Transcript

371:

Scenes From a Mall
Transcript

Originally aired 12.26.2008

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

5:30 in the afternoon, in the food court at a table near Sbarro's, Nick and Cheyenne and Natalie are just hanging around killing time, waiting to go to a movie when their buddy Chase shows up and explains the Sydney situation.

Chase

Sydney is my friend at the mall who ditched me for her boyfriend.

Ira Glass

Chase had come to the mall with Sydney. But now he was here in the food court and she was with the boyfriend.

Chase

In American Eagle with her boyfriend. With her boyfriend buying another girl a present.

Cheyenne

Uh oh.

Chase

Her boyfriend has a lot of best girlfriends. And so he's getting like two other girls' presents while he's with his girlfriend. But he came to the mall with another girl and met up with his girlfriend.

Cheyenne

What does she think about this?

Chase

She just doesn't care anymore because it's been going on for too long.

Ira Glass

And do you like her?

Chase

I do not. I like another girl named Courtney.

Cheyenne

This is your ex-girlfriend.

Chase

My ex-girlfriend. We dated for nine months and she broke up with me.

Ira Glass

Chase is at the mall about once a week and there's always a danger that he's going to run into Courtney since they used to come here together. But he's only seen her here once. It was right in the food court. Right near where we're sitting. It wasn't pleasant.

She was with her entire cheerleading squad. They were all in uniform. Because they were doing a fundraiser car wash or something.

Chase

They were definitely talking. You know, walked by, looked back. Oh my gosh, I just saw him.

Ira Glass

Like any Friday afternoon after school, lots of teenagers are in the mall today. Halfway across the food court, two high school sophomores named Colton and Chris wave to some kids at the Dairy Queen.

Colton

Those are our friends. Those are our friends.

Ira Glass

Where?

Colton

That's Danielle, the one in the brown. That's Lindsay and that's one of my friend's Deven. They go to my school. I met a new person today, her name's Rachel. I didn't even know her. I walked up to her and asked her if she wanted to hang out.

I was walking back to the food court to get some lunch and I accidentally bumped my shoulder into her. And I said I'm sorry. Excuse me. And then she said, no, it's OK. And I asked her name and her age. And she actually goes to my school and I've never seen her before. Actually, she had lunch with me, so that was a plus.

Ira Glass

We came to the mall to see what was happening there at Christmas. When there are stories on Radio TV about the world of shopping, it's pretty much always about how much shopping we're all doing.

Were this year's Thanksgiving purchases as much as last year's? What does that say about the economy? That kind of thing. But it doesn't really tell you what it feels like for the people who work at a big retail operation, like this mall right now. Or for the people who hang out at the mall. Because the mall's much more than just sales.

Boy 1

This is just a place like if you're having troubles with family, or if you just want to have somewhere to hang out. You know, the movies is somewhere, but this place calms me down more.

Ira Glass

And what about you, is it the same for you? Like this is a place where you can get out of the house?

Boy 2

Yeah, same thing. Get away from my brother.

Ira Glass

And why do you want to get away from your brother?

Boy 2

Because he's like a bully. He hits me and calls me names.

Ira Glass

And there's nothing you can do about it?

Boy 2

Nope. Because if I try to hit him, he'll hit me back even harder.

Ira Glass

So does it work coming here?

Boy 2

Yeah. Gets away for a few hours. Then go back home and everything's back to normal. Everything just calms down.

Ira Glass

The name of this particular mall is the Cool Springs Galleria, outside Nashville. It's not the fanciest mall in the area. When we visited there was no Tiffany store or Burberry or Apple Store. But it was newly redone with big, cushy chairs everywhere, and a play area for toddlers, and all the regular Abercrombie, Aeropostale, Williams-Sonoma stores that you'd expect in a nice mall. Five department stores: Macy's, Dillard's, Belk, JCPenney and Sears. It's the kind of upscale leaning, but not snooty mall that if you needed to shoot a mall scene for a new Miley Cyrus movie, you might do it here. In fact, she did. 150 shops, 6,500 parking spaces.

We were here at this time of year, mid December, exactly two weeks before Christmas two years ago in 2008. It was me and my fellow producers, Nancy Updike and Wendy Dorr. Today on our show we bring you, Scenes From a Mall. Stories of people we met and what we saw. And we'll leave this Nashville mall just once this hour for a story about a Christmas related political fight in an organization of professional Santas. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. Stay with us.

Act One. Love Line.

Ira Glass

"Act one, Love Line."

Let's begin our tour of life at to the mall here.

Ira Glass

How did you guys meet?

Chandler

Here, actually, at the mall.

Russell

I actually tried to sell her a phone. And she just kind of walked by one day and I tried to stop her and tried to sell her a phone and she just kind of stayed there since.

Chandler

He was charming, but after the second date it kind of wore off a little bit. He is a great guy though, I'll say that.

Ira Glass

Russell and Chandler are engaged. I met them at the T-Mobile kiosk on the lower level of the mall, where Russell is the number one salesman. When I wandered up and started talking to him, it was late in the day and it was just him and a co-worker, no Chandler.

Russell was explaining to me that it's hard selling T-Mobile in this mall because we were in Franklin County. And Franklin County is Verizon country.

Russell

Yeah, like people will come up here and be like, you know, do you know where Verizon is? And it's like, would you go into Brookstone and ask where-- Sharper Image. Would you go ask them where that is? You wouldn't do that. It just disrespectful. People feel like since Verizon is more expensive, it's better. I will tell people they can save money and they're like, but I don't care.

Ira Glass

It's galling to Russell. Because he truly believes in T-Mobile. When he talks to me about the pros and cons of his arch-rival, Verizon, and starts to lay out the facts about price and especially customer service, and how T-Mobile is the better deal, I do not feel like he's selling me. Somehow it feels like he is sharing a basic truth about the world that he has discovered and just needs to get across.

