It's not every day I get to play elf to a Santa whose sleigh is a motorcycle.
So I couldn't resist the offer from Kim Airs, who let me ride along on Sunday as she tooled around in her Santa Claus gear, handing out gifts to strangers.
I might have declined if I'd seen the dorky outfit I'd be wearing: a billowy green velour jacket, huge red-and-white striped pants, and bells attached to my helmet. It's an elf costume created by her sister to match Airs' customized Santa suit, fake eyebrows and beard.
We boarded her green-and-white Honda Shadow outside Airs' Culver City apartment. I squeezed between Santa and a red-flannel-covered box packed with toys that she accumulated this year from friends, co-workers and countless visits to 99 Cents Only stores.
As soon as we hit a main street, before we'd passed out a single toy, the celebration began.
Pedestrians waved, children stared, motorists shouted and honked. A truckload of gardeners gave us thumbs up, a pair of teenage girls stopped alongside us at a light and snapped photos with their iPhones.
I was glad we weren't on Air's other motorcycle, the one she rides on her day job. It's plastered with decals of condoms, vibrators and unmentionable sexual accouterments.
That's because when she's not passing out Christmas toys, Airs is "an adult industry toy consultant and sexuality specialist." She used to own a store in Boston that sold sex toys and gear; now she helps doctors and therapists work with patients who need the devices.
I didn't know that when I agreed to the elf gig. I was in the market for a feel-good column when her email about Santa landed. I thought Kim was a man.
I presumed I'd be riding behind a brawny, big-hearted guy ... because that's what Santa is, right?
When I Googled "Kim Airs" before our ride, I felt as dumb as that Fox newscaster ought to feel for saying Santa can only be white.
Airs said she doesn't want to creep anyone out about her day job.
"Let's just forget Kim, the sex toy entrepreneur. This is Kim, the Santa Claus," she said, as we sipped coffee after a 90-minute ride that emptied our toy box. "This is from my heart."
Kim the Santa is a middle-aged white woman from New Jersey; divorced with no kids, she got tired of celebrating Christmas with activities for grown-ups.
She'd played a roller-skating Santa in 1979, promoting a no-nukes concert at the Christmas-tree lighting on New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. She never forgot how good it felt to see children's faces light up when she rolled by.
In 2006, she moved to Los Angeles, where she could ride her motorcycle year-round. "I decided to join my holiday passions and load the back of my bike with toys," she said.
She goes out almost every weekend in December, visiting neighborhoods from Pico-Union south to Watts.
There weren't many kids along Crenshaw Boulevard when we cruised through on Sunday. Airs pulled to the curb and called out in her Santa voice whenever she spotted a child.
A little boy walking with his grandmother to the bus stop got a mini-basketball; his grandma got a ribboned set of lotion and cologne. "I carry a few gifts for adults," Airs whispered. Grandma's smile was almost as big as the child's.
A few miles later, we passed West Angeles Church of God in Christ just as services let out. Airs parked her motorcycle in the bike lane and we began doling out presents to children waiting with their families for the Expo Line train.
A Mercedes with vanity plates rolled up and a window went down. "I have a child in here. Can she have a toy?" a well-dressed woman called out. The little girl smiled politely as Airs strode over, ho-ho-ho'ing, and handed her a book about science.
Our toy box was almost empty when we turned onto a side street a stone's throw from the church. A family — father, mother, teenage son and 11-year-old daughter — was living in two tidy tents on a spotless stretch of an otherwise filthy sidewalk.
Airs parked her bike and briefly chatted privately with the dad. I fished around inside our box, found two sets of soft purple gloves and handed them to the mom.
As we headed back to the motorcycle, I saw Santa press a wad of bills into the father's hand. His eyes registered surprise. "Let me detail your bike. Do something for you," he said. Airs said she might come back.
They'd already given her gifts: a chance to brighten someone's day, and a glimpse of a side of Los Angeles that palm trees tend to hide.
A few people weren't so grateful or nice; they tossed out requests as if Airs was Amazon.com. Some kids were so shocked or shy, they mumbled thanks and couldn't look Santa Claus in the eyes.
Others were like Otto Penaloza, whose dad plopped him on the motorcycle for a photo with Santa. Airs handed the 6-year-old a math activity book, with a set of magnetic numbers. The boy smiled like it was an Xbox.
The venture blessed me with gifts, as well: A challenge to cynicism and stereotypes. A reminder of the simple pleasure of ungilded surprise.
A little girl marveling at the Barbie she'd asked for in her letter to Santa. The delight of big kids in on the joke; what Santa wears red nail polish? And the hug I got from a homeless mother, whose daughter's hands won't be cold, at least on Christmas morning.
Twitter: @SandyBanksLATCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times