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The Strangest Holiday Party I Ever Attended, Part I: Background

When I was in my 20s I worked as the assistant editor for a gambling magazine, let’s call it Gambling News. How I got the job is a whole ’nother story, but let’s just say that I am (or was, to be more accurate, since I am now a marketing hack) a very good editor, I needed a job, and they had an opening.

It was not a natural fit. First of all, I don’t gamble—to me it’s just a stupid waste of hard-earned cash that I could use for all sorts of more pleasant things, including, but not limited to, such basics as rent and food. In spite of the fact that the only form of gambling that interests me even vaguely is horse racing (and when I go to the races I don’t really enjoy them since I worry endlessly that the horses will fall and get hurt), I spent the next two-and-a-half years editing articles on blackjack, baccarat, poker, pai-gow, craps, gin rummy, race handicapping, and even the odd piece of fiction.

The other thing about GN was that it had the strangest assortment of people working there, both in the office and as my columnists. It was downright Runyanesque. The editor-in-chief, who was part owner of the magazine and my direct boss, had been a manager of borscht-belt talent for most of his career—his most famous client was Shecky Green. Marty was a serious shyster from the old school—everything was “Spec-TAC-ular!” and “GREAT!” pronounced with tremendous gusto in a heavy Joisey accent. Yes, he had plaid sport jackets. Yes, he wore them. He also chain smoked a pipe which meant that going into his office was like stepping into a haze-filled cave where even the walls reeked.

Marty had never edited anything in his life, although he had written scores of press releases, all peppered liberally with “Spec-TAC-ular!” and “GREAT” (adjectives that also figured prominently in his editorials, by the way). But he was a nice man who basically turned over all editorial duties to me, which was fine, since he was out of the office more than in, and at least under those arrangements I could get my magazine out on time.

But even meeting Marty couldn’t prepare me for my columnists.

My second day on the job, a tall, thin, rather intense man popped into my office. He had a Fu Manchu moustache and long stringy hair, but was shiny bald on top. “Hi!” he chirped as he offered me his hand, “I’m Mike Clark, the Mad Genius. But everyone just calls me ‘Mad’.” I chuckled. He didn’t. He was serious. “Umm,” said I, “How about I just call you Mr. Clark for now, and Mike after I’ve known you for a while?”

What I didn’t know at the time, but quickly learned, was that all these guys—professional gamblers who wrote for me—had nicknames and they wore them like badges of honor. And yes, they expected to be called by those names. In addition to the Mad Genius, who wrote a poker column, there was the Wizard of Odds (and he was, in fact, really odd, although that wasn’t the intent of the name), another poker columnist; Snow White (also known as “Big Dolly”), who wrote on gin rummy and was, for all intents and purposes, functionally illiterate; the Polish Maverick, a casino owner, and the Ayatollah Portola, who wrote on horses (and who had also been a scriptwriter for Wolfman Jack, at one point). And then there was my very favorite columnist, whose nickname I actually used (because it was a shortened version of his real name), Link.

Link, or B.D. Linklater, was a really interesting and great guy, clever and wickedly funny—he had worked for years in major ad agencies. And you’ll recognize at least one of his projects: He did the music and lyrics for the “Rice Krispies” jingle (you know, “snap, crackle, pop—Rice Krispies!). He was somewhere in his early 70s when I met him, small-boned, and went everywhere with an oxygen tank because a lifetime of smoking had resulted in the emphysema that would eventually kill him. He wrote on craps, and had an ongoing quarrel with the Lotto columnist, a woman based in White Plains, New York (who preferred to be called “The Source”), because in spite of the fact that she was always writing about certain numbers liking to “hit” with other numbers, there is really no way to handicap random acts, and the other more mathematically inclined columnists used to take it personally.

The full-time staff at GN was pretty much an equal mix of the normal and the really, really strange. For example, our receptionist was a very nice Filipina named Bertha (pronounced “Bert”) whose accent was so thick that, I swear, no one could ever decipher what she said when she answered the phone: “Allo—Gangling Noov, mayaepyu?”

There was Charles, our warehouse manager, who looked a little bit like Clevon Little, but with a small, neatly trimmed afro. He was a tennis player and part-time pro, so his hair had a little dent in it just above his ears from wearing an elastic sweatband every day. He also lived in GN’s book warehouse—he didn’t at first, but when his girlfriend kicked him out he lived in his car for a couple of weeks, and just gradually migrated into the storage loft. It all worked out okay because he would use the hot plate and fridge in the corner of the warehouse that served as our “lunch room,” and then in the morning, get up early and go play a few sets and shower at the tennis club.