He has this air of unslick sincerity to him, like he's somebody who geeked out on cellphones and knows everything, and can give you the wisdom of this nerdy obsession of his. And that is obviously a big reason that he's the number one salesman here. And when he described how he ended up in this mall, I realized, I was just the latest in a series of people who saw this quality in him.

He'd been working construction and that a guy trying to sell him a phone offered him a job. Then he was secret shopped by a rival T-Mobile store who poached him away from that first store. And then he was poached from that store by his current boss. All this happened in a year. He's just 19.

Ira Glass

And compare the money you made in construction with the money you make at T-Mobile.

Russell

Oh my gosh. I mean, I make less per day as far as hourly goes. But I mean, the T-Mobile, not only do I get health benefits, 401(k), but target commission for a sales rep is $14,000 a year. Say I'm better than anybody else, so I can do $20,000. So that's $40,000 right there before taxes. So that's a lot of money.

Ira Glass

How long do you think you'll stay in phones?

Russell

I don't know, probably like five years. Probably till we get out of this recession that we're in right now. Unless another opportunity comes. I don't want to be a company man. I want to be an entrepreneur and own my own business. Because I think that's the only real way to get rich. I don't want to live that lifestyle where it's from paycheck to paycheck.

Ira Glass

Is that how you grew up, you family was just paycheck to paycheck?

Russell

Yeah. And I just don't want to be like that. So I feel like I'm already in a better position to be 19 and pretty much making the same money their making.

Ira Glass

What do they say about that?

Russell

Oh, nothing. I hardly ever talk to my dad and my mom, I mean, my mom-- I'm 19. My mom's married to a guy that's 24. We don't really hang out or talk that much.

Ira Glass

So while Russell's explaining all this, his finance Chandler strolls up to the T-Mobile booth. They don't talk, but he keeps getting text messages-- mid-interview. Till finally--

Russell

You know, all they've got to do--

Ira Glass

Who's texting you?

Russell

My fiance.

Ira Glass

She's standing right there.

Russell

I know.

Chandler

What did you say?

Russell

Can you jump in on the mike?

Ira Glass

What do you do?

Chandler

I actually work at Sonic.

Ira Glass

Sonic, the hamburger stand?

Chandler

The hamburger stand. The Sonic Drive-In, the ultimate drink stop.

Ira Glass

OK, I'm just going to cut in here and say, have you noticed she is selling. Because she is not just a waitress at the ultimate drink stop, she is the number one earner at the ultimate drink stop. She makes more money than the number one T-Mobile salesman, her fiance, Russell.

Ira Glass

Do you confirm this?

Russell

Yeah, she does. It's like the tip money. I mean, the thing is she works in a small town and so she gets a lot of the same people that eat there every day. And she remembers all the people and remembers what they order. So they tip her more because they know her. And she's the only one that skates and she looks the best.

Chandler

The thing about the roller skates is, it's faster. So you take out more food, so you make more money. And people like it. It's old fashioned, people don't do it anymore. It is a little complicated. It's skating on concrete that's not meant to be skated on. You got a cup carrier in one hand and trying to carry all this food.

Ira Glass

And so of the two of you, who's the better salesperson?

Chandler

Definitely me.

Ira Glass

What do you say on that?

Russell

She's more persuasive. I'm the better salesman, but she's very persuasive in talking to people.

Ira Glass

This is the kind of logic that helps people stay together for the rest of their lives. Like Russell, Chandler is estranged from her family. She got a job and took night classes so she could graduate from high school at 16 and move out.

Now she's just 18. She and Russell live together. They just got a new puppy. Russell doesn't want to go to college. He doesn't see the point. He works with guys who went to college and he makes more than they do. But Chandler wants college.

Chandler

I really want to, but it's not the right time because I don't have the money and I don't like loans at all. I don't like being in debt. I don't like owing money. That's where my family's gotten in a lot of trouble, and that's the position that they're in right now.

Ira Glass

So she and Russell are making this future together. She wants to be a nurse. Actually, she wants to be a dermatologist, but that's going to take too long and cost too much. So she's going for nurse. He wants to convert the world to T-Mobile.

Chandler signed up with Russell long before she signed up with T-Mobile, which is kind of a sore point with him. But Russell being Russell, he did not give up. There was a sale to make. He needed her to admit and enjoy the superiority of T-Mobile.

I asked Chandler how many dates she went on with Russell before he stopped trying to sell her a phone. And she sighs in this way that it's clear that it went on way too long. Here, let me play you that tape.

Ira Glass

How many dates had you been on when he stopped trying to sell you the phone?

Chandler

Oh.

Russell

Once she got T-Mobile I stopped trying to sell her the phone. But the only way I could get her to get T-Mobile is if I added a line on my plan and gave it to her. So that's what it took to get her to go to T-Mobile.

Ira Glass

Because what was she before?

Russell

AT&T.

Ira Glass

AT&T, the indignity. Chandler sighs and she says, no, no. She really likes T-Mobile a lot. It's really better. Sometimes she has some problems, but T-Mobile is great. Customer service, she says, out of the roof. It's really, really good.

Act Two. Not Dead Yet.

Ira Glass

"Act two, Not Dead Yet."

Back in the food court I ran into three eighth graders, best friends, who say they come here once a week for maybe four hours at a time.

Girl 1

Well, we get in. We normally try on the ugliest dresses we can find.

Girl 2

Yeah, prom section.

Girl 1

Yeah, the prom section.

Ira Glass

Describe the ugliest one you saw today.

Girl 1

It was like really, really tight and it has ruches on it and tons of sparkles. All three of us.

Girl 2

All three of us. We all tried on it on.

Girl 1

We all tried it on.

Ira Glass

Has the recession affected the three of you?

Girl 1

What? The recession?

Girl 2

What's recession mean?

Girl 3

That's a big word. We're not the smartest people here.

Girl 1

14, not 40.

Ira Glass

This of course, was a minority view. Most people at the mall had heard of the recession.

