Sunday, December 25, 2005

Santa Comes Through Rain, Snow, Transit Strike
New York central post office volunteers go out of their way to answer letters to Mr. Claus and make some Christmas wishes come true.
By Maggie Farley
Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Santa may have a sleigh and eight flying reindeer, but in New York, his helpers came by foot, bike and ferry this week to answer letters diverted from the North Pole to the central post office in Midtown Manhattan.

New York's three-day transit strike last week meant Michele Ammon, an actress in her 30s, spent two hours walking to the post office from her West Village apartment and back. She made the trek again the next day because of missives like this: "Dear Santa, My mom doesn't have any money to buy me a present. Please, Santa, whatever you want to give is fine." And on the back of the envelope, a green-crayon post script read: "Santa, I want you to have a present too!"

That letter is one of hundreds of thousands that find their way to Manhattan's General Post Office across from Penn Station each year during Operation Santa Claus, a U.S. Postal Service program that has been in effect for about 80 years. Some letters are perky wish lists, dropped in a mail box without a stamp, addressed only: "To Santa Claus."

The most-requested items were Xbox 360s, iPods and Easy Bake Ovens. But many letters are from children — or parents — who face a bleak Christmas and need to believe in the magic of Santa.

"Some of the letters are very basic," said Ammon, who is giving her family members the letters she answered instead of gifts. The letter-writers "ask for so little, and often, they don't even ask for themselves."

Post office employees such as Richie Aron divide the letters by languages — a growing number are in Spanish — then put them in bins separated by neighborhood. Some would-be Santas select a family near them and deliver the presents themselves.

Aron said that most years the floor is covered with people sitting and going through piles of letters. Last year, about 150,000 letters were answered. But because the city's transit union shut down the trains and buses for three days last week, fewer people have come through.

The post office is considering extending the program by another week so that more kids have a chance to receive presents, even after the holidays. "We were struck like everybody else," Aron said.

Rob Kelly, 34, an elementary school teacher, said he took a non-union train from Long Island to look at the letters written in Spanish, because they have a smaller chance of being answered. "The ones that ask for iPods go in the reject pile."

But he held up a letter written in large letters in careful script. "This one says that her husband has been deported, she is two months behind on the rent, and her kids need shoes. I could send shoes, but I was thinking of just stopping by and slipping an envelope under the door."

Other volunteers sift through the bins and look for letters that strike a personal chord.

"It's this little window into people's lives," said Barbara Thayer, 36, a writer who has answered Santa letters for several years and decided to respond to more this year because of the lower turnout.

One letter she chose was from a single mother with three children who is just scraping by. Another was from a 7-year-old girl who, obsessed with John Lennon, asked for CDs.

"I always write them back as Santa Claus, not as me," Thayer said. "The anonymous thing about it is really nice."

But sometimes you touch a life, the proxy Santas find, and it touches you back.

Aron, 50, has been working in Operation Santa Claus for 17 years of his 20-year career at the post office. "They call me the Jewish elf," he joked.

As many letters as he's seen, he isn't immune. He laughs about one letter this year addressed to Mrs. Claus, because the writer was disappointed by Santa's no-show last year, and thought his wife would do better.

But one letter stays with him, he said. " 'Dear Santa, My mother has cancer. Please help her.' How do you help a child like that?" he said, shaking his head.

But someone did, taking up a collection that paid for a course of chemotherapy. The treatments did not save her life. But Aron said the woman who organized the collection ended up adopting the boy.

"One day, the boy came in and said, 'Are you Richie? Thank you for finding me a new home.' All I could say was, 'Excuse me everybody.' And I just lost it," Aron said. "And you know the best part? The new family picks up Santa letters every year."

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