Also in the warehouse were Esther and her Two Mothers, who were recent immigrants from Armenia. It was really Esther, her aunt and her mother, and they did the sorting and packing for our book and magazine mailings. Only Esther spoke any English at all—and halting English at that–and the two older ladies spoke none at all, and were very shy. We knew one of them was her mother, but since we were never sure which, and since they both looked alike and sounded alike, it was just easier to refer to them as Esther and her Two Mothers.

Lynnette was a beautiful, professional-looking black woman in her late 30s who was the secretary to our publisher. She always dressed to the nines and was very friendly—but everything terrified her, and when she was terrified, she screamed. Not a little “eep” sort of scream that you might make if you were startled, but a full-on, Texas Chainsaw Massacre scream that would continue until someone managed to calm her down. This fear thing was a bit problematic, given our physical work environment.
The offices and warehouse were located in what was formerly a huge old film locker in the Television City complex on Cole in Hollywood. The complex was built in the early 1920s, and consisted of a hulking high-ceilinged storage vault surrounded by offices, all out of poured concrete, so it was nice and cool in the summer, but meat-locker cold in the winter. It had a quite fabulous tower elevator, the old style kind, with doors that looked like quilted aluminum, but with an annoying tendency to get stuck between floors.

Mostly, when that happened, you would just pound on the doors until someone heard you. They would then get a crowbar and open the outer doors, and if you were close enough to the next floor you could just step up or down a foot or two and get out. Sometimes, though, you had to be helped out of the top of the elevator by your co-workers, an event that was frequent enough that a step stool was kept in the elevator for just such emergencies. Needless to say, the elevator terrified Lynnette. There were also rats, beetles, cockroaches and crickets—and one particular cricket that we named “Kong, the Cricket King,” because he was almost the size of a mouse. Terrified, terrified, terrified. At least three times a week Lynnette would be screaming like a banshee—something that used to aggravate our publisher, Al, to no end.

Ah, Al. What to say about him. I guess Al was a smart man, although I cannot say directly. He certainly thought he was smart. He had made a fortune counting cards at blackjack, back in the days before the casinos got to be experts at spotting it, and he wrote a book about it that still sells, even today. My only impression of him was as a fat, rude, mean asshole who spoke in guttural monosyllables, with possibly the worst toupee I’ve ever seen in my life. Really. It was the oddest color—sort of a yellowish mousy brown, which didn’t match his hair at all—and was so old that if you got close you could see the weave underneath the hairs, which, let me tell you, is guaranteed to ruin your lunch. Why a guy with the money he supposedly had couldn’t afford a better rug, I’m sure I don’t know.

He was another “operator,” always trying to “take” somebody. He was notoriously cheap with his employees, and probably with his wife, so imagine how surprised I was to hear that every year, Al’s wife, at Al’s behest, would organize a Holiday Party for the staff and columnists at GN. When I mentioned this to one of the more normal employees, a guy named Mike who was the special projects manager, he just laughed. “You wait,” he said and laughed.

‘Why, are they bad or something?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” he said, and laughed again. “You’ll see.”

 

The Strangest Holiday Party I Ever Attended—Part II: The Festivities Begin

The GN Holiday party was held on the Thursday before Christmas. “What an odd day for a Christmas party,” I thought to myself upon hearing it, but the logic was explained to me by one of the company’s old timers: Thursday was our usual payday, and by scheduling the party on payday, Al could hand out our checks (which for this festive occasion had been folded and put into Christmas cards by Mrs. Al) during the party, thus freeing himself from the pressure of having to give any sort of gift or token bonus in honor of the season.

So, at 2 p.m. on the appointed day, we all piled into the elevator (or climbed the fire escape stairs outside the building, as one’s preference dictated) to the “executive suites” in the tower for the celebration.

Al’s office, which took up the entirety of the tower floor, was truly enormous, in that old movie mogul kind of way, and thus an excellent place to hold a party for 50. Of course, in keeping with the rest of the décor at GN, the office was, shall we say, notable for its, umm, simplicity.

The space was divided into three: The reception area, where Lynnette sat; a waiting room, which was known around the company as “The Holding Tank”; and Al’s office. While the rest of the offices were completely devoid of any sort of decoration—never mind holiday-specific decoration–Lynnette, who was one of those truly friendly and cheery people, had done her best to turn her little corner of the office into something pleasant. She might just as well have been Sisyphus.

At some point in the distant past the tower walls had been white—or, at least I think that to be the case. But after 70 years of hard use and chain-smoking executives, there was a permanent tobacco-colored glaze that ran in a band around the walls, starting at desk height and feathering out at about the 10-foot mark. The crapet (not a typo) was the perfect complement to the walls—a covering of an indeterminate sort of brown color that stretched from wall-to-wall, so trodden-upon and stained that it almost seemed organic to the room. (As an interesting aside, I once got a glimpse of the floor under the crapet, where a corner had pulled up, and it was a lovely black-and-white tile with a similar Art Deco motif to the elevator doors as a border. I understand that the tiling made the offices too cold to work in, but it was still a shame to keep it covered by such a horrible topper—and one that was probably a health hazard, too.)

