I dropped into the Lodi Tap House in Utica on Saturday, the winter solstice, and grabbed a stool at the bar. It was crowded. Lodi’s used to be Duffy’s, a revered Irish bar and an institution among Illinois Valley drinkers and St. Paddy’s day revelers. I’d gone to Duffy’s for 45 years, back when the standard order at the bar was a shot of Kesslers and Miller High Life.
When it was sold, and the new owners revealed plans to scrap the Irish deal and create a modern style brew pub ala Chicago, I thought I’d never again enjoy spending time in that old odd shaped building. But Lodi brought in an unbelievably large selection of beer and ales on tap, 24 that night, and 90 more draft beers in cans and bottles. The choices are dizzying. That doesn’t even count the liquor and cocktails. On top of that are award winning burgers. It’s a whole new deal for downtown Utica. I got used to it, though grudgingly.
There were only two stools open and one had a shot and a beer sitting in front of it and some money. That’s a local custom, leave your money on the bar and let the bartender take it as you drink.
There was a guy making his way down the bar, talking to everyone it seemed, before he eventually sat down next to me. He looked familiar.
Under a flat wool tweed cap, he had white hair and a big beard to match. He was wearing blue jeans, a green flannel shirt, and a black vest. He stared forward, the way guys in bars do, looking at himself in the wide bar length mirror, scanning the bottles, and the blackboard that explained the day’s line up of draft beer and ale. He wasn’t paying much attention to me, but something about him nagged me. I know I’d seen him before.
“Sorry to bother you but you look familiar.”
He spoke without turning his head.
“Do you think you can keep your voice down McClure? Not draw attention to us? It’s Santa Claus. I’m out of uniform and taking a break.”
“Santa Claus!” I tried to whisper but admit I was still a bit loud. “What are you doing? Undercover Santa?"
“You’re doing exactly what I don’t want you to do. Don’t call me Santa. Just look ahead and be cool. I don’t want to draw attention. Let me buy you a shot. What’ll you have?”
“Bushmill’s Irish whiskey. Black Bush if they have it.”
He ordered us both one. I toned down my voice, looked at him in the mirror, where he was looking back at me and raised my glass.
“Merry Christmas Nick.”
He winked at me.
“I can call you Nick, right?”
“That works just fine. Merry Christmas to you too Dave.”
And so, in the hubbub of Christmas week on the shortest day of the year in an old bar made new in a small town along the Illinois River, Nick and I had a quiet conversation.
“It seems like we run into each other every year, but this time I thought I was going to miss you. What brings you back here Nick? You must get requests for personal appearances from all over the world. You end up in Utica.”
“I get lots of requests. And I try to spread them around. But I’m kind of hooked into this country around Starved Rock. I like it. Seems authentic somehow.”
“Even when we take nice old Irish bars and make them into sparkly clean brew pubs?”
“You asking if I’m upset with the change? McClure, every year it seems like you forget how old I am. You act like you’re talking to someone your own age. I was invented you know, a long time ago. An idea made flesh, infused with magical power, and immortalized. At least it appears so. I mean you never know how long ideas are going to live, or the people that hold those ideas for that matter. Still I’m in for a long run I think.”
“So now you’re going to tell me about the old days?”
Yes, I am. I think you could stand a little perspective.”
He took a sip of his double IPA, a Pipeworks Ninja vs. Unicorn in a flashy can.
“A damn nice ale this one. Hoppy but not overdone. Nice finish.”
“You were about to go back in time Nick.”
“So I was. You forget that I was flying over here when there were still indigenous people camped along the river, the Illini and the Kickapoo tribes. I hadn’t been coming to America for more than, I don’t know, 175 years when Illinois was the frontier.”
I delivered toys here to Irishmen’s kids living in shanties when they were digging the Illinois Michigan canal that’s a stone’s throw outside the door. Those boys were making their own whiskey back then, and let me tell you, I wasn’t sneaking into their joints for a taste of it, not when you could get perfectly fine whiskey on the north shore of Ireland. Bushmills began distilling whiskey in 1608 for god’s sake.