Two years ago this week, December 2008 when we were recording, it was near the beginning of the current recession we're in. The stores here were still doing a lot of business by putting huge amounts of stuff on sale. You still see that strategy this year. And a handful of stores actually had business increasing during the hard economic times. Like the Chick-fil-A in the food court at Cool Springs. Business was up 10% since the beginning of November said the franchise's owner, Jeannie [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Jeannie

All right, Chick-fil-A sandwich, no pickle. But then she wants a side of pickles.

Ira Glass

Jeannie gets behind the register when the lines get long. She has a successful small business owner's brisk creativity. When a harried young mom starts rooting around in her purse in frustration looking for her coupon, Jeannie goes over and fishes in the trash for one.

Jeannie

Is it the little long one?

Woman 1

No, it's this one.

Ira Glass

She finds the coupon, washes her hands, and gets back to doling out chicken, soda, and courtesy. She calls every male customer sir. Even the teenage boys in braces ordering strawberry milk shakes.

Jeannie

$10.49 sir. I'll have your shake coming right up.

Boy 1

Thank you.

Ira Glass

Chick-fil-A franchise owners are responsible for their own advertising and marketing. And so Jeannie just paid for a Chick-fil-A sign in the mall elevator, which she says has boosted customers. And when the rush slows down, Jeannie walks the mall.

Jeannie

Just seeing what's going on in the mall, seeing how the stores look. Kind of getting to know all the managers. I want to know everybody in the mall. If I can I want to be the mayor of the mall. You know, I want to know everybody.

Ira Glass

Jeannie is definitely mayoral as she walks around, welcoming newcomers.

Jeannie

I didn't know you guys were here. How long have you been here?

Ira Glass

Poking around in stores.

Jeannie

We're checking out your sales. A lot of good stuff.

Ira Glass

Teasing people.

Jeannie

What you got. You getting married?

Ira Glass

And always cheerfully plotting how to bring in more customers. In that way, her business really is like running for mayor. Political candidates talk about how important it is to reach out to voters again and again, in different ways, never let them forget you. Especially your base, which for Jeannie is the people who work in the mall. People who work in the mall make up 50% of her business.

The other day, Jeannie sent one of her employees to walk around inside the mall dressed in a cow suit. The cow is Chick-fil-A's mascot. His tagline is, "Eat more chicken." And that cow had his picture taken with employees at every store and every kiosk in the mall.

Jeannie

And then when we delivered the picture back to them, so we've actually touched them two times. When we took the cow there and they got to know the cow and got their picture made, that was one time. Then when we delivered the picture that was another time. So it's just constantly keeping in touch with these people, being friendly with them, staying connected, and that's what keeps our business going.

Ira Glass

Jeannie's message, there's nothing in this economy stopping you from eating a chicken sandwich. I think a lot of store owners are feeling some version of that feeling.

I was shopping last week for a Christmas present trying to decide between two things. The store owner says to me, you still have a job. Yeah, a huge percentage of the country is unemployed, but nothing has changed for you. Why can't you act like it?

And not every store is surviving. Here at Cool Springs one of the stores that was about to close when we visited was Carlton Cards up on the second floor. There weren't any big signs announcing it or anything. In fact, it was kind of a weird thing to see. The store was like this cheerful, red toy box filled with fluffy little dolls and bracelets and Valentine's hearts. And then, scotch taped up with scotch tape here and there, these austere signs that the staff had printed on the store's computer on regular 8 and 1/2 by 11 paper declaring in all caps "50% OFF. STORE CLOSING. ALL SALES FINAL."

Woman 2

I'm just putting out old stock that we have in the back room. We're cleaning out and clearing out and put it on clearance.

Ira Glass

This woman preferred not to give her name. They were selling stuff from the stock room partly because the corporate office stopped sending them new product to put on the shelves back in early November. A couple weeks before they were told that the store would close.

Woman 2

My boss kept telling me over and over again because we stopped getting shipments. She keep saying, oh, they did this to me before at the other store that we're going to close. And I'm like, no, we're fine. Our sales aren't down, or nothing's going on. You know, why would we-- sure enough, she was right.

Ira Glass

And so are they going to relocate you somewhere else?

Woman 2

Not this store. Right now there's no openings for me, or my boss even. This store's just done.

Ira Glass

So what happens to you?

Woman 2

I try for something else. After 13 years I don't know what I'm going to do. I've been doing this since I was 20 years old and I have no idea. Husband's been cut in hours, family members have lost their jobs too, so I can't believe it really. Come down from Michigan where it was a dead state to come down here find jobs that are good and stuff. And then two years later, the same thing's happening.

Ira Glass

What kind of business if your husband in?

Woman 2

He was a steel worker up in Michigan and then he came down here and started working for Penske, who supplied Saturn. And then when Saturn went out for them few months over there-- well, for the year and a half they were out over there, he lost his job from them. Now he's just working as whatever he can find.

Ira Glass

Is he finding manufacturing jobs?

Woman 2

No. He's right now doing forklift driving.

Ira Glass

And is he making anything like the money he made when he moved here?

Woman 2

Oh no. Just me. I came down with my salary down here. And now I'm out of that salary too. It's scary.

Ira Glass

You have kids?

Woman 2

I don't. I don't know what I'd do then.

Ira Glass

What's the day the store closes?

Woman 2

The 28. It's the last day of business.

Ira Glass

And so how are things here in the store, like how are you guys doing?

Woman 2

We're sad. We're sad and it gets stressful. And for everybody to keep coming up to you going, oh, you're closing? I got a good bargain, yackity-schmackity. Just forgetting the fact that a human don't have money now. Because you got half off. Where were you beforehand to buy it at full price and maybe save my job?

Ira Glass

So the customers are saying these things and then are you guys sad? What are you guys saying to each other? What are you able to do for each other?

Woman 2

We try not to talk about it. That's it, plain and simple. I don't want to talk about it. I'm not ready to think about it yet. Not till maybe the 26. But at least this year you don't have to go through the returns and you don't have to go through-- you know.

Ira Glass

I noticed the sign, "All sales are final."