Anyway, Lynnette had hung a wreath on her desk and taped some Christmas cards to the walls, which actually looked more depressing than festive; but no matter. She had also brought her little tape recorder and was playing some rather nice Christmas tunes that I recognized as Der Bingle and the King. She greeted us all in her typically upbeat manner, and directed us straight to the Holding Tank for the first segment of the afternoon, the “gift grab.”

The notion of a “gift grab,” especially one staging in the Holding Tank, was something that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around. The Holding Tank was a room about 15 feet square. In one corner there was a blackjack table that had seen better days, surrounded by stools in like condition. There was also a 10-foot-long table of the kind most often seen in school auditoriums. Against the wall was a crummy old couch—blue, of vaguely contemporary design. I knew that couch well, since that was where I sat at the opposite end from Al, once a month, in order to receive his pronouncements and edicts on the current issue of the magazine. The couch had a musty sort of “close” smell to it that to this day I can conjure up with unsettling ease.

When we were all gathered in the Tank, Al emerged from his office, which was connected by a set of double doors. In his hands he held the top of a stationery box, which rattled as he walked. He stopped in the middle of the room, looked at us all, grunted some manner of greeting, and then did something so horrible I thought I would be scarred for life: He smiled. It was weird, waxen and unnatural—clearly he was out of practice. It gave me the creeps.

But I had more to think about than grimacing Al. We were now getting to the “gift” portion of the party. And, true to GN form, the road to riches (such as they were) was paved in “Spankies.”

Before I go further I must explain the “Spanky.” Back in the early days of Gambling News, Al and the magazine had sponsored a series of blackjack tournaments at one of the smaller casinos in Downtown Las Vegas (not to be confused with the Strip). And in order to “brand” the tournament as a GN event, he had arranged to provide custom-produced table paraphernalia (card decks and chips) to the casino. The card decks featured the GN logo above the casino’s logo, on a background that was (I think) supposed to be a blackjack table. But it was the chips that really made a memorable impression—and not in what I might call a positive way.

The chips, you see, featured Al’s disembodied head floating in the middle of each one, with the denomination printed around the outside border. This resulted in a strange and somewhat sinister little piece of ephemera. First off, Al’s head, bad rug and all, came to a small point at the top. He also wore very thick, very large glasses, had meaty lips and was quite jowly. To top it all off, whoever had done the artwork had cut the photo out around his chin, which meant that he had no neck at all to speak of. Alarming, really.

Needless to say that in spite of the original intent that tournament participants would take these chips home as souvenirs, there were literally thousands of leftover chips stored in boxes in the warehouse—handfuls of which were commandeered by various employees for use in leveling tables and desks and wedging doors shut, and also proved useful when glued onto one of the elevator door to replace the “up” and “down” buttons when the original covers fell off.

The most important use of these chips, though, was by the group of about 10 guys that would gather together three or four times a week to play poker in the Holding Tank during the lunch hour, and where the chips became popularly known as “Spankies,” because someone thought that the photo of Al looked a bit like a scary alternate-universe Spanky McFarland, of “Our Gang” fame. If Al had known of our name for this currency, he would have fired every single one of us, but it didn’t matter. The Spanky was the official coin of the realm.

Back to the party: Al rattled the stationery box in his hands, which held, of course, a selection of Spankies, and directed us all to take $100 worth. After we had our chips in our hands, he explained that we would be playing poker to see who would be receiving the “gifts” that he had prepared for us, and which Mrs. Al, who had been waiting in his office, then carried forth and placed on the table for all to see.

The items that Al had envisioned his staff engaged in gladiatorial gambling combat over included two copies of his blackjack book (thousands of which we had stored in the warehouse) tied with a bow; a year’s subscription for one of us (or a loved one!) to Pokey (officially titled Poker Pro News, a weekly newspaper published by us and on which we all worked), a full set of Spankies for the home gambler, a week’s use of Al’s designated parking space in the attached lot (dates of which to be determined by Al, and most likely coinciding with the week after Christmas, which he took off), and a box of Famous Amos Cookies.

I knew at once that the Famous Amos Cookies would be hotly contested, and was inwardly glad that I am such a dismal card player that I didn’t stand a chance of making it past the elimination round, and could thus avoid “winning” any of the other gifts. The parking place might have been a pretty good second place prize, if it wasn’t for the fact that all of the other companies that shared our parking lot were closed the week after Christmas, thus assuring ample parking in spaces that were even better than Al’s.

