Postcard — May 31, 2018, 12:45 pm

The Wish List

A village in New York wants to bring Santa back to town.

Photograph by the author

“Santa Claus is buried here. Don’t tell the kids,” Liz Groat, a retired truck driver, told me from behind the counter of a vintage co-op on Main Street. History’s Nikolaos the Wonderworker—or Saint Nicholas—was a fourth-century Greek bishop who dispensed wheat during famines. But here, in Albion, New York, located in the fruit belt about an hour east of Buffalo, lies Charles W. Howard: a toy-making apple farmer who was once the modern-day Claus, and who dutifully coached others to be him, too. Locals say they can almost see him up on the roof, standing in full regalia by the chimney with a couple of his students, because he thought they should know what it felt like.

Last November, I visited Albion to meet with members of its Betterment Committee about the man with the bag. The dispirited village of about six thousand people has a median income of $29,392 and is the seat of rural Orleans County, where barns and silos are flanked by wheat and cornfields, apple orchards, and cabbage patches. Walking down North Main Street, I passed a bank, a liquor store, a courthouse, two coffee shops, and two churches, before arriving at a gap in the historic buildings. When one of the structures went to ruin and was demolished, its footprint was made into a micro park with a handful of trees and a few benches. The park is the promised future site of a bronze likeness of Charlie Santa. Many in town hope a monument will raise the stature of Howard—and with it, the fortunes of Albion itself.

The idea for a statue came about in 2015, after a group of over two hundred Santa Claus impersonators descended on Albion for a conference. Like pilgrims, the Santas came with bells and boots. They expected to see landmarks, relics, and tributes. But there was not much. They visited the farmhouse where Howard had started a school in the Thirties to train Santas. They went to the cemetery. They left. “We started to think maybe Charlie was due for a comeback,” Gary Kent, a retired social-studies teacher and one of the Albion Betterment Committee’s co-directors, told me.

1 In the northernmost part of the state, this phenomenon for goosing economically depressed communities dates back to Cooperstown, the town with the busted hops industry that built a National Baseball Hall of Fame, which is still reaping the benefits. Seneca Falls, where the women’s-rights movement was based, is now home to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, as well as an adored statue group that portrays Susan B. Anthony’s introduction to Elizabeth Cady Stanton via Amelia Bloomer.

“Look at Jamestown,” Tom Rivers, the founding editor of the country’s online newspaper, explained. He regards Jamestown—two hours from Albion—as a model for how to profit from a famous former resident. Lucille Ball, the star of I Love Lucy, was born there, a fact the struggling city parlayed into the National Comedy Center, a $50-million state-supported venture opening this August. The governor awarded Jamestown an additional $10 million in 2016 to revitalize its downtown. And next door, the village of Celoron, where Ball grew up, has two much-visited bronze portraits (dubbed “Scary Lucy” and “Lovely Lucy”) as well as a $33-million lake resort, which, when finished, will pay homage to the late comedienne. “If those places can do that based on Lucy, why can’t we with Santa?” Rivers asked. “Santa.”1

Still, the ABC is a ways from being able to afford the statue—a bronze can cost over a hundred thousand dollars. So far, the committee has raised $35,000. They had approached a network of Santas for donations, but “Santa Clauses do not have deep pockets,” Rivers said. “They’re all just goodhearted people, often retired volunteers themselves. I don’t know that a gazillionaire Santa exists.” Though Howard appeared as Santa in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for eighteen straight years, Macy’s has declined to gift funds. “Promises are dangerous things,” Howard once counseled his trainees, before telling the story of a boy who asked him for an elephant for Christmas: “This child came to me and said that, if he couldn’t have a live elephant, he did not want anything. It was a matter of great importance to him. I told him, ‘But you wouldn’t have any place to keep an elephant.’ He replied: ‘Oh, yes, I would—in my father’s garage.’ In cases like that you have to think quickly, and I said, ‘But how could I get an elephant into your stocking?’”

Before Howard became Santa, he farmed apples, crafted toys, and staged plays. As secretary of the Orleans County Fair, he had rallied locals and successfully baked the nation’s largest apple pie—twelve feet across and filled with a hundred bushels. At the time, just after the Depression, department-store Santas wore cheap red suits and frequently smoked and boozed on the job, and though Howard’s wife discouraged him from becoming too invested in a “once-a-year-splash,” children, he felt, deserved better Santas. He founded a school to turn out what he called “the right kind.” Those who wished to become such a Santa had to apply with three letters of recommendation from store officials and fifteen from customers, in addition to writing a 1,500-word thesis on “Interpreting the Character of Santa Claus.”