Woman 2

Yep. That'll be nice. Just did my 13th year here and first Christmas Eve I'll get off. So hey, that's still not a bright enough lining, but I'll take it. This year.

Ira Glass

Coming up, why Santa is mad at Santa. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Santa Fight Club.

Ira Glass

Well, it's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Scenes From a Mall, we've been bringing you stories recorded this month at a shopping mall, Cool Springs Galleria in Nashville.

In addition to whatever happens at the North Pole, there is a Santa industry that springs up at malls all over the country every Christmas with photographers and helpers. You see Santa in parades. This year you see him at the White House. We're going to talk about the people in that business right now. Parents of small children, consider this fair notice. Decide if your child should be hearing about the side of Christmas. I'll wait. OK, only grownups left?

We saw a story in the Wall Street Journal about a rift in the world of professional Santas, a fight that turned Santa against Santa. Reporter Josh Bearman looked into it for us.

Josh Bearman

This is a Christmas story, a tale of two Santas. On the one side is Tim Conaghan, a full-time professional Santa with a big belly and a real flowing white beard. Tim is so dedicated to the idea of Santa Claus, his house is in a perpetual state of Christmas. There are St. Nick tapestries, a workshop with a calendar marking the days until Christmas, and a grand throne where Santa Tim receives children. It is like the North Pole, if the North Pole were in Riverside, California.

As Santa Tim takes me on a tour, he is dressed in a sort of Santa casual. Red and white shirt and green pants dotted with candy canes. The Santa saturation here is such that as Santa Tim provides a lengthy detailed history on the image of Santa Claus and how best to achieve that authentic Santa look, there's still more Santa to come.

Tim Conaghan

A number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look. Forgot I got the clocks going too.

Josh Bearman

No, that's fine. What's that song? What's the song?

Tim Conaghan

OK, the carols being sung by a choir. "Merry Christmas."

Josh Bearman

The counterpart to Santa Tim is Santa Nick. That's right, his actual name is Nicholas. And he too has a belly and a real white beard, which means that he must always be prepared for Santa contingencies, even in July, even when he's out running an errand.

Santa Nick

I went to my storage facility to pick up some stuff and I pulled in in my car with my wife and my two kids. And I hadn't even gotten out of the car yet and there was these two little girls. And the one little girl about five years old, she goes, hi, Santa.

I was dressed nothing at all like Santa Claus. Why I always carry a bag of little toys and stickers with me that I'm able to say, well, hello. How are you? And then I usually give them a little present. Talk to them for a little bit and say-- because the mother was gone and she told the child, leave that man alone. And I said, no, no. She's OK. She found out who I am.

Josh Bearman

But the story of Santa Tim and Santa Nick is not like most Christmas parables. It is not about impoverished couples giving up their most cherished things to sacrifice for each other, or an avaricious curmudgeon finally learning to let love into his heart. This story is sort of the opposite in fact. It is a story about how these two men, Santa Tim and Santa Nick, so much alike, potential allies in a great cause, came instead to lead rival factions in the bitter Santa civil war. And came themselves to be arch enemies. Here's Nick talking about Tim.

Santa Nick

I won't say Tim's never helped another Santa, but typically when I look back now I can see where typically, wherever Tim's helped someone, it's always been to help Tim.

Josh Bearman

And here's Tim on Nick.

Tim Conaghan

You don't want to sit there. You hate to sit there and say someone is a liar. But on one hand, you've got to say, just show us the proof.

Josh Bearman

Santa Tim and Santa Nick are at the center of a political schism that's overtaken their guild, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

It all began over a decade ago before Nick and Tim ever met, when a random event thrust a group of like-minded Santa's together.

Back in 1994, a German catalog assembled 10 professional Santas for a commercial shoot in Los Angeles. One Santa flipped through the catalog in his sleigh while the others bumped into each other in a gift delivery frenzy. Bob Kokol was one of those Santas.

Bob Kokol

And we just had such a good time telling stories to each other during the breaks. One of the fellows, Tom Hartsfield, after it was all over he said, oh, we've got to get together after Christmas and have lunch together. And so we did. We met at the North Woods Inn there on the Santa Anna Freeway.

Josh Bearman

That's the restaurant that's covered in snow? Fake snow.

Bob Kokol

Yeah.

Josh Bearman

All these Santas had real beards, distinguishing them from the many synthetic or designer bearded Santas who often showed up at casting calls. A Santa named Tom Hartsfield jokingly proposed that they all form a club. He suggested the name, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, quickly known by its acronym, AORBS, and organized the luncheon. And the joke sort of took hold. The Santas met again the next year, and the next. And each time more Santas showed up.

Bob Kokol

And then this North Woods Inn just got too small. Sometimes we'd have 200 or 300 and they just couldn't fit all in. So then we had to go to someplace else. And then it was the Queen Mary and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then there had to be a president and a treasurer and a sergeant at arms and all these titles.

Josh Bearman

By 2003, there were several hundred members. Until then, Tom Hartsfield had maintained all the administrative duties himself. Feeling overwhelmed, he was looking for help. One of the many people who joined the organization was Santa Tim Conaghan. This is the Santa Tim from the beginning of our story, the one who sang to me. Santa Tim was a well-known Santa in Southern California. He always had good gigs and under the name, the Kringle Group LLC, he ran various Santa related businesses. Including a referral service and mail order wardrobe catalog, offering boots, coats, buckles, and of course, beards made from yak fur, the preferred fake beard if you must wear fake. Which doesn't come cheap by the way.

Santa Tim also had a school called the International University of Santa Claus, built around his own curriculum and textbook, Behind the Red Suit. All this meant that Santa Tim was an organizer, good on the computer with lists and events. Just what Tom thought this growing organization needed. So he asked Santa Tim to take over.

