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Here Comes Santa in His Yellow Taxi

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was not a season to be very jolly. My father and stepmother had been arguing for several days about whether I was to visit my mother for Christmas. My stepmother opposed it; my father felt it was necessary. The tension eventually became so thick that I lost whatever interest I had in making the trip. I was 10 and figured, of course, I was the cause of the problem.

I hadn’t seen my mother for a couple years and felt awkward about visiting her. But my dad prevailed and, like it or not, I would spend Christmas Eve with Mom and then return home Dec. 25 for the “real” Christmas. I was deposited at the Greyhound bus station in Thousand Oaks with a paper sack containing two changes of clothes. Next stop: Newport Beach.

The trip took about six hours, which didn’t bother me much because, for the first time in my life, I was out of reach of all parents. I had fantasies of the bus heading straight to South America. They’d never see me again!

When we finally reached Newport, I disembarked and followed the other travelers into the station, inhaling that eau de old cigarette butts, Lysol and lingering diesel exhaust peculiar to bus station lobbies. I found a pay phone and told a gravel-voiced taxi dispatcher that I had to get to the Newporter Inn hotel, where my mom worked nights as a cashier. The gravel voice told me to sit tight and my ride would be there soon.

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As I waited, I watched my fellow passengers being met by smiling friends and relatives who whisked them off, no doubt, to purring cats, crackling fireplaces and shiny packages under twinkling trees.

Finally, the only other person left in the station was a ticket agent nodding off over a book. I looked outside. No cab. I was stranded, apparently, forgotten and abandoned.

I considered hoofing it, but just as I was about to venture down the highway, a beat-up yellow Plymouth chugged into a far corner of the parking lot and stopped in the near darkness. Was that wreck my cab? It had to be. I grabbed my bag and hurried through the lot, pulling out my wallet to get the fare.

And discovered that no one had given me so much as a dollar.

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This called for sheer panic. I had to get to my mom’s place. Maybe I could just bolt from the cab when we reached the hotel and run like hell.

No, they’d catch me and throw me in jail, and then neither my mom nor dad would ever find me again--at least until after Christmas. I had to tell the truth. As I approached the Plymouth, ready to plead my case, the rear passenger door swung open and a husky voice shot from the shadowy interior:

“You call a taxi?”

“Uh, yeah.”

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I was too intimidated by the voice to mention my empty wallet.

“Well, get in.”

I scrambled into the back seat with my paper bag suitcase. Trapped with a stranger in a dark car, far from home, broke. Destined for kidnaping, or at least prosecution for non-payment of fare. But the door was closed. We were rolling, so I could only settle in, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but, well . . .

Santa Claus was driving the taxi.

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“Ho Ho! So, where ya goin’?”

His great white whiskers moved up and down as he spoke, and his ruddy cheeks glowed in the rearview mirror. The bell on the end of his scarlet cap tinkled, and his black leather-gloved hands squeaked as they gripped the steering wheel. It was St. Nick, all right.

“Where you headed, m’ boy?”

“Uhh . . . Newporter Inn. . . . Do you know...”

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“Ho ho! Of course I know where it is.”

And away we went. Me and Santa Claus in a smoking old Plymouth barreling down the Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, California, one crisp December evening back in 1963.

“So if you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “what are you doing on a bus at Christmas time?”

I shyly explained the vagaries of my home life. He reacted kindly, as though there was nothing unusual about it. This put me more at ease, and I noticed for the first time a book resting on his dashboard. “Milton Cross’s Stories of Great Operas.” I happened to know who Milton Cross was because my dad listened to Cross host the Metropolitan Opera broadcast every Saturday during the Met’s season. At such volume that no one in the house could avoid it.

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“Is that a good book?” I said. “I like opera.”

“You do? A lad like you? What’s your favorite?”

I probably said “La Boheme” or “Die Walkure.” They were the only ones I knew by title.

“Really? So you like singing. . . . Say, have you ever heard a Russian Christmas carol?”

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“Uhh . . . No.”

“How would you like to hear one?”

“Sure.”

With that, Santa rolled down the window, tilted his head back, and broke into a rich, opulent bass that filled every square inch of the cab. The words were hearty and full of earthy Russian diphthongs; the robust melody was poignant. As we sailed through the salty ocean air and glistening lights, past gas stations and Christmas tree lots, Santa’s basso profundo and bouncing beard caused heads in passing cars to turn and stare.

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“I sing a little opera with a local company,” he explained after finishing the song. “I’m a bass-baritone. Want to hear another one?”

I was so amazed I could barely speak.

“Sure.”

He sang all the way to the circular driveway of the Newporter Inn, where I finally, guiltily, got the nerve to confess that somebody had forgotten to give me money for cab fare, but that if he’d only trust me for a minute, I’d run inside just as fast as I could and get some money from my mom. Really.

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I saw his eyes smiling in the rearview mirror.

“Don’t you know?” he said. “When Santa drives, nobody pays.”

I sat, not quite understanding.

“On Christmas Eve, there’s only one of us in all the taxis,” he said, turning around, hanging a red-sleeved elbow over the back of the seat, “and if you get the cab with Santa Claus, you ride for free.”

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While I sat there trying to figure out if this was company policy or something ethereal, he held out his hand.

“So Merry Christmas to you!” he said.

“Oh, thanks,” I answered haltingly, shaking the black leather glove. “Thanks. And um . . . Merry Christmas to you.” I stepped out.

And as the cab disappeared into the night, I caught a glimpse of the fluffy white beard moving up and down again, and could hear, through the open window, the strains of another mellifluent Russian Christmas carol. Which must have translated, more or less, to:

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“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”


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