Category: Bridges

What the F*** should we do with Santa?

Three years ago, a week or so before Christmas, I walked out the door to my apartment and down to the sidewalk, nearly tripping over a twenty-year old kid dressed in a Santa suit who was vigorously vomiting on the stair.  “Aw Christ…” I thought. “..mark of the season..” I was a feeling a bit under the weather with a head cold, and not as aware or awake as I usually am when walking down a city street. I turned the corner onto the main drag and almost bumped into a clot of twenty-something Santa’s yelling and gesticulating at a bunch of other Santa’s who I could see through the festive holiday scene painted on the window of my favorite neighborhood café. It appeared they were being tossed out of the café and were not leaving quietly. I cringed…..

Of course. I should have known, but I wasn’t paying attention. It was the day of SantaCon (Santarchy, Santa Rampage, The Crimson Tide, Klot O’ Kringles among other monikers) in San Francisco.

These Santa’s were by now, I realized, a tiny portion of what had to be well over one thousand Kooky Kringles milling about the big park a stone’s throw from my crib. They were annoying everyone in sight and they  seemed in danger of drowning in their own drunken wake. As I continued to walk down the main commercial street of the crowded inner City neighborhood that I call home, I simply could not avoid them. Young. Drunk. Loud. Inescapable. I muttered under my breath “Payback. That’s what it is. Payback. But what did I do to deserve this, really? It was Santa Chad’s fault. It was his idea. Many years before, 1994 to be exact, Chad, acting perhaps on a dim memory and assisted by M2 and yrs truly, originated the 1st Cacophony  SantaCon.

The “dim memory” would have been of an article in the December issue of Mother Jones magazine that was copied and distributed in the Suicide Club Nooseletter in late 1977 by Gary Warne.  The article told the story of proto-Santa prank group Solvognen. Gary was inspire by this ballsy Danish political cabal despite their politics being a bit to the left of his. He had hoped to do a Santa event, but, along with many great ideas, that one was lost in the tidal wave of singular Suicide Club events that did happen in the early days of this early urban pranks and exploration group. The only thing that made it out was a Suicide note from the despondent Claus.

Navigating my way down the street through clots of Kringles I slipped on yet another pile of Santa bile. I texted Chad. He lived right around the corner from me, about two blocks away. He was usually up and about by this time and I assumed he had been by the park since it was on his daily route; I figured he had seen the Crimson tide washing up soggy and unclean on the beaches of his much loved neighborhood. “Hey Chad, I hate yer guts!” He texted back almost immediately, not referencing the unholy tide by name: “..yeah, I know, I know…. I’m sorry!”

A very bad Santa pays the price for cavorting in an "un-Christmas like" manner. 2nd SantaCon, San Francisco, CA. December 1995

A very bad Santa pays the price for cavorting in an “un-Christmas like” manner. 2nd SantaCon, San Francisco, CA. December 1995

It was December 1994 and 33 Santa’s showed up at Justin Herman Plaza; we got on an old school bus driven by Cacophonist Alex and proceed to hit all the seasonally festive locations downtown. After an entirely unfair snowball fight with a bunch of 10 year old kids, using “snow” scraped from atop the ice skating rink at the Plaza, the Santa’s crammed into the bus and headed up Nob Hill where we crashed debutante parties, swiped booze of the tables of well-heeled holiday revelers at the big 4 hotels and generally asserted ourselves as the implacable new face of an old and to me, offensive holiday.

Santa Chad Mulligan hung amidst his fellows anonymously as the more pushy and loud Santas took the lead. The 30 knuckleheads dressed in very cheap Santa suits  (purchased mail order from The Oriental Trading Company) made the outing into a holiday event I could really enjoy. On the balance it was a good-natured romp. It was also surreal due in great part to the reactions of people along the way. They were simply gagga. People stood bewildered in small groups or individually and just stared as we washed past them. MOST interactions were quite friendly.”Hohoho…. Merry Christmas. C’mon and have a swig from Santas’s pine sol bottle full of no-name-brand whisky. Hohoho!!” The one I’ll never forget is when a grungy fifteen year old punk rock kid who was skulking about the cable-car turn-a-round, scowled at Santa Varla Satana (Vanessa Kuemmerle: a very petite and cute Santa) and violently flipped her off shouting: “Fuck you, Santa!!” Without missing a beat, Santa Varla double flipped the kid off shouting back: “FUCK YOU, KID!!!” The punks grim face melted as he burst our laughing and fell off the street post he was leaning against. Santa made his week.