Tim Conaghan

When Tom asked me to coordinate the group I started restructuring it to be a dues paying organization because we'd get $15 a year dues. Really, a small amount of money. But with that, we could have a website. A bigger website with more information. We could have newsletters and a chat group, or a web location where everybody could talk with each other. I put all of those things together. Again, I was traveling around doing my school, plus coordinating the association. At that time I thought it was kind of a neat thing because we were helping each other. My business was growing, the association was growing. The association actually went from about 200 on the meeting list to almost 1,300 on the meeting list. And while I was doing all that, like I said, the Santas were saying, well, when are we all going to get together?

So I put together their first Santa convention.

Josh Bearman

This is video from that convention, which was called Discover Santa 2006. And what we're hearing is the sound of over 300 real bearded Santa Clauses, their associated Mrs. Clauses, and a contingent of little people dressed as elves taking to the streets, a red and white procession across downtown Branson, Missouri at 7:00 AM on a Friday morning.

There were also advanced Santa panels on dealing with special needs children, and Santa Tim offered his Santa University lessons.

Tim Conaghan

Hello everyone, welcome back. I'm Santa Tim and we're going to move on to chapter two.

Josh Bearman

These included the always popular Santa grooming practicum, covering beard, care and whitening. And simple do's and don'ts. Do smile, don't promise any specific toys. And of course--

Tim Conaghan

Always remember the reindeer's names. I'm surprised that you have to ask that, but the thing is, guess what? We have Santas who forget the reindeer's names.

Josh Bearman

Then there are those Santa nuances, Tim advises, that ought to be a matter of individual styling.

Tim Conaghan

Ho, ho, ho's are important. Some people say you've got to do three in a row. I know some Santas that just do, ho, ho, how are you? In other words, they go right from a ho, ho into a sentence. Ho, ho, hello. Instead of doing all three. There's different ways of doing it. Come up with your own little signature. Have some fun with it.

Josh Bearman

Discover Santa was a success. It wasn't just the first national gathering of AORBS, it was an eye-opening experience for everyone. Being Santa Claus is a solitary job after all. As one Santa put it, "You can't just call a friend and go santaing together." But there they were, several hundred Santas, aglow with the promise of Santa fraternity. It was like their Woodstock and it raised the profile of the organization, generating all kinds of news coverage.

Tim turned AORBS into an official nonprofit. He assembled an interim board and drafted bylaws cribbed from the Kiwanis club. And meanwhile, all the media attention was attracting new members. One of whom was Nick Trolli, the other embattled Santa from the beginning of the story. He'd been quietly plying his trade as a part-time Santa, unaware of the organization run by Tim.

Santa Nick

I don't remember why but one day I just did a search of Santa on the Internet and I was like, well, wow. I think I might have been looking to replace a suit. But anyway, I did a search and I came up with Santa and then I found the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. I said, well, gee, isn't that kind of cool?

Josh Bearman

Nick attended a meeting in New Jersey and immediately got involved. He joined the board and volunteered to help plan the next bigger Discover Santa convention. This was all in the Spring of 2007. No one knew it then, but that was the high water mark of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Less than a year later, the organization would descend into chaos, then split in two.

The trouble began just a few months after Nick joined. When he started on the board, Nick clashed with Tim immediately. Nick accused Tim of using AORBS to profit his own Kringle Group businesses, and he started whispering to some of the other Santas about it.

Then that summer, it was learned that Santa Tim had signed a contract with a small film production company that hoped to make a movie about the Santa convention and Tim's Santa school. Tim signed contracts on behalf of his school and AORBS. Both were paid $1,500 up front, with more coming if the movie ever got made. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was enough to be considered a scandal. .

The dispute hit the board and eventually, Santa Tim resigned. In the fall out, several more board members resigned in solidarity. Which meant that by order of succession, Santa Nick who had just joined that year, wound up president of AORBS.

Santa Nick

Next thing I know, all of a sudden, Tim starts attacking me every which way I turned. And not just Tim, but his cronies like this nut case, Rick Erwin. He called me brain damaged. He accused me of stealing. And he got these people all riled up and he's got the California Santas all riled up.

Josh Bearman

The reason the California Santas were all riled up is that they believe Santa Nick had essentially staged a coup, beginning with his whisper campaign against Tim. To them, this was a power grab plain and simple. And to make matters worse, Santa Nick started doing some things that seemed very suspicious. He dropped the word "interim" from his title. He reincorporated the entire organization in another state. He never accounted for the treasury. And he installed another relatively new Santa, Jeff Germann, as his vice president. Which gave Jeff control over the Santa's online forum, Elf Net. Which is where dissident Santas were airing their grievances.

Rick Erwin was one of those dissident Santas and he says things changed when Santa Jeff took over Elf Net.

Rick

That's when the bannings began. Once the chat function had moved to his server, he controlled the chat from that moment on. And any postings that were antithetical to Nick Trolli or Jeff Germann were deleted within hours. It was like Orwell's 1984. The ministry of truth moved in and unwrote everything in the history books.

Josh Bearman

From Nick and Jeff's perspective, they were the ones facing a coordinated assault coming from Tim's cabal of rabid supporters. Jeff Germann says they had to defend themselves against nonstop rumors and innuendo. And pretty soon, this meant going head to head against the guy who came up with the idea for the organization in the first place, the guy who named it the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, Santa Tom Hartsfield.

Jeff Germann

Well, Tom decided to start posting on the message board publicly undermining stuff we were working on and causing dissension in the group. And so, since I was in charge of the message board, the first thing I did when he published this was I deleted the thread that he started, and then I removed his access from the message board. And let him know that this would be taken up with the board next time we meet to see about whether you get your access back or not.

Well, he didn't like that. That's what made him mad about quitting. Because I had the temerity to rebuke him and discipline him on our message board.

Josh Bearman

Now, rebuke is not a word you hear in conversation that often, and Jeff used it three times. All that rebuking reminds you that although Santas are self described jolly gentleman, they also divide the world into naughty and nice.

By the fall of 2007, lots of santas were being labeled naughty, and a vicious cycle developed. The more Santas who criticized Nick and Jeff, the more Santas got banished. Which led to more criticism, which prompted more banishment. A siege mentality set in. Eventually, the deposed Santas started their own forums, Santa Talk, which they called a refugee camp from AORBS.