After the canal was dug coal miners showed up, first for the easy pickings, shallow veins of coal just below the surface, then coal companies began dropping shafts and sending miners underground in Streator, Cherry, Ladd, Toluca. Italians, Frenchmen, people from all over Europe came here.”
“Do you have a point here Nick?”
“The shanty towns became proper towns and they built sturdy old buildings like this one. And you’re moaning because a bar changes its name? Gets rid of the mannequin dressed up as an Irishman in a coffin by the front door? Adopts a new menu? Come on McClure. Get a grip.”
Santa Claus has a way of giving you the long view.
“OK, I admit it. I forget how much we’ve changed, and how steady that change must seem if you’re…how old are you again?”
“My beginnings have always been somewhat disputed, and record keeping being what it was back then it’s hard to be accurate, but everyone’s best guess is I’m 1,749 years old. When you get that old it a year or ten more or less doesn’t matter much.”
“Yeah. I have a disadvantage talking the past with you being only 68. But what about the present? And even more important what about the future?”
“The future has been hard to deal with because it always seemed beyond our control. But we’re developing facts, and models to put them in that predict things we don’t like. I live at the North Pole. I’m terribly worried about the environment. You can’t believe the ice we’re losing up there or the changes that are happening. And damned if we aren’t going backwards in doing what it will take to slow that down and stop it. It’s terribly discouraging.”
“I’m with you there, Nick. Facts don’t seem to matter. It’s all about the money.”
“It’s been about the money for a long time McClure. As I recall your generation was going to change that. If I was 68, knowing most of my life was behind me, I’d feel I was running out of time to make a difference. When you were young there was much more hope, I think. In fact, I had real hope for you kids of the 60’s. You gave us the promise of change.
But for all that good energy you’re snookered now. It’s as if the world takes one step forward and two steps back, never really advancing, stuck in its old ways. I know people your age tried hard. But you’re not the first generation to fall short of expectations. Try not to take it personally.
“Wow Santa, that’s not exactly a song of good cheer. Can I buy you another Bushmills?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
The shots came. Filled to the brim with clear amber goodness, they bore good tidings of the season. We clicked our glasses and knocked them back.
“So, this secret Santa bit, like Undercover Boss, is that new?”
“I’ve been doing it for quite a while. At least a thousand years. I feel the need to talk to adults.
I exist largely in a world of kids who steadfastly believe in me. If you could only look into their eyes as they look into Santa’s eyes, you’d feel their trust and belief. I tell you, it’s a moment. If everyone could experience that they might appreciate how people depend on each other to make the future bright. We’re obligated to be very careful with that future.
But, kids become adults and their ideals fade with age. They come to see Santa as little more than a prop for a picture. They forget that ideas beyond themselves help create a world where people are free to live and love and flourish. And when they do the world becomes simply about them, and they never seem to achieve real happiness.
“Nick, give us a little more credit, will you? The game not’s over till it’s over.”
“Who do you think you are? Yogi Berra? People get lazy and fall back on stereotypes. Tell me McClure, what are the three words most associated with my identity?”
“HO HO HO?”
“You got it. HO HO freakin’ HO. Always jolly. Big belly, happy a lark, everything goodness and light. Everyone thinks they know exactly who I am, what I think, as if I’m not allowed to change. I get sick of it.”
He went on.
“Don’t get me wrong McClure, and for god sakes don’t be spreading this around. I mean it is good for mythical characters to have a clear understandable message. And the branding has certainly worked. But if we don’t keep thinking about how we get better, uncover the flaws in our beliefs, we’re in trouble. We can improve the world a lot, but we don’t seem to be. I still have a big job to do. I have things to say.”
“And what is that exactly, Nick?”
“Well, what prompted this side trip today was an encounter I had with a four-year old yesterday. I do a question and answer deal for kids I visit to satisfy their curiosity about Christmas. Invite them to ask about where I live, the reindeer, the elves, Christmas eve, whatever. You never know what they’ll ask.
So, this little four-year old girl puts her hand up and says;
‘My mom says you’re not real.’”
“Wow Nick. How did you respond?”
“I put my hands on my chest and said ‘Gee, I feel real. I took hold of my nose and said, ‘My nose feels real.’ I pulled my beard and said, ‘It hurts when I pull my beard.’ I didn’t want to contradict her mother, but at the same time I couldn’t just let the idea of Santa die right there in that classroom in front of everybody.
