“How do you miss a gang of a hundred marauding Santas?” my photographer asks incredulously as we circle Union Square on his motorcycle. We've received an anonymous tip about the second annual Santa Claus rampage — the deranged vision of a fringe-anarchist with links to the Cacophony Society and Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) — but all the traffic has made us late. Although several St. Nick look-alikes carouse the brightly lit skating rink, they seem too normal, not the seedy gents we expect. Suddenly, three men in matching red suits with dirty bundles slung over their shoulders cross the intersection in front of us. That must be them, I think.
As nearly 100 Santas gather in front of Dewey's Bar, the anticipation of orchestrated chaos (not to mention the desecration of hallowed Christmas icons) makes my skin tingle. The Kriss Kringles are pulling bottles of booze wrapped in brown paper sacks out of their suits, cigars burning lazily from between clenched teeth. A spunky dominatrix-Santa in striped tights whips a friend on all fours with a leather belt, while a manic clown-Santa plays a psychotic tune on an accordion. Stepping onto the sidewalk, I am immediately enveloped in a sea of red hats, furry tummies, and smiling vulgarities (“You're a naughty one, aren't you?”), until a leader-Santa with a large orange traffic cone commands our attention.
“To the square!” he orders, shouting through the cone.
The Santas move in a whooping, hollering mass across the middle of the street, spreading good cheer with a “Ho! Ho! Fucking Ho!” A nicely dressed middle-aged woman is accosted as her husband stands by impotently. “Have you been naughty?” asks a lecher-Santa with a bawdy wink. “I think you have,” he laughs, slinging his arm around her waist. “We got a naughty one here!” he teases as his comrades turn and cheer. With a nervous smile the victim delicately extricates herself from the grope. “You don't know what you're missing — nothing like partying with reindeer,” he yells.
Under the twinkling lights of the Union Square Christmas tree, the Santas erupt into a chorus of off-color carols, completely upstaging a more traditional choir of do-gooders. A drunken Santa stumbles and falls to the ground in front of a large group of camera-toters.
“Santa down!” alerts a sunglasses-wearing biker-Santa. Several jolly St. Nicks surround the fallen soldier, kicking him in the stomach and yelling obscenities.
The other Clauses hospitably offer me slugs from their hooch, but they're stingy on information. “We are sworn to secrecy,” one mom-Santa offers. Then I spot a pair of familiar cheeks, and with a quick tug of his beard discover they belong to a longtime friend. “To Macy's!” the leader-Santa commands, and we lose each other in the crush. Later, I find him stealing a stranger's latte.
“This is the Cacophony Society, SRL, the Burning Man, everybody,” he informs me excitedly. “This is the heart of San Francisco's underground art scene. We're all together, and no one will fuck with us tonight!” Meanwhile, the Santas carouse through the first floor of Macy's, chanting, “Charge it!” while startled shoppers clutch their packages to their chests. When security rushes in, it's off to Planet Hollywood.
The Santas bum rush the line, and weave through the tables boogieing to the piped-in movie music while waiters look on in disbelief. But the patrons are tickled by what they think is a special holiday treat from Schwarzenegger and friends, until several gourmet-Santas start sampling their food.
Later, on the Emporium rooftop, the motley crew whirls around on the kiddie rides, feasting on stolen cotton candy and warm malt liquor. “Which one's the real Santa?” asks a mischievous 7-year-old. “I am,” says the most authentic-looking one of the bunch, handing the boy a present. Emporium security is unmoved by such warm fuzzies, though, and the Santas beat a hasty retreat.
The darkest moment occurs near the cable car turnaround, when a rebel-Santa is strung up by his neck from a traffic light. “He tried to go union,” sneers a capitalist-Santa as the seemingly dead figure twitches in the breeze. A spokesman-Santa calms the startled crowd: “There's nothing to see here folks. Keep walking. Keep shopping. C'mon, you're not really trying.” Someone breaks the tension with a distorted rendition of “Deck the Halls” on a “borrowed” sax.
Levity comes to an end when Emporium security with headsets and walkie-talkies storm the scene with two policemen in tow. “To the bus stop!” urges the leader-Santa. At the Powell and Geary stop for the 38 line, the Santas compose themselves like respectable citizens as a growing number of cops line up across the street. “Everybody just stay cool,” someone whispers. “Just stick together. They can't arrest Santa.”
Oh yeah? The officers hold one Santa for assaulting a security guard with a Christmas wreath and cite a female exhibitionist-Santa for indecent exposure. When the bus finally arrives, the rest of us are escorted on board free of charge by the SFPD. Of course, little do they know that the 38 is the planned transport to the Legion of Honor, where the Santas crash the Chronicle Christmas party and drink and eat for a good 15 minutes before being booted out.
“We had a lot of fun,” comments a member of the Cacophony Society. “If you like, we'll send you some material on our next event.” I'll have to get back to you on that one.
By Silke Tudor