Now each faction had its own mouthpiece, further fanning the flames. Each side accused the other of betraying the spirit of Santa Claus, of using the beard to line their own red velvet pockets.

The conflict came to a head in January 2008, at a big AORBS meeting at Knott's Berry Farm in Beuna Park, California. This was the first time member Santas were meeting with the new board and many were looking for answers. One of those was Santa Rick, the dissident Santa you just heard comparing the situation to Orwell. At the time, he was still lodge director for the Inland Empire AORBS chapter and he planned to record the board meet and greet on video.

Rick

I showed up at the hotel and I walked up, there was a Santa standing near the desk talking to a couple of kids and their mom. And so I walked up to the desk. I was going to ask where the meeting was and when he saw me, the Santa saw he, turned to me and said, hi, can I help you? And I said, where's the Santa meeting? And he kind of pointed up the stairs off the lobby and he said, why? And I said, I'm here for the meeting. Thanks. And I turned around and started up the stairs. And he said, where you going with that camera? And at that point I realized, he was either Nick Trolli or Jeff Germann. I'd never met either man personally, but I knew them online.

And at that point I knew he was one or the other. So I reached down and turned on my video camera and started recording.

Santa Nick

You're not filming anything, Rick.

Rick

Oh yes, I am.

Santa Nick

No you're not, Rick.

Rick

I'm sorry to tell you, but this an open meeting, sir. I take it you're Jeff.

Santa Nick

No, I'm Nick. I'd like to speak with you.

Rick

What's your name?

Santa Nick

I'm Nick.

Rick

Nick. Oh, you're Nick Trolli. Nice to meet you, Nick. Finally, meet you after all this time.

And by that time we were at the top of the stairs and headed down the hallway. And he was met by his other board members, three other. There were five Santas in the hallway. Myself and four AORBS board members. Nick Trolli and Jeff Germann stopped me. Jeff Germann actually got in front of me and stopped me in the hallway.

Man 1

Mr. Erwin here thinks he's going to film.

Man 2

No, you're not.

Man 3

I got news for you, Mr. Erwin's already videotaping.

Rick

This is for the membership.

Man 3

That's fine.

Rick

I represent officially two of the four chapters in Southern California.

Man 3

That's fine.

Rick

And this is an open meeting for the membership. And I've been specifically--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Rick

Listen, I'm videotaping this meeting.

Man 3

No you're not.

Rick

I'm already videotaping this confrontation.

Josh Bearman

At this point on the tape, Santa Rick's camera is on, but dangling in his hand. So all you can see is a jerky dash for the conference room until he is stopped by that group of Santas. We get a waist level view of the large torsos gathering around Rick. Legs and round bellies, and at least one knotted wooden cane. Another pair of legs wanders into the frame wearing knee breeches, red and white striped socks, and buckled shoes. The argument continues.

Rick

The whole thing lasted about 30 seconds and I said, listen, I'm not going to argue with you about this. And I turned to go on into the meeting. And as I went past Jeff German, he raised his arm and shoved me into the wall with all of my camera equipment, my tripod over my shoulder, I was carrying my camera. And he bounced me off of the hallway wall. The shove felt round the world. And at that instant, you can hear me, say, don't touch me again.

You know what, don't touch me again.

Jeff Germann

Yeah, he says I attacked him. He says that I beat him up at Nick's behest.

Josh Bearman

This is Jeff Germann, Nick's vice president, who disputes the entire story.

Jeff Germann

He said that I elbowed him. He says I laid hands on him. He says I punched him, which is obvious because when it was done he was on the floor with a broken nose and a broken leg. Just kidding. All that really happened is he pushed past me. And that's all that happened.

Josh Bearman

Are you tall?

Jeff Germann

I'm 6'4''.

Rick

OK. So you are a big Santa?

Jeff Germann

Yeah, I'm just as big as Christmas.

Josh Bearman

It's impossible to tell exactly what happened from the tape because of the waist level vantage point. Although each side says it proves their point. Some kind of physical contact occurred. That much can be said from the way the camera shakes a little. But more importantly, Rick gets free and marches into the meeting.

Rick

Excuse me.

Man 4

Hey Rick.

Rick

But one Santa knocked me into the wall, the big guy.

Woman 1

Really?

Rick

Yeah. I've already been physically assaulted, but I'm not going to stop taping.

Josh Bearman

On the tape, the Santa Rick sets up in the corner. You can see that the meeting hasn't started and the Santa's are milling around chatting. Then Santa Nick storms in and makes the following demand.

Santa Nick

I'm asking you one more time, please take the down camera and leave.

Rick

On what authority?

Santa Nick

On the authority AORBS rent this room.

Rick

I'm sorry, you're going to have to quote the bylaws and you're going to have to ask all of the members to leave. I'm here representing two of the four Southern California chapters.

Santa Nick

Rick, I represent 877 members of AORBS.

Rick

That's under question quite frankly, but I officially represent--

Santa Nick

I'm ordering you to leave our premises.

Rick

I refuse to leave voluntarily.

Santa Nick

Security, escort him out please.

Woman 1

You don't have the right to pull him.

Rick

Excuse me, this man is enforcing rules that do not exist.

Josh Bearman

The hotel security guard takes just a few steps before he realizes he's in over his head. It's likely his training did not prepare him to walk into a room full of angry Santa Clauses. For starters, they all look the same. It's hard to tell who's on whose side. He pauses, looks at all the big men with beards looking back at him, turns around, and goes for backup.

In the stunned silence that follows, you can see a few arched white eyebrows around the room.

Rick

This tyranny must end, guys. This tyranny must end.

Jeff, I [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Woman 1

You're Santa for God's sake.

Rick

This isn't the Night of the Long Knives, guys.

Josh Bearman

If you didn't quite catch it, Rick says, this isn't the Night of Long Knives. For those not up to speed on your Third Reich history, that's the day in 1934 when Adolf Hitler consolidated his control over the Nazi party by killing or jailing all of his enemies.

