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Christmas Over, Surrogate Santa Makes Last Delivery : Yuletide: St. Nick turns in his uniform and has a reunion with 11 of 30 classmates who survived the holiday season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As shoppers flocked to malls and stores across Los Angeles Wednesday to return unwanted Christmas gifts, Santa Claus lined up with his co-workers to return his red suit, beard and fur-topped plastic boot spats.

Christmas was over and St. Nick had delivered his last present. Now it was time to deliver his $200 outfit to its owner for cleaning and storage.

But when I arrived at Santa Central, I found a small class reunion for 11 of the 30 of us who started Santa School together Nov. 17. Fifteen from the original group quit. Three were fired for failure to show up for mall assignments. And one was dismissed for making “an inappropriate comment” to a child.

Western Temporary Services Santa coordinator John McGill III was mostly concerned Wednesday about finding missing suit parts--and about a pepperoni pizza stain on rent-a-Santa Keith Rogers’ red velvet jacket, his broken zipper and an inky residue on the suit’s box.

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The pizza smear, Rogers said, came from sticky-fingered children attending a party that he had been assigned to work. The zipper broke early in the season, when a child grabbed for his beard but yanked on the jacket instead. The inky stain was just that--ink.

“At this one place I was sent to, they made me change in the janitor’s closet. A big bottle of ink fell over and got all over the box and my shoes,” said Rogers, an ironworker.

My suit was intact--something of a surprise to me. That’s because on most of my Santa assignments, I managed to leave parts of it home.

One day I showed up for duty with two left gloves. Another day I discovered I’d left my black boot spats at the mall where I’d worked the previous weekend.

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Then there was the time I discovered I’d left the black dress shoes I wear under the spats at home. I ran into a shoe store at the mall and bought the cheapest pair of black shoes I could find. They cost $24.99--$3 more than the take-home pay for my four-hour Santa shift that day. (My $7-per hour Santa pay was donated to charity.)

I was surprised that no child wet his or her pants--and mine--while sitting on my knee. One girl of about 3 seemed a wee bit damp when she climbed onto my lap. But her mother insisted that she had fallen into a fountain at the shopping mall. Mom said she blow-dried her daughter’s clothes under a restroom hand dryer.

In the end, December rushed by much too quickly for this St. Nick. There was almost no time, for instance, to tell about such things as Santa’s experiences with teen-age girls.

Each time I sat down in a mall, they would jump on my knee to have their pictures taken or ask me to bring them new boyfriends. For the record, I consistently heeded my Santa School training: No flirting, no promises.

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As we surrogate Santas gathered for the last time, we swapped tales, exchanged phone numbers and said our goodbys.

We left snickering about how co-worker Ed Morales received a diaper-load of solid effluent on his suit from an infant at the Carson Mall.

We buzzed over news that a black college student filed a $1.3-million racial discrimination lawsuit against a Hayward, Calif., mall that allegedly refused to hire him, while in Los Angeles, recruiters were desperate to find black St. Nicks for local malls.

And we shook our heads after Jeff Etcher, an assistant film editor from Van Nuys, told of how he had briefly considered filing his own discrimination lawsuit against a San Fernando Valley mall.

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His complaint was over height, not racial, discrimination. Etcher was snubbed because he stands 5 feet, 4 inches.

The mall was only interested in 6-foot Santas.

Like my other Santa secrets, this is not a tall tale. It’s true.


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