If you're considering starting your own business, keep a few things in mind. First, you can't call in sick, and you may have to work very long hours, even if no customers show up for the entire day. Second, be prepared for weeks, or even months, to go by before you clear $50 a week in sales. Third, consider that you may have to rethink your business plan, even though you devoted a whole month to creating it.
I gotta say, Jeanketeers, after two months of helping my dad run his Off-Season Santa store, I'm ready to throw in the towel—and the giant plastic candy canes, and the colored lights, and anything else in our store that isn't nailed down! Frankly, Dad and I overestimated the level of year-round yuletide cheer in our community. We're lucky if we get three serious customers a day (and by serious, I mean people willing to pose for a photo with Dad/Santa or buy a Christmas knickknack). Mostly, Dad and I sit around in our costumes playing Go Fish and Crazy Eights.
I don't get it. We've made Santa Claus' lap available seven days a week, 365 days a year, but no one seems to care! You'd think, what with the war, that people would be chomping at the bit for a little whimsy and delight! True, we're located in a dilapidated strip mall in a seedy part of town, but people have cars, don't they? I suppose if we hung signs saying "Swear With Santa!" or "Watch Porn With Santa!" the line would stretch around the block. Well, Dad and I discussed it, and we refuse to stoop to that level.
Dad and I are both dreamers. We've always taken the road less traveled, and since that road has its share of "Expect Delays" signs, patience is a must! But lately, even good-natured ol' Dad has expressed serious doubts. "I've had lot of businesses fail," Dad said yesterday. "But those businesses were failures on paper, not due to a lack of customers. Never has one been so dead."
At first, we figured business would pick up once we ironed out the kinks. The fake plastic snow on the floor turned from white to brown and started collecting in the wheel wells of Dad's Rascal, so I replaced it with polyurethane batting, sprinkled it with glitter, and fenced it off with patio stones and a row of wicker reindeer.
Dad's scooter seemed to be scaring away children, so I created some very elaborate (and very darling, if I do say so myself!) sleigh cutouts out of foam board. I linked the cutouts together with Velcro and secured them to Dad's scooter. I even sewed a red plush cover to conceal the gray leather seat! You'd practically need X-ray vision to see that Dad is riding a three-wheeled mobility scooter, after that festive treatment.
Continuing on my creative tear, I designed a new costume for myself. Using chicken wire, strips of paper, and torn pieces of old white bed-sheets, I fashioned a big round hollow ball over five feet in diameter. (Thanks to Armand, our property manager, for letting me use the vacant space next door to spray-paint it white and glittery.) When it was dry, I cut armholes and fitted the inside with molded padding and a strap-on nylon harness (an engineering pièce de résistance!). Wearing white leggings, white moon boots, and a furry white hat, I looked like the largest, friendliest snowball you ever laid eyes on! Admittedly, it wasn't perfect—the right side of the snowball was a smidge caved-in and chicken wire poked out of the bottom in a few places. But overall, I was pretty proud of my "Adorable Snowbelle." (Get it? A distant, sweeter-tempered cousin of the Abominable Snowman!) The new costume did a lot to bolster my sagging morale. The hitch was that it was quite heavy and severely limited my arm movement, so I decided to wear it only when standing by the highway to lure passing cars to our store.
The plan worked! A couple Mondays ago, a minibus pulled up and deposited five mentally disabled adults at our door. Their caretaker explained that I'd waved at their bus the previous week, and the trip to Off-Season Santa was a reward for completing chores during the past week. Dad and I practically grinned ear-to-ear.
At first, the retarded people (I refuse to call them "retards") seemed confused. "It's not time for Christmas," one young woman said. "Santa's supposed to be at the North Pole."
Dad gave his jolliest "ho ho ho" and explained that Santa wanted to see what the area was like when it wasn't Christmas. (Nice save, Dad!) One man said, "There is no Santa Claus" repeatedly, until his caretaker took him back to the van for a much-needed time-out. After that little incident, things settled down. Each customer spent a little money on a knickknack or candy, and a couple told Dad what they wanted for Christmas. (One said he wanted a new computer—how hilarious!) Before leaving, the group posed for a photo with Dad. It's too bad we couldn't persuade them to pose for individual shots; if we had, we really would have struck pay dirt.