So, I decided to get out and talk to adults, the kids I used to have on my lap years ago, to see what is on their mind.”
“What are you seeing?”
“I see people losing hope. Busy people, worn down, looking at the future like it’s a black hole. But then again, I run on to others, like you, who seem to be doing okay. You and people like you need to be positive. Young people still look to older ones among them, even boomers, to show them how to enjoy life and make things better for those around them.”
“Well, it helps talking to you Nick. You’re a pretty hopeful guy.”
“Yeah, well if it was just the kids, I’d be fine. But the adults…”
Nick shook his head.
“Can I tell you something confidentially? We’ve known each other for a while. You can keep a secret right?”
I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no. Nick kept talking.
“Adults are pissing me off. Politicians are lying and covering up the truth. People are so at odds they can’t even talk to one another. Intelligent people, so self-centered and caught up in what’s only good for them they can’t see how clinging to the past is bad for others and horrible for the planet.”
“Nick come on.”
“I know. You’ve talked me out of these funks before. I will admit I’m more hopeful this year after visiting families in their homes. I believe in the power of families to show kids the way towards a good future. Families, if they just will, can teach young people kindness and compassion, and to think of others instead of themselves. But it is still hard to ignore the problems.”
Why is it so hard to come together around truth? It’s as if we’ve lost the ability to recognize what’s right. And you Americans are, sadly in the lead on that. As a country, you’re not looking good Dave.”
“You’re so divided. Polarized, which is something I know about from where I live. You are letting politics blind you to each other as people. I feel sorry for Americans. I used to celebrate people coming together at Christmas, around their family tables, in their churches on Christmas eve. I even believed I might have had some hand in that. But now I hear of people dreading those gatherings because they loathe encountering people who oppose their views. You’ve nearly stopped talking.”
He went on.
“The world looked up to your country for so long. Your country is a big player, but other countries see you now as just another government out for itself. Turning its back on the world. I really wish you Americans would get it together.”
The sun was getting lower in the sky and the light was fading in the Lodi Tap Room.
“How is it I keep running into you Nick? Surely you can’t come to the Illinois Valley every year.”
“Well, you go where you’re invited you know? I have no choice but to leave it to the surrogates mainly, but I get disgusted with them. So many of them have the wrong values. Do it for the money, charge for the pictures, that kind of thing. But I have no control.
The way I started coming here, not long ago, was a guy called me, also disgusted with the amateurs. He said he’d been reaching out to the usual suspects with red suits in his community and finding guys with body odor, bad breath. He even had one come to an event drunk. He damn near pleaded with me to make a personal appearance. I started with a group in Streator if I remember right.”
“Nick, you’re scaring me pal. That was ME! I was the director of the YSB, and we kept getting crappy stand in Santas. I wrote you myself, soon after we had email and I found your address. You don’t remember? You know there is testing for those kind of memory lapses these days.”
“Don’t give me any crap about my memory McClure. You’d be in worse shape than me if you had to run an international organization that staged an annual world-wide event operating out of a headquarters in the wilderness with one man, a sleigh, nine flying reindeer and a bunch of elves to staff the whole outfit.”
“So, it was you huh? Well, I’m glad you brought me here all those years ago. I sort of distrust any area where you can go days and days without seeing anyone wearing bib overalls or having dirt on their hands. That’s what I mean by being authentic. You have a big mix of people here. Could be more diverse you know, but a good bunch all the same. I’m not sure about that woman telling her little girl Santa wasn’t real, but I like the area.
“I sure hope I see you again Nick.”
“I have a feeling you will. If you take care of yourself that is. You won’t live forever you know.”
He put his finger beside his nose, hopped off his bar stool, gave me a big smile and said
“But I will.”
His Ho Ho Ho boomed across the room. After laying down a nice tip for the bartender, he was out the door.
I followed Santa out the door, watched him get into an old green Buick, and head south out of town. I waited to see if he could get that Lucerne with the big six-cylinder engine to fly, but he didn’t. I watched his tail-lights turn left onto Dee Bennett Road.
I’ll close as Nick likes to.