Howard taught them about the mythology around the figure, the best ways to apply makeup (“Don’t use false eyebrows—let your own grow”) and act (including how to squint into a twinkle and ho-ho-ho from the gut), and good lap manner, such as how to handle shin-kickers and skeptics (“I tell them I have a chimney-extender in my pocket”). To ensure that these student Santas looked the part, he roped in the town’s seamstress to make, repair, and clean suits by the hundreds, with strict instructions that there be no “sleazy velvet” and no measly “cotton batting trims.” Howard prescribed woolen apple-colored outfits lined in satin and generously trimmed with white rabbit fur—the costume used today. For the beards, he chose Chinese yak hair, which was costly and straight (it had to be crimped by wearers with irons into marcel waves) but gave the impression of having been rinsed in buttermilk and coiffed by tree-topper angels.

By 1956, Howard had graduated more than five hundred Santas, working in department stores across the country from Macy’s in Kansas City to D. H. Holmes in New Orleans. On his fifty-acre farm just west of Albion, he opened a Christmas-themed amusement park, encircled by a miniature railroad, and home to pigs, cows, and a team of reindeer. “But he wasn’t a good businessman,” said Cheryl Mowatt, a local librarian. Howard would wave poorer families through the gates, sometimes allowing entry to six kids when they had only three tickets. Eventually, he could not pay a bill for toys, and a court put the school, suit business, and park up on the auction block in 1965.

Howard also consulted for Miracle on 34th Street, and, until a fatal heart attack in 1966, played Santa around the country. At the time, he was known as the “Nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus,” according to his obituary in the New York Times. Arguably no one did more to standardize professional Santa Clausing. “Charlie shaped Santa hugely,” said Rivers. “And then he died, and we all sort of forgot.”

At Watt Farms Country Market, after raiding her bins of five or six or seven varieties of apples, I asked Karen Watt about the ABC’s ambition to resurrect Santa Claus. She snorted. “That’s a pull,” the blue-eyed, blonde farmer said. “There have been many betterment committees over the years—usually old men who get a bug up their ass,” Watt went on. She had moved to Albion in 1967, the same year Howard died. “Main Street was beautiful. Practically everybody had a job,” she recalled. “I’m more of a realist about how our Santa could have an effect now.” But Watt, who handed me a to-go cup of cider, is no stock grinch. “Maybe,” she allowed.

And there are other plans to restore Howard’s legacy in Albion. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School—the oldest of its kind—is still operating as a successful nonprofit in Michigan, where it was relocated by some of Howard’s students. When the couple who have been running it for decades retires, there is a growing desire in Albion that a local Santa impersonator named Ken McPherson will take the school over and bring it home.

I met McPherson at a Ladies’ Auxiliary event one morning. “You must be Ken,” I said, squeezing the hand of a middle-aged man with long frosty whiskers, appareled in red overalls—his “casual Santa” look. “Ken McPherson . . . well, I knew him when he was a boy, of course,” he said. Over coffee and donuts the next day, McPherson, a jolly hulking brunet in jeans, sneakers, and a fly-fishing hat, unboxed some of the Charlie Howard ephemera that he has pulled together over the years. He recounted how he had gone to Howard’s Santa school after graduating high school and then ordered a suit from Howard’s former seamstress, who allowed him to pay it off as he washed cars and mowed lawns. The acolyte pulled out a great, heavy, empty, beautiful bag embroidered with the initials “S.C.” “This was his,” McPherson said. “I think we missed it. I think Charlie had something.”

McPherson thumbed toward the old inn. A couple of years ago, as one of its first tributes to Charlie Santa, the committee repainted a faded four-by-ten-foot sign that hangs high on the side of the building with red and green cursive. You see the sign when you drive down Main Street. It spells “Believe.”

“Believe in what?” Kent had asked. “It’s open to interpretation.”

“Believe in yourself,” Gary Derwick, a retired math teacher and another of the ABC’s co-founders, offered.

A member named Valerie jumped in: “Believe in your town’s future. . . . Believe in Santa.”

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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