Their visit perked us up, but as the afternoon wore on, tedium set in again. I changed into my Adorable Snowbelle costume and was headed out the door to scare up some business when a group of six teenagers walked in. They were all 15 or 16 and almost certainly from the nearby high school. A tall, lanky boy yelled, "Oh my God, it's Santa!!" and a girl pointed at my costume and shrieked with laughter. "Welcome to Off-Season Santa, kids!" I said, trying to be cheery, but when I turned around to look at Dad, he wasn't laughing. His face wore a grim expression.
Well, Dad's instincts were right—it soon became clear that the kids weren't there to meet Santa, but to raise a ruckus. When they figured out that a woman in a papier-mâché snowball costume can't move very fast, the teens started running around the store, ignoring the patio-stone borders and dodging around the fragile Christmas trees in a game of catch-me-if-you-can. One of the girls said she wanted to sit on Dad's lap, but when he said that Santa's lap was only for small children, a tall boy who seemed to be the ringleader said, "What's wrong, Santa, can't you walk?"
At that point, Dad did something that made my jaw drop: He broke character! "Son, I carry shrapnel in my side from serving my country," he yelled. (This is true. Dad was injured during basic training decades ago. As a result, the Army kept him from going overseas and assigned him a job in the motor corps at his base. But his injury has nothing to do with why he uses the Rascal; he uses one because he likes it.) Then, the boy told Dad he wanted an inflatable Jenna Jameson doll for Christmas, and Dad just about lost it. "You need to go to confession," Dad said. "Keep being a smart aleck, kid, but mark my words. In a couple years, you'll regret wasting your youth." This speech only made the kids laugh more. It appalled me to see my dad, let alone Santa, treated like that.
Suddenly, I felt someone tapping on my snowball shell. "Can you feel that?" asked the boy doing it. I hate to admit this, but I was a little scared. As I responded "yes," a second boy snuck up behind me and pushed me. Then the first boy pushed me, and I found myself in the middle of an improvised game of catch! I was no longer a Snowbelle, but a Punchbelle! By the time they were done with me, my costume looked like a deflated weather balloon covered with dirty gray handprints.
By now, Dad's cheeks were bright red with fury. (Interestingly, it made him look even more like Santa.) "I tolerate no loiterers: Either buy something or get out," Dad yelled. "If you don't, I'll call your school first thing in the morning." This got the kids' attention. Of course, they took Dad at his literal word and bought "something," meaning one Santa lollipop, which they tossed on the pavement outside. I tried to bend down to pick it up, but my costume was too bulky, so it laid there until we closed up the store.
The next morning, Dad was still bitter about the teens' visit. He said he wanted a sign for our window reading, "No One Under 18 Admitted Without A Parent Or Guardian." I dutifully got out my trusty green and red markers and set to work on one, but in the end, I argued Dad out of the idea by saying that the sign would make us sound illicit.
A couple days later, the teens came back. It wasn't the exact same crowd, although I did recognize a couple of them. I guess news of our store had gotten around at their school, and they were visiting out of sheer curiosity. I asked Dad if I should tell them to leave, and he said we should wait. "Hate to say it, Jeannie, but we really need their business," he said. So as the kids snickered and sarcastically posed for pictures, Dad silently took his lumps. One teen made the devil-horns hand gesture behind Santa's head as I snapped the photo, but I just ignored it so as not to lose the sale. "Didn't I tell you this place was bad?" one of the girls told her friend, as they excitedly picked through Christmas bracelets.
But here's the capper, Jeanketeers: Since then, Off-Season Santa has become a sort of after-school hangout. The teens who show up every few days to mock the displays and buy candy are practically our only business. Believe me, we make a pretty odd mix. I don't like to judge, but some of these kids who come in look like Marilyn Manson, that singer who wants to kill everybody. It sort of reminds me of that old Munsters episode where the beatniks have a party at the Munsters' house. And I'm sorry, but Dad and I are not the monstrous ones here!