On the busiest shopping day of the year, Arnold Klein is driving to his temp job at the Brickyard Mall.
"There's not too many Jewish Santa Clauses hanging around," he says with a laugh. "Ho! Ho! Ho! There is one now!"
The 57-year-old Klein grew up near Douglas Park, around Ogden and Spaulding, "where all the Jewish people lived." He says he learned the meaning of hard work early on.
"I used to be a shoeshine boy," he recalls. "One of my friends was doing it and said, 'Hey Arnie, why don't you come along?' My dad made me a shoeshine box. I had my own route. I went into bars and made a few bucks. I charged a quarter for a shine. On Friday and Saturday nights I'd jump the bus and go into Cicero; I had steady customers over there." His father, a Russian immigrant, ran a locksmith business on Maxwell Street in addition to a newspaper stand. "That was a pretty tricky job--you had to stay there from early in the morning till late at night."
Klein quit school at 16 to work in a defense plant. "I was an inspector testing things for the B-52 bombers. I can't say what." He moved on to a job at the old Schwinn bicycle factory in Humboldt Park, where he remembers "riding the saddles down the conveyor belt." In 1964 he became a painter and joined a trade union. "I made good wages, didn't need no second job." He married twice and has two children. In October he witnessed the birth of his first grandchild.
About ten years ago Klein got sick. He spent two years recovering from open-heart surgery, and he still has health problems. "I got all these troubles with diabetes, arthritis, and open-heart. I need surgery right now, but I can't do it 'cause I might end up in a wheelchair, my doctor said." He moved into the Lawrence House, a "retirement hotel" in Uptown. "I have my own apartment, do my own cooking there. I do turkeys, I do roasts. I hope I can get out. There's quite a few people this year, the year 2000, that I met that passed on.
"I used to take people to the doctor's office and back to the building. There was a little fee to it. I would take them upstairs. Cabs won't do that. Cabs drop you and forget you. I don't. It's no good to be a senior and to be lonely. When the gas prices went up, I was charging a little more. Some went; some didn't. I wasn't trying to make a living out of it."
Klein pulls into Brickyard's parking lot and heads into a vacant shop to change clothes. He's been playing Santa for the last seven years. In 1993 he spotted a classified ad for "Santa's Helpers" at Marshall Field's. "I went down, put an application in. And they asked me, 'Do you do Santa?' I worked as Santa from 1993 until 1997 at Field's every season.
"Working at Marshall Field's downtown, it's a different experience, 'cause you've got more people coming through than you do in the mall. And a different clientele. Those people have the bucks, let me tell you. I had one picture with 14 girls--middle-aged women that rode motorcycles from Indiana.
"You know who I had a picture with? Jerry Taft, ABC weatherman. He came in and talked a little bit and took a picture. Then later on he brought his family in. Cool. I had a five-by-seven, and I don't know what I did with it. Beautiful picture: He's got his leg over my leg. We had a ball!"
For the last two years Klein has run a side business playing Santa at private functions. "I call it 'Santa for Hire.' I've done homes, churches, parties. I bought my own Santa suit; it cost a lot of money. I keep it up. I don't need padding. When I was working, I'd gain weight, but I'd take it off. I can't get it off now. I put on 35, 40 pounds. That's no good. I don't eat at all during my shift, and guess where they got me? Right by a pizza place. You gotta be kidding!
"I get paid by the hour here. I used to do more houses--you're not cooped in. You do a half hour and you're gone. Listen, money's money. Santa costs $40 for a half hour. But the best thing about it is when you get done, people say, 'Want some coffee or something?'
"I went to one house in Oak Park, big beautiful house, and they were doctors. The guy was playing the piano. I ring the bell and I walk in the living room--big, big, room--holy cow! I was dancing rock 'n' roll with 'em, had a ball, played with the kids. A year later I came back again. Man, what a house. What a house. Unbelievable. Beautiful. And they broke up. They shouldn't have. They were so good to me."
Klein's tried branching out into playing the Easter Bunny. "I was a bunny for two seasons. Bunnies don't talk, but I sure got kicked in the shins quite a bit. The first time I got out of that suit, I thought I'd been jogging--I was completely soaking wet inside there. I mean, you got to be comfortable."
Santa remains his only steady gig. He arrives at Brickyard by 8:30 and spends the next 20 minutes or so changing into his red suit and beard. "At about five minutes to nine, the security guards come and get me. They escort me. That's great. You feel important, you know? Once I get into that suit, I'm a whole different person right there. I feel good. I feel wonderful about myself. This is the time of year when I lock into it--I lock into myself right before Christmas.
"All kinds of kids come up to you. Spanish, blacks, the white people. I get these kids that fight; I make them put their hands up and make a pledge to Santa. They give me hugs. They tell me a lot of things. It's how you go about it and how you treat 'em. And I treat everybody the same way. Santa cannot be prejudiced. Santa loves everybody!
"There was some people a couple days ago, kind of like disturbed kids. I really felt sorry for them. One girl, must have been about 12, 13 years old, came up to me and hugged me so much and kissed me on the cheek. That made my day. Then a young man came up to me and he says, 'Santa, I have a lot of seizures.' And I says, 'Well, Santa's gonna pray for you. Jesus will be there for you. God will be too.' He didn't want to leave.
"The hard thing is staying there for a long period of time, sitting there. Sometimes it's slow; sometimes it's busy. That's the hard thing."
Some adults don't sympathize. "I do a job here. People come and say, 'Oh yeah, the guy gets his jollies off.' Give me a break. I'm not here to get my jollies off. These are kids! This is my job. I treat these kids right. I pour my heart out. I like to sing songs. Sometimes I do a 'Jingle Bells,' then of course I do 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' Back on Wednesday I had a young boy whose birthday was December 1, but I wasn't going to see him then. So we sang 'Happy Birthday' for him. Santa doesn't usually sing 'Happy Birthday,' but I do.
"You gotta know what the kids are thinking and stay, like, one step ahead of them. I ask children their favorite colors, their favorite cereal that they eat. And I always tell them to go to the dentist. I ask, 'What would you like for Christmas?' And now it's more computers, Barbie dolls, electric cars, and so forth and so on. If they want a baby sister, I go, 'Ho ho ho, Santa can't provide that. Only mommy and daddy can do that.' Sometimes boys ask me, 'Santa, can I have a gun?' A gun is the worst thing. Santa doesn't make guns. Santa makes educational toys. You got people getting shot in their own homes and Santa doesn't like that.
"Today the kids have got it too easy. 'Ma, I want this. Ma, I want that.' Now we got the minivans out, and the kids have a lot of things to do, but they don't ride bicycles there. There's no supper times. Mom and dad both have to work to meet the money demands.
"I do this once a year and after that it's hard for me to do anything else. This is what I do now. You know what my dream is? I'd like to be the Santa on State Street that waves during the parade."
He pauses before stepping into the mall. "Best thing in life is when you get up in the morning and put your shoes and socks on and open up a window for a breath of fresh air--you're living. That's what you call living. And I'm living day by day. Driving to work, seasonal work. Sun coming out. That's it. Kill the time away."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joy Bergmann.