Every morning you can see him flying over the mean streets of Baltimore on his flame-snorting Suzuki 450: the fat man on his way to work. The heart can be a lonely hunter, maybe more so when it is all dressed up and beating in the breast of a 350-pound Santa Claus.
This is Michael Burgess, who has a Size 52 waist and lives alone in a little row house on Federal Hill, except for a cat named Zingaro and a dog named Gus. In 45 minutes he'll go to work in a huge red suit and a beard made of yak hair. Right now he's sitting on a sturdy table in a makeup room, humming "Beautiful Dreamer" through his teeth and getting ready to go out on the floor. The sound is as sweet as the music in old music boxes.
"My cat's really upset with this job," he says, trying to speak without moving his lips. "I haven't been home very much to keep her company. She figures her bowl is supposed to have food in it at all times. It's the only reason she allows me to stay around. I have this dog, Gus, but he doesn't care if I live or die."
"Hold still, honey!" commands Iris Daley, the makeup lady, patting his cheek. She is applying something called Old Age Stipple to the pouches under the fat man's eyes. The room is redolent of spirit gum. Iris works nimbly with a tweezers and wadded tissues. Santa would make about seven or eight of her, but before her transforming skills he is the soul of obedience.
His legs are dangling, his hands are clasped, the thumbs locked. Think of Baby Huey sitting for a haircut. The great moonish face is taking on the rosy angelic glow of a grandfather from the North Pole.
The inelegant of life often possess curiously elegant gifts: A man with a Size 16 foot, who might easily demolish the noon inventory of a Burger King, can croon "Satin Doll" like some velvet-voiced Vic Damone. Piano bars all over Baltimore are known to break into the tune whenever Michael Burgess' 6-foot-4 shadow swallows the doorjamb. It's his signature song, like somebody out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Sometimes he'll go right into a soft-shoe: Ray Bolger in Humphrey Pennyworth's body, mocking the laws of physics.
Which wigs me over her shoulder,
She digs me,
I'm out cattin',
With my satin doll-lllll
"Big people have to have grace," he says, stifling a shrug. "Otherwise we couldn't walk into supermarkets without creating havoc. I always hold my breath when I walk through china departments."
"I've never met anyone with such sensitive skin," says Iris. "Now be still. The beard irritates him something terribly, you know."
"Yes, I think sometime after Christmas I'm going yak hunting," he says.
A couple weeks ago he came off the floor, "and my face looked like somebody had beaten it with a lead pipe. I broke out all over. At home that night I took Vitamin E and cocoa butter and cortisone creams. There was no way I wasn't going to come in."
"We were in constant touch," says Iris.
This year Santa, who in real life is 35 and works as a Baltimore character actor (but more often as a bonded courier), has been making children happy at a place called the Power Plant, which is a sort of indoor high-tech theme park at the Inner Harbor. Once the fine old brick building powered Baltimore's trolleys; now it's operated by Six Flags and they sell you things there like Belgian waffles. Its biggest attraction, in more than one sense, is Michael Burgess.
This is not your bored, sidewalk, bell-honking, paper-booted Kringle with a sorry wig and a pillow down his pants. To Burgess, playing Santa Claus, something he's been doing for 10 years around Baltimore, is akin to a sacred trust. "Nothing like one bad Santa to hurt all Santas," he says with the sadness of someone who has witnessed man's insensitivity to man.
Have his own children sat on his knee?
"Well, unfortunately, Santa's divorced, and there's been a lot of legal battles, and, well, to make a long story short, it's almost impossible for me to see my son. He's 6. Christopher." It comes out awkwardly; a silence follows.
Frankly, the crowds have been off this season, the Power Plant's first, despite TV spots blaring that this is the real Santa Claus. What's a behemoth Santa for, you wonder, if there aren't enough kids to reach up under his neck every day and yank at his beard? (One yanked at his crotch.)
"Even though I'm this large, I have a pretty good percentage with kids who are afraid of me. And the ones I don't succeed with, well, I really think it's the parents. They don't have the patience. They're not afraid of Santa, so why should their kids be?
"We had one kid in here last week. It was hate. Jewish child. He came back twice. I think he was begging, on some deep level, for me to reach him. His family was Orthodox. I represented everything he couldn't have. He wanted to jerk the beard right off. He wanted to see me cry. It was the end of Hanukah, because, you know, Hanukah came early this year. So I said, 'You lit the sixth candle on your menorah last night, didn't you?' Well, you should have seen his head come around. His parents couldn't get him off my knee. We hugged each other."
He used to be a gourmet cook but gave it up a while ago. He doesn't sleep so well nights.
And yet: "I may have an ego problem, but I would only concede that when I walk out on the floor, I am Santa Claus."
Once they get his rig on, he can't eat again till nightfall. On breaks, in the back room, they have to feed him vegetable soup through a straw. He's lost 26 pounds this Christmas. One day last week he propped his head back and then his elfettes dropped in a couple McNuggets.
Iris has just given him a once-over dusting with talc. The $2,000 velvet suit is on the mighty frame. Boots the size of lifeboats have been zippered up the fantastic calves.
"God, I hope there's some kids out there," he says, moving off with slightly labored breathing. Will he make footprints in the floor?
The first person to sit on his lap is a grown-up child. She is from a group home and is not tiny herself.
"Do you have major medical?" she says, getting up, trying to hide her face in her hands. She lassos his neck like a giddy lover trying to lasso the moon. She wants the teddy that talks.
A little while later comes another adult. This one turns the tables. "What would you like, Santa?"
"Oh, a little peace this year, maybe. Steady employment would be nice. And if we're into fantasyland, Santa does like Mercedes-Benz."
A busload of kids from a local school keeps him busy for 20 minutes or so. In these tiny paws, he's Nutty Putty. Santa's two comely elfettes (they're in skimpy costumes, like dancing girls at a car show) distribute souvenirs. A trio of dwarfs, who have been hired to round out Santaland, play music and try to mingle. One of the dwarfs, done up in mint green, with the bottom of his pants wadded inside his socks, is asked if he feels exploited in any sense.
"Hey, relax, it's not a tough question at all," he says. "Because of our short stature, Christmas is our busiest time of year. Well, I should say the period leading up to March 17 is also busy, because then, you know, we're passed off as leprechauns. We're used to it. It's what you got up top and what you got down here in your heart that counts. Like my father says, some of our best friends are tall."
A little while later, lacking customers, Santa bids the reporter to come up on his knee.
But, wait a minute, why not? Once up, it feels wonderful.
"I'll tell you something," Santa says in a low voice. "I just got a check from these fine people yesterday, and it was a good one, and you know what I did with it? Gave it to the people holding my mortgage, so they wouldn't foreclose. Right in the nick of time."
He says it airily, almost jovially. But is that a dampness behind those Ben Franklin spectacles?
After his regular eight-hour shift, Santa stayed around to work a private party for 2,500 employes of Bay State Title Co. Then he got out of costume, took off all that glue and tape and yak hair, put on his helmet and street clothes and two pairs of socks and roared off into the rock-hard night. He got home before 12, hunkering all the way behind a Plexiglas shield, eyes tearing fiercely in the cold. He set the key in the latch. Zingaro the cat prowled awake. She is a restless and demanding creature but he stroked her and made her quiet. Then he slept the sleep of the innocent, knowing his time was growing short.