In the end, it was our Publisher, Randy, who won the grab. I was sure that he would go for the Famous Amos Cookies, but he went for one of the blackjack books; and in a strange and uncharacteristically brown-nosing move, asked Al to autograph it for him. My friend Mike and I exchanged disgusted glances, but Bryon, a tall, slim elegant black guy who was one of our sales force, whooped in glee. Bryon, who had played a year or two of college basketball before he blew out a knee, had come in second place and figured he was out of the running for the cookies, but Santa smiled, and the jackpot was his. I don’t remember who got the other things—it wasn’t like I was paying much attention, because at the close of the “gift grab”, the doors to Al’s office were thrown open by Mrs. Al in a somewhat dramatic gesture, given the surroundings, and we were all beckoned inside for, and I quote, “feasting and holiday frolic.”

Oh my.

 

The Strangest Holiday Party I Ever Attended—Part III: Therein Lies a Tail

I like to think that, over the years, I have learned to accept most situations with aplomb, or if not aplomb, certainly with a level of sangfroid. I was not prepared, however, for the strange episodes that occurred in the name of Christmas, or at the very least, the Holiday Season, waiting on the other side of that doorway.

First, allow me to describe the physical space. As I said, this office was movie-mogul large, more like a Great Room than even an executive office. I can only wonder at what the space was used for in the distant past: A starlet rodeo ring? Practice polo field? Perhaps a putting green. No matter. That it was large enough to comfortably hold 50 people is what matters in this case.

Also that its usual décor consisted of a Very Large executive-style desk, of indeterminate age and wood. Mahogany, maybe, or a lesser wood, but a piece of furniture now held together entirely by grime and Sticky Stuff of some origin that I chose not to dwell upon whenever I had occasion to enter Al’s office, which, fortunately, wasn’t very often. The desk sat just in front of the wall opposite the door– a very long walk from the entryway. Around the office the distance between the door and the desk was known as Death Row, because the only reason you would ever be walking it was if you were to be called on the crapet for something. Al’s office was used solely for intimidation; normal business encounters were held in the Holding Tank.

Today, however, the vast empty space had been commandeered for the actual party itself; and so into the void was added another one of those 10-foot auditorium tables, covered in festive holiday paper tablecloths, and positioned in a seemingly random way upon the floor. There was also a Christmas Tree, of sorts: the fake ficus that normally sat to the west of Al’s desk had been moved toward the table, and decorated with a very large silver garland, a Santa Hat, and a number of white envelopes pierced by ornament hooks and attached to the branches of the ficus.

The Santa Hat boasted a particularly clever rigging, given that a fake ficus, unlike the normal fir-sort-of-variety Christmas tree, doesn’t come to a point at the top, which would make for a natural Santa Hat rack. In this case, the Santa Hat had been hung *from the ceiling* by a long piece of curly ribbon, tied onto the light fixture that always seemed to me more appropriate to an interrogation cell than an Art Deco movie mogul suite. I didn’t even want to wonder about who had been assigned that little bit of decorating — the ceilings in the suite, like the ceilings in the rest of the building, were probably a good 15 feet high. Whoever had hung the hat had had to climb the huge and rickety wooden ladder, affectionately known as the Stairway to Hell (with apologies to the Moody Blues; also, are you getting the idea we named everything?) kept on hand to change light bulbs when they burned out. Everyone was afraid of that ladder, given that it was probably as old as the building, and would give you splinters just looking at it. When someone had to change light bulbs in the warehouse, they would just maneuver a pallet of books onto the forklift, then run the lift up to full height and call Bryon or one of the other tall guys to stand on the shrink-wrapped books and change the bulbs. But since you couldn’t get the forklift into the offices, the Stairway to Hell was the only other option. Thus the seemingly random positioning of the table and tree became clear—they had been placed thusly to maximize of location of the room’s appointments in the service of festivity.

Once again, Lynnette had made an effort to decorate for the season — I’m pretty darned sure that the little paper tablecloths with snowmen and airborne Santa Sleighs were her touch; likewise the coordinating paper plates and napkins. She really was such a lovely hostess; while Al hovered near his desk, Lynnette set about welcoming us all into the office from the Holding Tank, wishing us a Merry Christmas and inviting us to partake of the “buffet.”

The buffet was, by GN standards anyway, sumptuous indeed. But as someone experiencing her first GN Christmas, it struck me as oddly misguided and not a little forlorn: A deli platter (heavy on the vegetables), some pinwheel sandwiches with some sort of pinkish filling, a pizza from Pizza Hut (I know this because the pizza was served in the box), several cans of Pringles, a bag of Doritos and a pull-top can of bean dip, a bag of pretzels, a half-gallon plastic jug of yellow liquid purporting to be lemonade, a bullet of coke, and one of 7-up–and two kegs of Bud.

