I’d been trying to set up an interview with Rudolph for months, but when the runaround continued after Christmas, I got suspicious. I could never manage to get past Santa Claus’ office. It seemed like every time I called, the same dimwitted secretary would answer the phone, tell me to “hold please” in a voice that sounded like Lily Tomlin doing her phone operator act, then forward me over to the Big Guy.
“But I want to talk to —”
“Hey! I’m not interested in Santa, all right? I’m trying
“Sir, if you’ll just —”
“Lady, this is the umpteenth damned time I’ve called asking to speak to Rudolph and every single —”
“Profanity is hardly necessary, sir. Where’s your holiday spirit? Now just one —”
“Rudolph! OK? Put me through to —”
“Ho, ho, ho! You again, eh? What’s the matter? Didn’t like the Lexus? Couldn’t untie the bow?”
“Yeah. Funny. Now about that interview I’ve been trying to set up with Rudolph —”
I won’t tell you the specific threat I made, but if I find any suspicious presents under the tree next year, I’m calling the bomb squad. Just for the record, Santa knows how to curse up a blizzard. I also think he may have busted his phone.
Anyway, I finally figured out I was going to have to use the backdoor to get this interview since the front office was no help. Being the intrepid reporter that I am, I managed to track down a retired elf who was working, of all places, at a nearby fast-food joint flipping burgers. His name was Ned. During his brief break I got a chance to chat with him in a corner booth. Wondering why one of Santa’s ex-helpers was now in such bad shape, I had to ask how he landed so far away from the North Pole — and so many rungs down the ladder. Did he get on Santa’s bad side? Was he late for work one too many times? Did he smoke crack?
“You want the truth?” he asked, his deep, raspy voice incongruous with his 4-foot frame.
I nodded. He stared at me for a long time without blinking, his face a well-worn frown with two coal-black marbles slammed into the front of his skull beneath bristling brows that resembled dirty brown caterpillars. I cleared my throat. He settled into the booth and folded his oversized hands.
“You asked if I got on Santa’s bad side. Yeah, well, lemme put it to ya like this: Everybody who ever worked for Santa who ever complained about not getting paid wound up on his bad side. That’s including the reindeer. Rudolph. Blitzer. Dasher. Prancer. Well, maybe not Prancer. Damned wimp. But the rest of ’em you can ask yourself and they’ll tell ya.”
Now we were getting somewhere. I told Ned about my ordeal trying to set up an interview with Rudolph, then asked if he might be able to help.
“What you wanna talk to him for?”
“I’m working up a story on the truth about working conditions at the North Pole, and I want it from a reindeer’s perspective. Pretty much everybody’s heard of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, so I figured it would be good to get the straight scoop straight from him. More impact that way.”
For the first time, Ned grinned. His eyes were blazing like a blast furnace.
“Sure, pal. What the hell. Anything I can do to stick it to the fat man. Got a pen?”
Later that evening, when I called the number Ned had scribbled on a napkin, I had to let it ring nearly 20 times before someone finally answered. Ned warned me this might happen.
A rude voice barked, “Who are you, what do you want and why should I waste my time talking to you?”
“Are you Rudolph the red-nosed —”
“If you call me that, I promise I will squeeze my narrow little reindeer behind through this phone and rip the tongue right out of your mouth, hear? My nose ain’t never been red, and it’s never been shiny. Santa’s the one with the shiny red nose that glows because Santa’s a damned drunk, all right? Been that way for years. He never shaves, he’s covered in all that disgusting soot. If you only knew which finger he really lays on the side of his nose!”
Rudolph was pissed off, sore and fed up. Years of tugging an overloaded sleigh through the air in miserable weather — not to mention putting up with Santa’s jolly bullshit — have more than taken their toll. America’s most beloved reindeer was on the verge of a physical and nervous breakdown. Throughout a rather lengthy conversation, Rudolph fired up one cigarette after another in between swigs of what he told me was Jack Daniel’s.
“First of all, you need to know that I’m not the first Rudolph, which you should have guessed if you have any idea how long Christmas has been going on. I’m Rudolph the XXXVI. I come from a long line of grievously exploited critters, and I’m here to tell you this crap has come to an end.”
“Why do you say you’re exploited?”
“If somebody asked you to yank a sleigh full of toys weighing several tons around the world in record time, whipped you when you got tired to make sure you kept deadline, then paid you off at the end of your run with a salt lick, what would you call it?
“Listen, every year at Christmastime it’s the same damned routine, and every year for the past five years, ever since the reindeer started complaining, me and all the other reindeer kept getting the same old tired promises from his merry ass about all these improvements he was gonna make in the off-season. Said he was gonna build the sled out of lighter materials. Said he was gonna recruit more reindeer so that we could all work in rotating shifts instead of one team making the entire haul throughout the night. Promises, promises, promises, right? So me and the other reindeer — some of the elves too — we’ve been talking, and we think it’s about time we formed ourselves a union. Christmas Providers Local 1. That’s the name we’re working with.”
“But aren’t there other folks beside you guys who help to provide Christmas?”
“Look, chief, let’s face facts. Without us, all those clowns would be outta work. Still, if they want to join up and pay dues, they’re more than welcome. We don’t discriminate, we agitate. Remember what the Rev. Al Sharpton used to say? ‘No justice, no peace’? Yeah, well, we kinda put a new spin on that one. Our slogan is gonna be, ‘No justice, no Christmas.’ Tell me that won’t grab a few headlines.
“Check it out, if a union-hating company like Wal-Mart can be forced to let its employees form a union inside its China operations — which just hit the news in November — then what the hell are we waiting for? If Chinese Wal-Mart workers can manage to get a fair contract inside a communist country, then don’t tell me we don’t have a chance. Oh yeah, I’ve been doing my research, and we’re gonna prevail.”
“You just might, Rudolph, you just might.”
“He who makes the toys makes the profit. He who delivers the toys makes Christmas possible. You remember those words, kid. I’m outta here.”Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]