Eventually, the Knott's Berry Farm hotel security chief shows up with two other guys and approaches Rick.

Man 5

I'm a supervisor of the hotel. These folks are asking you to leave. Gentleman back there is the one who booked the event. He doesn't want you here, so you need to leave.

Rick

I mean I got three rules that I live life by. I won't be lied to or about, I won't be stolen from, and I will not be laid hands upon. And in my opinion, these guys violated all three of my core codes. And we went to war.

Josh Bearman

The war was hard fought. Rick posted his video of the kerfuffle online sparking outrage.

Some Santas renounced their membership in protest. The rhetoric escalated, especially on the Santa forums, where Rick and others accused Nick of embezzlement. And Nick accused the breakaway Santa's of sabotaging the Discover Santa 2008 convention, calling them economic terrorists. And declaring that AORBS blood is on their hands. Lawsuits were threatened back and forth on a regular basis. And Nick told various Santas he was going to lodge complaints against them with the FBI.

At a certain point, lines were crossed that no Santa would have thought possible. A website appeared called Santa Check, which purports to be an independent watchdog group for parents, but appears to actually be a sub rosa propaganda campaign targeting Nick's enemies.

One entry posted a still from a video of Santa Rick's birthday party. The relatively harmless video shows Santa Rick being entertained by a belly dancer and features Rick's unfortunate title, "How Santa Got his Yuletide Log Back." At the top of the web page is Santa Check's tagline, "is your child safe on this lap?" This unfair insinuation is the lowest of blows, the equivalent among Santas of the nuclear option.

The hardest thing to understand about this story is how it got to this point. The allegations and counter-allegations are so outlandish, that when I first started looking into all this it wasn't just difficult to figure out which side was right, I had a hard time understanding what actually happened.

I spent weeks talking to Santas and reading their discussion boards trying to sort it out. It wasn't easy. When I talked to the Santas, it was like the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Each side had its own distinct narrative about the history of the war, and the two narratives did not overlap. In the end, here's what I think probably happened.

Santa Tim's businesses had profited a little from AORBS, sure. But then Santa Nick came in and he was drunk with power. Then the other side overreacted, Nick quickly turned into a Santa Stalin, and the whole thing just evolved from there. It was the same dynamic that starts real wars. The further people get drawn into a fight, the harder it is to back down. The fact that this could happen to a group of Santas just proves it could happen to anybody.

By last summer, AORBS membership plummeted as several local Santa leaders filed articles of separation from AORBS, citing Nick and Jeff's persecutory atmosphere and the un-Santa-like dialogue.

One Santa issued a statement calling for a Santa Claus congress in the spirit of the American Revolution. Around the country, regional groups sprang up in the vacuum. Nick and Jeff were despots in a shrinking kingdom.

Soon they were the only active board members left, and the remaining members were still waiting for elections. When they eventually did hold elections, their war what the United Nations might call irregularities. Nick and Jeff formed a nominating committee, but required their own approval over the committee's selections. This is Santa Tom Irving, a board member at the time.

Tom Irving

They were looking for reasons to disqualify anybody who was nominated. There were several people nominated for president. And everyone was disqualified. Nick was the only name on the ballot. They found reasons to disqualify everybody who was up for first vice president. Only Jeff Germann was on the ballot. You know, what it reminded me of is, what was it, Robert Mugabe? Held the election in South Africa someplace and he was the only one on the ballot.

Josh Bearman

To Santa Tim and his followers, AORBS no longer exists. What is called AORBS is an impostor, sidelined and irrelevant. To Nick and Jeff, AORBS is still the home of the world's A-list Santas as they like to say. And they insist they will have their day in court.

Recently however, the war slowed down a bit. Mostly by virtue of seasonal logistics. All the Santas have been busy in their chairs twinkling their eyes at children and doing what Santas are supposed to do. And they don't have as much time for mischief. Which is how it should be. It was during the offseason that Santas were free to endlessly argue with each other. That's when they lost sight of the larger picture. It takes a neutral Santa, some one like Tom Irving to see that.

Tom Irving

I look at it as a real lesson in what happens when you let your own ego get in the way of things. You know, I've never been a person with a real strong ego. You've got to have a bit of that to be Santa Claus. You've got to have that kind of a personality where you're willing to step out into the world in front of people. It's like being an actor in a lot of ways. If you allow the ego to drive you, then you're doing it for the wrong reason. And that's what happened with these guys. I really believe that.

Josh Bearman

Back when I first met Santa Tim at his workshop, we talked about the origins of Santa Claus. What people often don't realize is that Santa Claus was always a more complicated character than today's rosy-cheeked do-gooder. The original tradition of Saint Nicholas included a diabolical counterpart, the guy you met if you were naughty. This character goes by a lot of different names: Krampus, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Belsnickel. And he's also in red, but with horns, a tail, and a pitch fork. Sound familiar? Santa's flip side is the devil. And it's not a coincidence that the devil is sometimes called Old Nick.

The man in the red suit has always represented both sides of the coin, naughty and nice. This is what we're supposed to be reminded of during the darkest days of each year. We make mistakes and we sometimes do the wrong things, and so does Santa. And so maybe the story of AORBS is a Christmas parable after all.

Ira Glass

Josh Bearman in Los Angeles. In the two years since we first aired that story, AORBS has ceased to exist the way it was, a centralized group of Santas. The organization is still around, but 20 splinter groups have risen up. The largest of those is FORBS, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, which is where Santa Tim Conaghan ended up.

[MUSIC- "GET BEHIND ME SANTA" BY SUFJAN STEVENS]

Act Four. Job: Security.

Ira Glass

"Act four, Job Security."