Any guess where most party guests chose to begin their festivities, particularly the columnists and my regular poker-playing colleagues?

I do not drink beer, and G*d knows that if I did I certainly wouldn’t drink Bud, so I meandered first to the buffet table, such as it was, and opted to open one of the cans of Pringles, given that its vacu-fresh seal pretty much guaranteed that mine were the first, and no doubt the cleanest hands, upon them.

Esther and her Two Mothers had quickly prepared their plates, taken some of the yellow drink and retreated to one of the far corners, into which had been placed a handful of folding chairs. My direct boss, Marty, was talking with Al, or rather, talking at Al, given the fact that Marty’s partial deafness and natural exuberance tended to encourage him to shout any conversation he might have at you from two feet away. The Mad Genius, the Wizard and Big Dolly, cups of Bud in hand, were in boisterous conversation with Randy, our publisher, and my friend Mike, who were both serious gambling enthusiasts, and always looking for inside tips on Texas Hold ‘em, the (at that time) most popular form of Poker being played at the Las Vegas tables.

A separate knot of my so-called “editorial stable” had formed around yet another of those arbitrary and close-smelling couches that populated the upstairs offices, centered on the always acerbic and entertaining figure of Link, who had commandeered a corner of the couch for his tiny wizened frame and his oxygen cart. He was drinking heartily from a plastic cup filled with beer, tormenting someone with his scathing commentary and laughing up a storm. I was always grateful that Link liked me—he even entertained thoughts of fixing me up with his son—because those whom Link held in contempt were subject to his wrath. Years of marketing for Fortune 500 companies had honed that wit of his into a formidable weapon. He could dance circles around you like Mohammad Ali, landing jab after jab before you even made it out of the corner. But to those he liked, he was the most generous and kind person in the world.

Link hated Al, by the way.

With my little plate of Pringles I joined Link and company, who, a mere 15 minutes or so into the actual party had managed to go through several cups of beer. “You shouldn’t be drinking that,” I said in my sternest, most motherly voice. “I know!” he chirped merrily as he raised his plastic cup in a little salute.

This wild bunch was laughing with such gusto and holiday cheer that, at first, not one of them noticed Mrs. Al in front of the Christmas ficus trying to get everyone’s attention. She was clearing her throat and bugging her eyes, without any noticeable reaction from the assembled staff, so she turned her buggy-eyed stare in a meaningful way toward Al.

Lynnette, noticing the SOS signal to Our Boss, scurried to the various groups making “shushing” sounds and pointing toward Mrs. Al. When she wandered into our little party crew Charles’s response was to say, “I’ll ‘shush’ if you come over and drop a little ‘shush’ right here, baby,” pointing to his comically pursed up pucker. The couch crowd laughed, Lynnette looked annoyed and said: “Charles, how rude.” Well, this struck them all as hilarious, so they roared with laughter again.

“Sweet J*sus, Lynnette!” Charles said. “Don’t be so mean! It’s Christmas! You sound like one of those Church Ladies.” More raucous laughter from the couch crowd. Even I laughed at that one.

Suddenly there was a loud “CRACK,” and the room was instantly silent. Al had slammed the copy of his blackjack book that he always kept on the corner of the desk smack onto the desktop.

“Shut up. Mrs. Al wants to say something,” he mumbled. Or at least I think that’s what I heard, because moments later Mrs. Al was standing in front of the buffet table, with a tight grin, practically quivering with anticipation. She was small and kind of round, with a (gorgeous, actually) head of curly brown hair lightly streaked with gray. She had the same sort of mean cast around her eyes that Al did, which probably explained how they got together. That they had three children was a source of constant wonder—and horror—for us all. First, it indicated that at some terrible point in time, there had been sex, which was too shudder-making a topic for any of us to dwell upon for long; but it also meant that there were More Like Them at Home.

Mrs. Al had one of those annoying baby voices, breathy and high and, if truth be told, a little nasally, that always sound petulant, even if petulance has nothing to do with it. In this case, though, I think that petulance figured prominently in her voice timbre; I think the rest of the staff thought so, too, based on the cool, questioning looks they turned upon her. Even Lynnette looked confused. I took this to mean that Mrs. Al was veering off the pre-discussed plan for the afternoon’s celebration, and Lynnette wasn’t sure where the whole thing was going.

“Welcome, everyone, to the Gambling News Christmas party. Al and I are so delighted that you were able to join us,” she said. (Delighted, indeed. There would have been mass firings if we had missed this event.)