Most really shocking Santasms, such as hanging Santa by the neck from a street lamp, took place long after any tiny tots were tucked away in their warm beds. Even so, in a world where they see 10,000 murders a year on TV & video maybe watching a Santa lynching was not so bad. Perhaps a little mocking of a bullshit holiday which was demonstrably based on an unholy alliance of religious hypocrisy and mercantile lust would encourage a little family discussion time.  Maybe the kid traumatized by a hanging Santa wouldn’t be as deeply marked by the overall hypocrisy of the season if his parents were outed as the, perhaps unwitting, yet undeniably complicit proponents of what is ever so clearly a colossal lie. When the Danish political hippies Solvognon raided department stores in Copenhagen, they refused to stop handing merchandise off the shelves to kids ( child, Santa and the store WANT you to have this rocking horse.) I guarantee that the image of police attacking Santa and tearing presents out of their hands is an image these now middle aged folks have never forgotten. I dare say, these former children have probably viewed the State and it’s minions with skepticism ever since. Is this a bad thing? I guess it depends on where your politics lie.

San Francisco 1994: We sang modified X-mas carols and marched through Macy’s Department Store chanting “Charge it! Charge it!” Some Santa’s got fairly schwacked, but most were sober as a judge. Of course the sober ones ended up carrying the inebriates… Stuart Mangrum summed up the whole ridiculous effort in his great zine Twisted Times.

Santa NYC 98 Leila Godowski

Santas at UN, 1998 – photo by Leila Godowski

Stupidly, we decided to do it again the next year. Not a brilliant idea, just like everyone else redoing it year after year after year isn’t so swift…….. OK, OK, I did it for five years til I’d had enough. Portland in 1996 was, for me the watershed, and perhaps the one time the event was truly subversive on a grand scale. Portland Police were tipped off we were coming and met us at the airport with a swat team and officers from the Portland Police Intelligence Bureau. Then Christmas came to LA in 97 and NYC in 98, where among other activities, we protested at the UN.

Santa NYC 98 Leila Godowski 1 copy 2

Chanting “No more Reindeer Games” the contentious Santa’s though it wise to leave and headed for Carnegie Deli after the UN scrambled their security for this unscheduled protest. – photo by Leila Godowsky

– that trip was remarkable for the genuine rapport and good natured communication the Santas had with almost everyone along the route: maybe not so “subversive” by then.

When I learned Santa was a croc of bullshit at the tender age of 9, I was devastated. It really hurt. Over the years I put the pieces of the puzzle together. I learned the real history, or held enough of the threads to weave a protective shield for my budding (and I now realize crucial) youthful cynicism. I learned a bit about ancient pagan tales conjoined with the political scheming and fabricated religious yarns that proved useful to the Holy Roman Empire. And there was more. Constantine re-imagining of the absurd Jesus stories from the proto-Christian Israelites setting the stage for Julius I ganging Jesus together with Santa on the same date; Santa was later filtered through the intentional myth making of poet Clement Moore and cartoonist Thomas Nast, and further refined by Macy’s and Gimbel’s Department stores as a means to boost tired, dead of winter sales. The whole bag of baloney was finally polished to a hi-commercial-sheen by Coca-Cola Corporation. I grew to hate the holiday and all it represented: the grotesque story of the crucifixtion conjoined with the improbable woodland tales of pagans, later usurpation by the Christians and finally, the cruel and greedy mercantile impulse that reared it’s ugly head in the 19th Century which held the whole tawdry mess together.  My family did their best despite crippling hurdles and a rigid rural set of child rearing precepts. Even so, the whole Christmas thing never seemed to me to really help us to be a better family. It was a sad time where all the shortcomings and failures of the extended family unit were held out in bold relief for minute inspection. As a child I began to realized how patently false the whole thing was. I came to believe we should make up our own holidays and not depend on the lying myths of the past to brighten our lives with the dull illumination of hypocrisy.

With the SantaCon thing, it seemed to me that we had done just that. We took back the holiday from Macy’s from Julius, from Jesus, from Coca-Cola.

Stuart Mangrum saw it as a one off event however, and was vocal in his derision of the all too human predilection for whipping an idea well beyond the initial novelty and wonder generated. And, I must admit, after the fifth year of doing it, I was done for good. So was Scott Beale who had created the Santarchy website which to this day serves as a clearing house for any of the legion of Santa events that take place the world over. Stuart who had written so humorously about the first two Santa Rampages, packed it in too. We were done with the whole mess.