Back in a part of the mall that shoppers never go is an area that feels a lot like the backstage of a theater. The walls are made of plywood. You wind around these hallways that are two stories high with doors that lead into the backs of the stores. Turn a corner and you arrive at the security office. There's a snug little room here with 43 TV screens, one for each of the cameras in the hallways and the parking lots, the roof and the loading dock. The room is dark. Beverly Robertson watches the cameras and she likes it dark. She tells me and my co-producer Wendy Dorr, that two or three times a day, her job includes helping people find their parked cars in the vast lots that surround the mall.

Beverly Robertson

Usually though when they come to me, my car has been stolen. It's not where I parked it. But usually, they have just forgot where they've parked.

Ira Glass

About once a week, somebody who can't find their car actually accuses security of getting into the car and moving it to a different lot.

Beverly Robertson

We do have a lot of that, well, you've just moved my car. I mean, like we have nothing better to do than go out and move your car. It's like we have everybody's sets of keys in our office. Oh, well, this one's parked here. Let's go move it for them. No, we don't do that.

Ira Glass

I go and wander around the mall with Beverly's boss, the head of security, Doug [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and one of the officers, Gary. Doug tells me about all the cases they get where a husband gets separated from his wife in the mall and then comes to security for help finding her.

Doug

That's when the descriptions don't match anything they say. They don't know what their wives look like. They don't know what kind of hair they've got, haircut. You can say, is it down to their shoulders or is it up? What color is it? How tall is she? And don't ask them what they've got on.

Ira Glass

They could just say, she's wearing a blue coat.

Doug

And then they'll be wrong. They'll be wrong about that.

Ira Glass

While Doug and Gary and I were talking, Wendy hung back in the security office with Beverly. They were watching us on the various TV monitors. Though, I didn't know that at the time.

Wendy Dorr

For about 45 minutes we've been tracking them on the lower level, and it was surprisingly easy.

Beverly Robertson

I see my boss, my lieutenant, and Ira. And they're pointing in-- they're coming up the south end escalator. You can see the top of their heads. I mean you could zoom in.

Wendy Dorr

Let's just say you zoomed in till you could literally see the freckles on top of your boss's head.

Beverly Robertson

Yes, I mean you can if you want to. But it's just being funny.

Wendy Dorr

Beverly's been working at the mall for 11 years. And for the last five years she's been here in dispatch, sitting at a desk, a foot away from the 43 little TV screens. She can tilt the cameras up and down, or turn them left and right. Or zoom in using her keyboard and joystick.

She's looking for kids who stray away from their parents, or play on the escalators, for groups of rowdy teens, for people who've fallen down. For anything on the floor that someone could trip over, for anything out of the ordinary. Or anything that could lead to a lawsuit.

Beverly Robertson

Most the time it's fun. You see stuff that you really sometimes don't want to see.

Wendy Dorr

Like what do you mean?

Beverly Robertson

We watched this guy one day, we had a kiosk that was upstairs, and this guy was standing there. The whole time that he was standing there he was picking his nose and wiping his boogers on the counter. And we were sitting back here laughing so hard that we couldn't stand it. But after the guy left and everything, we called the guy at the kiosk and told him, you need to get some sanitizer and kind of sanitize that desk. And he's like, why? And I said, well, he just wiped boogers all over your tables. This guy got really disgusted and threw up and it was just funny. But you do see some of the funniest stuff.

Wendy Dorr

She told me that when she gets home from work, she has to let her eyes rest for a few hours. So she can't watch much TV. Beverly works 10 hour shifts, 5 days a week, from 7:00 AM to 5:00. And when she's working, she doesn't like to take a break.

Wendy Dorr

Is it hard to not shop?

Beverly Robertson

No, I hate to shop. I'm not a big shopper at all. I've never been. I don't like shops. It's not very hard for me at all. Not hard at all.

Wendy Dorr

Are you getting your kids presents and stuff this Christmas?

Beverly Robertson

Yes, but not here. I usually get mine like at Walmart, or Kmart, stores like that. There are a few stores in here that I would go to, but there's a lot of high end stores that-- I work all the time, so I don't have any clothes anymore because I never go anywhere. I'm always at work and at home with my kids. I don't buy clothes and shoes and stuff. I have uniforms and that's it. The best part of my day is going home and getting into a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt. I mean that's just the best part of the day because you get out of the uniform.

Wendy Dorr

Beverly likes it when it's busy, when the phone's ringing with people who need her help. The toughest part of the job seems to be fighting off boredom.

Beverly Robertson

We used to have a spider that would get on our cameras on the outside. It would get on the lens and you could zoom until you went straight through it. You zoomed out so much that it just goes right through it. I mean you can't see the spider anymore, but you know it's there.

We do all kinds of things in here when we get bored.

Wendy Dorr

Beverly's leaving early today. She lives in Spring Hill, which is about 20 minutes away. But it takes her about an hour because she goes home at rush hour.

Last night when the snow started, she accidentally drove her truck into a ditch. She didn't get hurt, but she banged up her truck badly enough that she couldn't drive it today. So she's leaving early to catch a ride with a coworker.

Beverly Robertson

That's it. I go home.

Wendy Dorr

She clocks out by sticking her hand in some kind of a scanner, opens the doors to the loading dock, and walks outside.

Wendy Dorr

So what's the first thing you're going to do when you get home?

Beverly Robertson

The first thing I'll do is put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The second thing is me and my kids go to Walmart or something. She always has to have something on Friday, so that's where I go.

Bye.

Ira Glass

Wendy Dorr.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Shawn Wen. Seth Lind is our production manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

A personal note, before This American Life I spent a year reporting at a public elementary school on Chicago's West Side, Washington Irving Elementary. The principal who was at that school when I was there, Madeleine Maraldi, passed away this week. I was an education reporter for years and spent time in dozens of schools. She was the best principal I ever saw. She had incredible savvy about which education programs would work for her school, but like all great principals, she was a great politician. To achieve things that few public schools ever achieve. And of course, she was wonderful with kids. She'll be missed by everybody who had contact with Washington Irving.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. This is what he declared this year while standing under the mistletoe.

Rick

I mean, I got three rules that I live life by. I won't be lied to or about. I won't be stolen from and I will not be laid hands upon.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.