“This year, Al and I decided to do something special, beyond all of this.” She gestured toward the buffet, and then shared a conspiratorial glance with Al. He made that horrible grimace that passed for his smile again. I have to admit that scared me a little.

“Since the highlight of any Christmas party is the gifts [what I was sure were our regular paychecks enclosed in the many white envelopes hanging on the Christmas ficus], this year, Al and I arranged for Santa Claus to deliver the presents himself!”

Shocked silence.

I quickly scanned the room looking to see which unfortunate employee was missing, and could have been presumed to have been drafted for the role of Santa, but as far as I could see everyone was accounted for.

At just that moment, a pair of white-gloved hands pushed a black boom box through the door that linked to the office to the Holding Tank. A jazzy sort of Mel-Torme-sounding version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” began to play at full volume, as the skinniest, most pathetic Santa I have ever seen in my life walked through the door. The suit, which was standard Santa issue, was positively huge on him, and was cinched so tightly in the middle by a black patent-leather belt that the tunic looked more like a tutu. He wore one of those false beards that attach by ear-pieces like glasses do, and the Santa hat, also too large, sat very low upon his head. “Figures Al ordered the bargain Santa,” Link said dryly.

I turned to look at my friend Mike to make a “what the h*ll is this” face, when the roar of the (almost entirely male) employees caused me to look toward the door again.

Santa had brought a Helper Elf with him. And damned if she wasn’t a serious hottie.

She was young and blonde and pretty and curvy and poured into her strapless elf dress, which, like Santa’s suit, was red and trimmed with white faux fur. On her head she wore a little green Robin-Hood hat trimmed with a white pompom and a candy cane. The costume whore in me couldn’t help but notice how damned cute that whole outfit was.

So not the point, though.

She carried a little basket filled with candy canes, and she proceeded to make her way around the room, saying “Merry Christmas” in a kittenish treble voice, and handing everyone a piece of candy. Al and Mrs. Al beamed (or you know, whatever passed for a beam), while Lynnette’s face had taken on a disapproving look. My friend Mike and our publisher Randy smiled broadly.

The wild bunch howled like Gibbons, tossing wolf whistles her way when she made it to their corner of the room. “Elfie honey,” said Big Dolly, “come sit on my lap and let me tell you what I want for Christmas.” Several of the others were busy patting their laps and urging her to sit down and join them. Following general party entertainment protocol, though, she decided to offer her extra attention to the poor, sick, old man, and sat down on the couch next to Link.

Big mistake.

A roar of approval went up from the wild bunch. She blushed a little, and if truth be told, looked a tad uncomfortable as Link took her hand is his and gently patted it. “Guess how old I am,” he leered. Lynnette, who was watching all of this from across the room, looked even more annoyed.

“Let the nice elf go and hand out the rest of her candy,” I said, as I stood in front of Link and extricated Elfie from the couch. “You all are pathetic,” I said as I watched Elfie, freed from her captivity, walk toward the boom box. “Well since you won’t let me have any fun, you have to sit next me,” grinned Link, as he patted the space recently occupied by Elfie. “Not in your life,” I said. “Everyone thinks you’re on death’s door but I know you’re a big fat drama queen–you haven’t even gotten to Death’s home town.” “Busted,” laughed Link, and we turned our heads to watch Elfie who had now arrived in front of the boom box. She bent down (again, eliciting shouts of approval), ejected the tape from the player, turned it over, and pushed the play button. She then assumed a “showgirl” sort of pose, with arms in the air and her legs arranged to their best advantage.

The unmistakable strains of “The Stripper” began to fill the office as wild applause broke out from the direction of the couch. “Yeah, baby!” someone hollered. For a second, it seemed that nothing was going to happen, and then suddenly, a most astonishing thing occurred.

Santa jumped to the center of the room, pulled off his patent leather belt and started swinging it around his head before letting it fly into the corner.

Sweet mother of J*sus and all that’s holy, it was a Santa stripper.

I fully expected the couch to erupt in howls of protest, but the wild bunch, like everyone else in the room, was too stunned to do anything other than stare, open mouthed, at the spectacle unfolding before us. Santa, still in full ear-hook beard and Santa hat, had torn open his Santa coat with a mighty “rrrriiiippppp” (thanks to the miracle of Velcro) to reveal a very thin and very white chest. He teased us all a bit by opening and closing the coat, then turned his back to us, pulled off the coat and swung it, like the belt, around his head before letting it fly. He then turned to face us, in all his white-chested glory.

“Ugh” was the groan that went up from the crowd, punctuated by screams of “no, no, no!” and “dear G*d, the humanity,” and followed by a chant of “Elf-ie, Elf-ie!” that died on the air as Santa paused for a second, then started to untie the string that held up his pants.

