Last Christmas, I was invited by a worthy local charity here on the island in Puget Sound where I live to be an “elf.” That’s right: an “elf.” The idea was to dress up in an elf costume—which mostly meant a silly hat and battery powered blinking Christmas lights around my neck—and then stand outside our local supermarket to encourage people to put donations into a basket.
Elves (is that the plural?) are, you know, little folk. Like leprechauns. Unlike leprechauns, however, elves wear red in addition to just green, are mostly sober, and show up in the dead of winter, not the spring. In the winter, you see, leprechauns hibernate. Being Irish, they’re “sleeping it off.” Elves, on the other hand, come out when the winter weather is at its worst. This is because, unlike leprechauns, elves are hopeless idiots.
But they are big-hearted idiots. They venture out into the cold ringing bells at local shops and markets to raise money for good causes, of which, let’s face it, there are no shortage. They ring bells because, on account of being very short, this is the only way they can get noticed and keep from being trampled by hurrying shoppers with visions of sugarplums (whatever they are) in their heads instead of paying attention to where they’re going.
Their diminutive stature notwithstanding, try as you might you can’t ignore these elves. You can’t for example, shift course and use a different store entrance because they’ve got them all covered. Plus, they’ve got you both coming and going and, while elves are idiots, they have good memories (this is in part due to the fact that they are not the aforesaid drunken leprechauns). They’ll remember that you said you’d contribute on your way out. They’ll remember your coat, your hair, your silly reindeer-printed holiday socks.
Now, becoming an elf does not take a lot of brains (see “idiot” above). All you have to do, when asked, is say yes. If you have a soft heart and even softer brain, “yes” comes easily. Thus it was that I became an elf. I would say “unwittingly,” but that would assume I had wits in the first place.
I confess I have some disadvantages as an elf. I am six feet five inches tall and do not fit the usual elfish image. A kid came up to me and actually said, “You’re not an elf; you’re too big.” It was everything I could do to keep from giving him a swift kick. But that would be un-elflike.
But you see, the worthy charity that pressed this role upon me made a major strategic error. That is because I am, by birth and upbringing, a wise-guy former New Yorker which, if you think about it, is not your most ideal set of credentials for garnering good will. On the other hand, as a former New Yorker, the task of shaking people down for money comes naturally.
To me, being appointed an elf was like a license for extortion. It was also like being given a stage for stand-up comedy. And there isn’t a New Yorker on earth who doesn’t think he’s a comic. “Funny Wise Guy” comes in the water in New York, with the fluoride. It’s like a birthright.
So, really, the task is simple: you gotta get shoppers’ attention. You gotta stop them in their tracks. You gotta shake them down. You gotta give them no choice but to contribute to the cause…because who knows what dreadful punishment a New York elf might have up his sleeve if you don’t ante up.
But I was subtle. I started out with my most gentle approach: I’d say, rather loudly and with just the tiniest sense of menace, “Don’t even think about walking in that door without making a donation. You got kids maybe? You still like them? You think Santa isn’t watching you at this very moment?” This technique is remarkably effective, if somewhat less than elf-like.
But then there are the hard cases, and you just gotta make their perilous situation very clear to them: “You think you’re gettin’ in here without a donation?! Wise up, pal! Don’t make me bring in Big Guido with his baseball bat to persuade you, okay? You like those knees of yours? How much? How much are they worth to you? You wanna limp for the rest of your sorry, penny pinching, uncharitable, uncaring life? Yo, Guido!”
I found this technique to be very effective, if only because shoppers know the next step with an elf from New York is a mugging, which is so unseemly at Christmas. The elf, who, after all, is doing “good works,” has the upper hand. You, on the other hand, do not…unless you donate. Get the picture? It’s that simple…
Meanwhile let me tell you: it ain’t easy standing out in the cold, ringing annoying bells, eyes watering from the wind, wishing you had a flask of bourbon, and harassing for a worthy cause. Thankfully, there are good non-New Yorkers on this island who can be generous with their contributions when appropriately threatened…bless their hearts.
Truth be told, I raised a ton of money during my gig as an elf. More than anyone else. It is also true that I wasn’t invited back this year. Maybe they don’t need the money. Who knows? All I know is that Big Guido is unemployed and unhappy. This is not good. Not good at all.