Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Elfed Myself and You Should Too...

This is the last Christmas before I turn 30, and I'll be honest with you and say I always assumed I'd have kids by now. But I don't. It just didn't click into place for me yet, and the way things have gone in the past few years, I'm not sure if I will end up having kids at all. But that doesn't stop the desire to run around collecting the coolest things from every Target and Toys 'R Us in the Los Angeles area to have awesome gifts under the tree come Christmas morning. I have a few friends who have kids, and I offered them my services and shopping skills, but they're all so on top of things I wasn't needed there. I thought about donating to one of the many Toys for Tots bins around the city, but I wouldn't know what to select, and the cynical part of me wonders if they are even sanctioned/if they make it to needy kids at all. And then I remembered that 30 Rock episode in which Liz Lemon "adopted" two underprivileged boys and delivered toys to their door for the holidays. That had to be a real thing, right? And if it isn't, maybe I could start it!

It turns out it is very much a real endeavor. Every year, select post offices around the country collect letters to Santa and then open their doors for the public to come in and play elves. I expected to walk into the downtown L.A. branch, be handed a few pages at random-- or hopefully based on the spending bracket I could afford-- and be on my merry way to shop, shop, shop. Instead, when I ventured down there today I was greeted by a few cheerful volunteers, a plate of cookies, hot coffee, and four tables pushed together to make a square, already almost full of people reading through letters. I expected there to be a lot of needy children this holiday season, but I didn't expect to have to be the one to determine which ones were worthy of my presents.

When I sat down at the table, I was handed a small pile of letters that had already been read and rejected by at least one other potential elf. I did not like that, and I was determined to pick at least one from that pile. I expected some of the requests to be hard to fill, but that doesn't make them unworthy; every child deserves something special on Christmas, and to make it happen for a child who doesn't expect it is to give that child something that much more magical. That particular pile happened to be the "iPad pile" as the elf before me dubbed it because every letter in it requested an iPhone, iPad, or Xbox (or some combination of all three). Reading through them, one after the other, I immediately felt that sinking feeling their parents must have. I can't afford to buy myself these things right now, let alone one or two kids' worth, but that doesn't stop the demand from being there, nor does it mean the kids don't deserve something so shiny and exciting. What was even more humbling, though, were the letters that asked for money to help pay the rent or for the most basic life items like clothes and shoes and school backpacks. The holidays are a time for specialness-- for having fun and getting things you want, not ones that you need, but it's hard to get excited about a new toy when there is a larger problem looming around you. And people are just struggling.

Some letters were meticulously detailed and organized, listing items in rankings and listing locations and prices next to them, as well. Others were much more general. I have to admit, the specific ones were the ones that I gravitated to personally because they were ones I didn't think I could screw up. Sure, I might have to Google what something is, or a store might be out of something (or one or two of the items might even be something the kid invented), but that's better than getting the kid the wrong thing and having their belief in Santa waiver. I stopped believing in Santa the year I asked for a Magic Baby (the brand) doll, and on Christmas morning I received the bald baby one instead of the curly haired toddler I was hoping for. I didn't specific past brand, assuming Santa would know (he knew when I was sleeping, naughty, and nice, after all!), but my overworked mother had no clue what was in my little head. She later purchased the "correct" doll for me, but that didn't change the fact that I realized the real Santa never would have gotten such a thing wrong and therefore he must not be real at all. And I could never do that to another little kid, so even if I felt good about buying an eight-year old Grand Theft Auto (which I don't for other reasons), unless it was specified on what platform the kid plays, I unfortunately had to add that to my own "pass" pile.

I didn't come close to reading all of the letters the post office had because I knew if I kept reading I'd end up selling my car to make these strangers' holiday dreams come true. But I ended up choosing three letters based on the ones that I kept coming back to, even when reading more and more. The first was one that was so simple and humble in its requests it saddened me a little. He may have wanted cool characters on the hats, shirts, and backpacks he was requesting, but he was still requesting basic items that he needs to get by. He wrote such a nice letter and asked about the Clauses, reindeer, and elves that I decided to throw in a few extra items for him, too, as a surprise and maybe even to keep him writing.

One girl asked for a bike. I know, I know, that's a tall order, but it was such an old-fashioned request I couldn't stop staring at it waiting for the trick or to learn that "bike" was actually the next generation in tablets. But moreover it reminded me of my own mother who worked so hard to make sure I never wondered if Santa would leave me what I wanted let alone anything at all. In fact, she often overcompensated and filled the void of quality time with countless things (like the aforementioned two Magic Baby dolls). And bikes were her thing. I am pretty sure I wanted the first one she ever bought me, but I quickly came to realize that the idea of a bike was better than the real thing and I was actually somewhat scared by how unstable and therefore unsafe I felt while on it. But even after I never really rode that first bike, she kept buying me new ones as I grew. Once she even bought herself a matching one, claiming we'd ride around together on the weekends and get exercise. They sat in our second-story walk up apartment collecting dust and acting as a makeshift clothes hanger for years. But the fact that she spent so much money on something I never wanted while it was the thing this little girl wanted most? I can't get over that.

Although I didn't really think through how to get the bike in my car let alone how to ship it, even locally, but CHRISTMAS!

The last letter I selected only had one item on it: a turtle. It was a short and to the point letter asking for a turtle for Christmas and it even had a drawing of one on the bottom of the page. It was one in the rejected pile from another elf, seemingly because it was too complicated a request. I mean, you can't mail a live animal, right? But complicated doesn't mean impossible, and Santa sure would find a way! I didn't even think about it; I just marched up to a volunteer and asked how we could make it happen.

It actually took three people before the woman running the show, so to speak, gave me her number and said she might be able to set it up where I connect directly with the family and come up with some kind of neutral drop off location. But even if I can't do that, I can go to Petco and get a gift certificate so the kid can pick up the turtle the day after Christmas. It won't be under the tree, but it will still be fulfilled. And it will also come with some awesome new art supplies because talent like that has to get nurtured. Meanwhile, that drawing is going up on my fridge.

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