Miracle on Geary Blvd.

December 10th, 2010 by Dave

We interrupt our geekery for a seasonal story. Gather ’round Uncle Dave and I’ll tell you a classic tale of Christmas in the Hollywood tradition, only this one is absolutely true.

So, one of the biggest attractions in San Francisco any time of the year is Union Square, right in the heart of the high-end shopping district of the City. But at Christmastime, the stores all get together to really decorate the Square, and Macy’s brings in Santa Claus. And all through December, Santa holds court in Union Square, listening to all the wishes of children from around San Francisco and beyond. It’s a spectacle and tradition every bit as big and wonderful as any you can find in a major city. And for over 20 years, a man named John Toomey has been Santa Claus for San Francisco. He’s an institution that spans a generation and draws kids and kids at heart from all over.

I happen to know Santa John personally; he’s a fairly regular customer at the cigar store I work at on Fisherman’s Wharf. He’s a good acquaintance of mine and a great friend to my manager, Mike. Santa John looks the part of Santa Claus: broad, stocky, a bit on the short side, and a full grey beard that goes down to his chest. In the off-season, he wears Hawaiian shirts and as he sits outside our store puffing on a cigar; he looks the part of Santa on vacation. Kids stare at him as they walk by and he always smiles and gives them a ‘ho-ho-ho’ to brighten their day. He’s a perfect Santa, always willing to bring cheer to young and old no matter what time of year.

And this year, he was fired. On the first weekend of December.

Macy’s let John go because he made a couple ‘risque’ jokes to a pair of adults that were sitting on his lap, doing the Christmas thing. No kids were near to over hear. When John gets supposedly rational adults on his lap, he has fun with them and gives them a bit more adult material to make them smile. He asked the woman if she’d been a naughty girl, she said no, and John chuckled and said ‘Oh, that’s too bad’. He followed with a joke: ‘Do you know why Santa is so jolly? He knows where all the naughty boys and girls live’.

Jokes that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at most church meetings, much less San Francisco. Jokes he’s been telling for over 20 years as Santa.

The ‘adults’ got offended and complained. And Mr. E. Scrooge that runs HR at Macy’s in San Francisco fired John.

Now, in this day and age of litigation at the drop of a feather and general oversensitivity, do I think John should have been joking like that? Not really. But firing him? A guy that’s been the cornerstone of your Christmas display and celebration for two decades? Even the Grinch would think that’s over the top.

So John was fired on Saturday, the 4th. He’s retired and has his Social Security, but it was going to be a tough squeeze to get by for him. Mike and I were both saddened and shocked by these turn of event. And so was everyone that knew John. And that’s when the Miracle happened.

John’s story was ran in the Chronicle on Monday, the 6th. Included in the article were notes of outrage from both normal people that were looking forward to seeing ‘their’ Santa again this year and several Macy’s employees (all anonymously) saying how unfair the whole thing was and how badly Corporate had handled this.

The next day, Tuesday, John was employed again; but not with Macy’s. Another San Francisco institution, a sports bar called Lefty O’Doul’s, hired John to be Santa for their annual toy drive at the bar that benefits the SF Firefighters’ Toy Program. At twice the rate of pay Macy’s was giving him. He officially starts there this Sunday.

The story continued to grow. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was playing out before our eyes. Wire services and newspapers across the world were carrying the story of the Santa who was fired by Macy’s. I’m sure Macy’s corporate management was wondering just how much worse this story was going to get for them. They soon found out.

Early Thursday morning, John boarded a plane at SFO. He was flown down to Los Angeles, Burbank to be precise. And John got to do his Santa thing on the ‘Tonight Show’ for Thursday’s broadcast. “I can’t tell you what all the boys and girls are getting for Christmas, but it won’t be Macy’s gift cards.” Even I, die-hard Leno hater that I am have to give the Chinned One some respects and props.

Kyle and I went into San Francisco today to go to the party for John that Lefty O’Doul’s was throwing for him. The San Francisco media was there, getting all the sound bites, recording a couple of the kids that were brought in (it’s a sports bar and restaurant, kids are allowed in with parents) to meet Santa and tell him their wish list. And just like that, John was back in his element, being a part of the magic of Christmas after a slight hiccup.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the layout of San Francisco, Geary Bvd. is one of the streets that runs along Union Square. And just 2 block up from Union Square on Geary is Lefty O’Doul’s. So all in all, it really was a remake of ‘Miracle on 34th St.’ played out in our fair City, with Lefty’s pinch hitting for Gimble’s and Macy’s playing…Macy’s.

So, the end of this story is that Santa John now works for better pay for a great charity and had a brush with fame. And Macy’s looks like the biggest Christmas villain ever. Who says Hollywood stories don’t really happen?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And you can see him on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco.

Even if you don’t don’t live in San Francisco, you can help Santa John spread some Christmas cheer. Help out the SF Firefighter’s Toy Drive with a donation. Or spread the cheer by making a donation to a toy drive in your own part of the world.

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