There had been some discussion about the earring. And, quite frankly, it hurt Bill Watkins' feelings. Santa's too.
"Does this offend you?" this big white-haired, bearded man standing in front of the carousel asks me. We'd just met. He looks me straight in the eye.
So I'm thinking, "Maybe the sweater." It's, uh, a little busy. Still . . . it works. Great with the red baseball cap. Kind of camp. I like it.
I take a minute.
"What, that ?" I say, eyeing the diamond stud in Bill's left earlobe. Already, I feel like I know this guy. He's kind of twinkly, with a little gut, these wild eyebrows. You can tell he's a soft touch, especially with kids. He is 71 years old.
"Absolutely not," I say. "Why?"
Well. What happened was this official type person who had appeared to be very nice, who happens to have a wonderful sister, had just mentioned that perhaps Bill would have to remove his earring, one of several he has worn since 1965.
She would check on that, she said. Because, you know, it might not look too good. Santa with an earring? Think of the kids. No, wait. Think of their moms and dads .
"I'd hate to have to quit," Bill tells me, looking down, appearing very sad. He is a man of principles. He shakes his head a bit.
This will not do. Santa Claus, let alone the official Santa Claus of South Coast Plaza, the one who appears at the tree-lighting ceremony to mark the opening of the Christmas shopping season, must not be sad. And Bill Watkins is not a sad kind of guy in any case.
He loves playing Santa, because that is who he is .
People come up to him all the time, taking all kinds of liberties, being very familiar, as if they went way back, which, of course, they do.
Santa Claus belongs to us all.
Which is why I am trying to be understanding when perfect strangers come up to Bill and me at South Coast Plaza and butt right in.
"Hey, you should be Santa!" says one guy, on in years, with slicked-backed gray hair. "It pays well and you get all those kids on your lap!"
Bill explains that he is Santa. The guy is rather awed. A skinny guy's Santa envy, I would guess. "Wow!" he says.
Women walk by and stare, smile and wave. Two waitresses come over, gushing and sort of out of breath.
"We were upstairs and I said, 'Tina, who does that man look like?!!' " says one. "Santa! We had to come on down and say hi."
Bill, meantime, seems to be snapping out of his earring funk. That's what happens when he gets around his people, which is anybody who is young at heart, like Bill. Already, he's had quite a life.
He went to University High School in West Los Angeles but quit in the 12th grade "like a fool." He joined FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, then went on to drive a truck for Standard Oil, then he became a radiator man and joined the union. He belonged to a biker club, The Dirt Diggers, and, oh, all right, he ended up in jail a few times for being drunk. (He gave up drinking, and smokes, almost 20 years ago, he says.)
Bill even started his own pool company in Garden Grove, but that went belly-up in 1959. So he started all over from scratch, cutting hair. After years of clipping and styling dos--"I was an artist"--he started a business selling and repairing beauty salon equipment. It was called Gleama's Originals, Gleama being Bill's wife of 42 years.
(The couple have three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Their dog, a little white fluffy thing, is Spike.)
Bill's been retired and living in the foothills of the Ozarks in Arkansas for almost two years, except when he was back visiting his family in Garden Grove last year, when he stopped by a beauty salon here to fix some equipment.
"So this guy saw me walking into the shop, with my tools, and he comes running in and says, 'Where is that guy who looks like Santa?' And they said, 'Oh, you mean Wild Bill? He's in the back.' "
Which brings us to now, sort of. The guy owned a Santa placement service and asked Bill whether he'd ever thought of wearing the ol' red suit. Bill said no. "I just never thought I'd like it," he says.
(Bill's brother, however, had played Santa for 15 years. He has an earring, too.)
But then, what the heck, once Bill got back to the Ozarks, he thought maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to imitate the great St. Nick. He had his wife whip him up a furry red suit. He came back around this time last year and bingo! South Coast Plaza hired him part-time.
"They needed somebody right away," Bill says. "This was right after Thanksgiving, and one Santa they already had, well, he got a little loaded. He couldn't make it. So anyway, I come in."
And, needless to say, he took to the job right away.
(Bill says maybe I shouldn't play up this earring thing, especially since he hasn't heard back one way or another. He doesn't want to make South Coast Plaza mad. And he says he is much too conservative to wear the dangling kind! He loves his job.)
Fact is, Bill sort of feels as if he's been called. What I'm saying here is that this bejeweled Santa just seems to fit. (The earring was not an issue last year. Kids mentioned it as being cool.)
"The little kids were so great," Bill says. "They'd see me with that suit, and they just loved me. . . . My daughter-in-law works at a Garden Grove school and she asked me if I'd come in and see the kids.
e "So I was going room to room, and this one little Mexican girl, I was walking down the hall, and she sees me and she just ruuuns and jumps into my arms! She just loved me. I can't explain it; I'm just an ignorant old guy from the Arkansas hills."
Except tears are pooling in Bill's eyes right about now. His message is getting through.
"Are you going to talk to the other Santas, too?" Bill asks me.
I tell him that I am not. Everybody knows that there is only one Santa Claus.
Yo, Bill! Don't ever change, babe. You're what the spirit of Christmas is all about, earring and all.