Santa's Loid Void & Melmoth (Stuart Mangrum & John Law

Santa’s Loid Void & Melmoth (Stuart Mangrum & John Law)

I’m not sure if M2 dons the crusty crimson anymore, but I do know that the guy with the original idea, Santa “Chad” goes out anonymously (isn’t that the point of hundred’s of Santa’s in one Santaclysm?) on some years in various cities.

With the Santa thing, none of the guilty parties responsible for starting the whole mess, stuck with it as a business or even a cult. The idea was discounted for any number of altruistic or possibly merely slothful reasons.  Eventually a clever marketer from somewhere else with an internet background figured it out and cornered the Santa market with a financially successful mercantile facsimile of the original one-trick-pony idea.

There it is, the concept: countless faceless Santa’s moving through meatspace with relative impunity while commandeering an archaic and false holiday as their own, to rage and burn brightly.

So, what’s not to like? Well this phenomenon that now-a-days involves literally hundred’s of thousands of crimson clad boors world-wide, started with 33 weirdoes that were part of a group of social misfits and outcasts that had been using the primitive tools of “brick and mortar” social media of the last millennium, namely matte knife cut handbills and printing at Kinkos Copy shops in the dead of night (or as in the early days  of Cacophony’s predecessor, The Suicide Club, a dangerously ink spewing Gestetner printer that had started it’s life in some successful business before being handed down to a struggling non-profit and finally ending up with us printing up the Clubs monthly “nooseletters”.) These tracts were then mailed out or, in some cases distributed to café’s, libraries, the occasional tavern or college bulletin board (a cork board attached to a wall in a prominent location that paper notices were stapled to, NOT an early internet communication platform) and other stone age media delivery systems.

I have repeatedly asked  myself the same question for years now. What’s not to like? It was a big street party that (sorta) made fun of commercialism and debunked annoying and damaging myths. Here I was, in the heart of San Francisco walking for over a mile through the heart of the shopping district and downtown and never once was I out of sight of at least fifty Santas. You would think that such a vision was the height of Surealism. Tzara, Dali and Breton would certainly have at the least been amused by such a scene and the coded attack on anything bourgeouise that it clearly symbolized.  Had they stumbled upon it in Monte Marte, Brunnenstrasse or in Barcelona they would doubtlessly embrace the chaos, at least the first time. So why was everyone so annoyed by the whole thing now-a-days? Why was Scott Beale clearly pained when recounting the excoriating accounts and terrible tales of the Crimson Tide that was washing over the hipster bars of the Lower East Side and Williamsburgh? Why do the baristas and bartenders in North Beach and The Mission loathe the event now when, not that long ago they welcomed it and the anarchic mirth (not to mention alcohol sales) it promised?

There are obvious reasons for this turn-about:

1) The people who do it now are very young (the truth is that the first waves in the 90’s were also pretty young on the balance.)

2) Santas are a “meme” now days. The image of army’s of real time Santas is an idea that is in everyone’s head whether they have actually seen a SantaCon on the street in their hometown or not. From Timbuktu to Tipperrary people know the image – they’ve seen it on TV and or their computer. It is no longer shocking in the least.

3) There are simply so many Santas that they overwhelm whatever environment they pass through.

4) The Santas now seem to have no direction. It means nothing.

BB, NYC 98 copy 3

Santas Dennis Borawski from Detroit Cacophony & Melmoth from SF heading up the Brooklyn Bridge cables. There were a hundred or so Crimson Crusaders on the promenade offering cover should the authorities start a Santa hunt for the climbing criminal Kringles. Santa Melmoth had very recently gotten his first cell phone ever & just as he was stepping off the cables onto the top of the Bridge it rang. “Hey there, it’s Santa Ducky.. I can’t find you Santas. Where are you right now?” -photo by D.S. Black

I’ve pondered these questions (for about a minute) each year now for the 15 years since I last donned a Santa suit and ran up the cables to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge with Santa Dennis from Detroit Cacophony.

Stuart declared it pointless to continue such an event, whipping a dead dog so to speak, since the first 33 Santa attack in 1994. Even so, he was compelled to whip it once more, mostly out of morbid curiosity, when he returned to chronicle the second year, the year where we learned how many Santa’s you needed to convene to create a mindless mob (100).

