outside.
It only set me back $15, which left room for the toy soldiers, not that Target had any. American servicemen are fighting all over the world to preserve our freedom, yet parents dab a perfumed hankie to their lips in horror at the thought of their kids playing with soldiers.
Now all I have to wrap the stuff, and get it to whatever staffer at the paper has been saddled with this task, assuming I don't end up having to drive it down to West Pullman again.
Cynical? Sure. But I would draw your attention to one germane point: I did it. A Jewish agnostic who never celebrated Christmas in his life, who thinks of all organized religion as dueling fairy tales. A bitter alcoholic whose entire life is an ash heap of disappointment and failure. Yet, somehow, out of a vague spark of professional jealousy toward Dan Mihalopoulos, I roused myself, and helped make a child's Christmas a little brighter, assuming the gifts don't end up as Yule logs at Bruce Rauner's ski chalet.
If I can do it, so can you. but time is short. Go online at www.suntimes.com/santa or call 312-321-3114 and asking for a Letter to Santa. You can be a solipsistic bastard concerned with only your own comfort the rest of the year. Who knows, it might even make you feel good. It didn't do a thing for me. But it might do something for you. Stranger things have happened.