By this point Bryon had covered his face with his arms, and was shouting “Not the pants! Not the pants!” For a second, Santa seemed to hear these pleas because he looked straight over at us all on the couch. Did I detect a gleam of defiance in Santa’s eyes? He fiddled with the tie for one torturous second longer, but instead of pulling the string, he thrust his free hand deep into his trousers and fished around for just a second.

And as G*d is my witness, I swear to you that he pulled out a Brontosaurus. A green, plastic “Lost World” toy Brontosaurus.

The intake of breath from the assembled guests was so sudden and so universal, that I thought the walls would collapse in the vacuum, and for one split second all time stood still.

Now, when faced with that kind of horror you can do one of two things: pass out, or laugh your fool head off. Poor Lynnette did look about ready to swoon; Charles, too, come to think of it. I admit I had to pound my chest a couple of times to restart my heart, which had stopped dead of the shock, but at that point, the level of absurdity had reached such Ionesco-like proportions that the only thing left to do was collapse into a laughing fit (the magnitude of which I had never experienced before, or since).

Santa, finally unencumbered by his Brontosaurus, deftly pulled the tie on his pants, which caused the huge things to drop like a stone around his ankles, revealing thin, white (but still rather well-shaped, if truth be told) legs, a pair of bright red briefs and those fakey-Santa boot-tops that you fit over your regular shoes.

The ear-hook beard remained undisturbed.

Santa had now hit his stride. As “The Stripper” continued to blare, Santa did some hip gyrations and arm movements. I considered myself fortunate to be sitting where I was, since Santa, guessing correctly that a couch full of (mostly) half-drunken men would be less appreciative of his special abilities than others he might approach, danced away toward the other corner.

I was practically doubled over with laughter and completely unable to breathe, so the how and why of what happened next I don’t know. But in almost perfect timing to the drum solo in the music, a blood-curdling scream tore through the room, stopping me mid-laugh. I looked instinctively toward Lynnette, who looked furious, but who remained completely, and uncharacteristically, silent.

The someone screamed again and all heads snapped round to behold what was certainly one of the most amazing events ever to occur (and this in an afternoon of amazing events): Santa, with brontosaurus in hand, was straddling the screaming figure of one of Esther’s Two Mothers as she sat on a folding chair while Esther, tugging his arm trying to pull him from Her Mother’s lap, shouted at him in what I can only presume was Armenian.

Upon seeing this, Charles, who had always been protective of Esther and Her Two Mothers, leapt to his feet. I thought he was going to rush over and deck Santa as he sat in the lap of Esther’s Screaming Mother, but he was laughing so hard his feet were rooted to the spot. The most he could manage was to yell: “Hey, man, back off! She don’t speak no English!” and then fall back onto the couch, gasping and laughing.

This was the straw that had been threatening to break Lynnette’s poise all afternoon. Her face like thunder, she marched past us huffing “I will NOT put up with any more of this,” out into the Holding Tank. I heard a desk drawer slam, which told me she was really not having any more of this, since she was probably grabbing her purse.

Mike and Randy had now recovered themselves enough to have reached Santa and pulled him off of Esther’s Mother. Randy was kneeling down, along with Esther, trying to calm her down, as Santa continued his dance around the room. Before he could reverse course and decide that I might be a viable candidate for a Santa lap dance, I turned to Link, who was really having a hard time breathing, between his whoops of laughter and his oxygen feed, and said: “I’m going to go have a smoke [I still smoked back then]; I’ll be back, ummm, never.” “Have one for me!” Link said, and waved me on.

Taking advantage of the pandemonium to make a clean getaway, I slipped into the Holding Tank and through the door toward the elevator, where I found Lynnette, fuming. She was so angry that she, who normally avoided the elevator at all costs and treated it with a caution that bordered on phobia, was punching the Spankified call button, and muttering “come on, come on.” I didn’t say anything to her, but just slipped in behind as the doors opened and she marched in.

She was still muttering to herself when she pushed the button for the ground floor, and was fumbling through her purse for something that I presumed to be her car keys. She was practically vibrating she was so worked up, and I remember wondering if she would be okay to drive. She had a really cute old, two-seater Mercedes convertible, and while I had never seen her drive recklessly, I had never seen her drive following a strip performance by Santa, either.

I didn’t have much time to ponder that because right then the elevator shuddered, clanked and came to a dead standstill. Exhibiting a presence of mind that I do not always possess, I turned automatically toward Lynnette and blurted, “Lynnette, Lynnette, it’s okay, please don’t…..”

And Lynnette began to scream. A high-pitched, incoherent I’ve-reached-the-end-of-my-rope kind of scream.