OK, so back to the four points I would hash over each year when, inevitably, I would stumble upon a cascade of Kringles. Three of the points are common to each year, right back to the first run in ’94.

The people who do it (and did it) are young. There are a lot of them, and even when we numbered in the tens, we had a tendency to overwhelm whatever space we were in. And…. it still means nothing.

Oh, sure we couched the whole thing in some anti-consumerist rubric and made fun of the temples of capitalism, but really, there was little or no DEEP thought involved. It was just a funny idea that was NOVEL. The radical aspect, if any, was the simple fact that so many adults were playing in public – still not that common back in the days before Improv Everywhere.  So – it was in point of fact, a funny idea. And now-a-days any “funny idea” immediately becomes a “meme.” And that’s the one point out of the four that truly applies only to the event now, in these wired times. When we first donned the red and frog marched through The Fairmont, The St. Francis, Macy’s and Planet Hollywood, NO ONE had the IDEA in their head. Don’t believe me? Watch Chuck Cirinos’ short film of the second SF SantaCon or Scott Beale’s “You’d Better Watch Out” from Portland 96. People on the route, shoppers, businessmen, cops, pizza chefs, pretty much anyone we ran into was surprised if not shocked by our Kringle crusade. Some folks found it whimsical, some offensive, most found it just bizarre, vaguely entertaining or maybe just vaguely threatening or annoying. Even so, almost no one at that time had the image in their head before. Today however, the idea of seeing five thousand Santas is nothing new to the typical TV watching citizen and/or internet user (in other words: everyone) whether they’d ever seen such a thing in the flesh or not. To me, this is what changed. The sense of wonder at seeing something inexplicable. Something you couldn’t conceive of. Something truly strange. I’m not the first to declare the complete victory of Dada and Surealism over world Culture. I’m sure the French have been going on about it for decades now…..even so, it was a mere seventeen years ago that seeing a mass of people all wearing Santa suits was an event that did not already live in most peoples heads. It was an idea that could truly bust a few caps in their brains. Now-a-days? Not so much.

The ex and I see eye to eye on most things regarding child rearing and that is a blessing. One thing I got the stink eye for however, was Kris Kringle: “You better not tell him Santa is not real!” That was the directive.  Well, I was able to side step the question for several years. My seven year old son finally cornered me one day last Christmas. I’ll never lie to him – that’s what everyone else will do; if a boy needs one thing from his father more than anything it is the truth. So…I carefully explained the pagan/Papal/European woodland/Macy’s/Gimbles/Thomas Nast/Coca~Cola history. He didn’t say much, but he certainly did not appear to be traumatized. The moment passed & we went on to other things. A few days later, and not knowing my involvement in the whole thing “Santarchy” thing, he excitedly mentioned seeing “a whole bunch of Santas” a while back. He started laughing at the thought: “Papa, I feel so sorry for you not liking Christmas. It’s FUN!”

Paraplegic New Yorker cartoonist Callahan was clearly not amused by the Santa antics on the 1996 Portland SantaCon

Paraplegic New Yorker cartoonist Callahan was clearly not amused by the Santa antics on the 1996 Portland SantaCon

Sunday May 24th, 1987 – Marin Tower Golden Gate Bridge

30-18x12x300ppi-Final-2-copyrightjohnlaw            These photos were taken from the second horizontal cross member above the roadway on the Marin (North) Tower of the GGB facing South toward  San Francisco. There were no other photos taken from this vantage during the fire-fall. The San Francisco Chronicle reputedly paid 40K for photo rights (exclusive) to this Tower. Chron shooters were atop the Tower about 140 feet above me and got swell photos. They did not get any, however with the vertical cables so displayed with fireworks bursts beyond the stringers. I clamped my Pentax SLR to a catwalk railing and opened the shutter, holding my hat over the lens, darkening the exposure until a particularly good burst when I would remove the hat for an instant getting another layer to the picture. Time lapse photos taken this way during regular traffic times never came out good because of the constant and heavy vibration of the tower from passing trucks and cars. During the fire-fall, there was virtually no movement: nearly all traffic stopped! In the photo above, you can see the one or two vehicles moving during my various exposures.

35-18x12x300ppi-Final-2-johnlawcopyright           I shot seven photos, all of which miraculously came out. Here are three of the series: the best pictures of my brief, unschooled photo career.