Now, I had heard, although I had never had it verified, that Lynnette had a spectacular voice and was, in fact, a paid church soloist at Church on Sundays. I no longer wondered at this, since her screams demonstrated a mastery of pitch and breath control that was quite stunning. As I repeatedly punched the elevator emergency button she screamed in chromatic scales, in staccato bursts and in graceful long phrases, which began high and descended through the clouds to end in a recitative of “We’re going to die! We’re going to DIE!”

“Please Lynnette, please stop; we’re fine; we’re not going to die!” I pleaded with her, trying to sound soothing and rational, even though her screaming was beginning to fray my nerves. Although we could not have been there for more than a couple of minutes, I was insanely grateful when I heard the unmistakable sound of the designated crowbar being applied to the elevator’s outer doors, and to see Mike and Charles as they pulled them apart. “Everybody okay?” Mike asked, as Lynnette screamed in reply.

True to form, the elevator has stopped about two feet below the second floor—an easy distance, as these stopped elevator distances went—to climb out of. I pulled the little stool out of the corner, and told Lynnette, who had finally stopped screaming and was instead panting from vocal exhaustion, “Lynnette, here, you go first. Take your shoes off and climb up on the stool, and Mark and Charles will help you out at the top.”

“I can’t,” she said.
“Oh, sure you can,” I said.
“I just want to go home,” she whimpered.
“No sh*t,” I thought.

Somehow I managed to convince her to take her high-heeled shoes off and stand on the stool while I steadied it for her. “Come on, honey,” said Charles in a soothing voice, “Raise your arms and we’ll get you right out.”

“I can’t,” she said, and I believed her; she looked like a limp rag.

“Okay,” said Charles. “I’ll come down and boost you up from below and Mike can help you out at the top.”

“No!” she said in a quick sharp voice. And then added, to my utter astonishment: “You’ll look up my dress.”

Charles laughed. “Come on; no, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will!”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes you will. You’ll look up my dress.”

Charles, who had jumped down into the elevator with us, was starting to get mad.

“Come on, Lynnette,” I pleaded. “Just let Charles help you.”
“No.” Her voice was sharp. “He’ll look up my dress.”

“G*d damn it, you stupid woman,” he shouted at her. “What kind of man you think I am that I have to look up some woman’s dress for…”

Lynnette, miraculously recovered from her lethargy of mere moments before, whirled toward him and began shouting something about “I’ll tell you what kind of man…”

Clearly this wasn’t about the elevator.

“Shut the f*ck up!” came a bellow from above, right as the argument was beginning to crescendo. It was Mike. “Can we just get out of here and then you two can fight all you want in the hallway.”

“Fine,” snapped Lynnette. “Fine.” She put her shoes in her purse and her purse on her shoulder, climbed up on the stool as I steadied it, and raised her arms toward Mike. Charles, who was mumbling to himself, came over and wrapped his arms around her thighs.
“On the count of three,” said Mark.

“One, two…”

“Don’t you dare look up my dress,” Lynnette hissed under her breath; Charles muttered something in reply.

“Thrr…”
“What did you just say?” Lynnette snapped, cutting Mark off in mid-three in a voice as cold and sharp as a Ginsu knife. “What did you just say to me?”

Charles didn’t reply.

“Are you saying, you sorry-ass excuse for a man, that you would look up the dress of that cheap bitch stripper upstairs and that MY DRESS ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU? IS THAT WHAT YOU”RE SAYING!”

She fixed him with a terrible stare.

“That’s it,” she snapped. “Get me out of here.” And with that Charles hefted and Mike pulled and Lynnette climbed out the top of the elevator, and marched, shoeless, along the second floor corridor to fire stairs, slamming the door as she went out.

Charles was livid. He looked at me and barked, “Well”? I clamored on top of the stool, where he wrapped his arms around my wool-trousered thighs, still muttering about “G*d-damned stupid women that….” I raised my arms, and Mike took hold of my wrists, and up I went, onto the second floor.

Charles climbed up on the stool, grabbed the cross beam at the top of the elevator car and hoisted himself up high enough for Mark to finish helping him into the corridor, where he paused, muttered something in the direction of the fire escape, and turned back toward the direction of the party.

Mike and I exchanged glances, as we pushed the elevator call buttons repeatedly until the doors closed. “Sh*t,” he said. “What was THAT about.”

“I have no idea, and I don’t want one,” I replied.

We could hear the slightly muted sound of Christmas carols leaking out into the corridor.

“I think that means it’s safe to go back into the party,” said Mike. “Remember, we’ve still got to pick up our Christmas presents—I mean paychecks.”

“After all of that, I think I earned a bonus.”

“I agree,” said Mike. “What do you say to a couple of Spankies?”