This past Saturday, I played Santa through Bed Stuy’s streets.
Let me explain.
Bed Stuy Restoration Corp held our annual Robert F. Kennedy event this past Saturday. The RFK event is a longstanding tradition for the organization, a chance to celebrate the community’s children through performance, gift-giving, and partnerships with other community organizations. It’s a pretty big production, the focal point being the performance inside the Billie Holiday Theater. Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Asase Yaa, and the Restoration Youth Arts Academy all offered amazing performances over two shows. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ performance of Ocho Kandelikas was by far my favorite.
Anyway, the performance in the theater required a Santa Claus and a Mrs. Claus to be the culmination, an assured send-off for the children to signify that Christmas is soon to come. Our esteemed Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman had already confirmed that she would be Mrs. Claus, which meant that we only needed a Santa to complete the programming. I volunteered to play the role. I’ve never been Santa before, but I figured I’d seen the character enough throughout my childhood and adult life to be able to do him justice.
And so, there I was on Saturday dressed like Father Christmas, giving my best full-bellied ho ho ho’s on stage with the Assemblymember at the end of each of the two shows. Almost immediately, I found myself entranced by the spirit of Christmas! Children run up to you with smiles and hugs when you’re in a Santa suit. Parents want to capture the moment with pictures. Then the children want you to know what it is they want for Christmas and that they have not been naughty, not one bit. In that Santa suit, you are a symbol of love and giving.
I had so much fun playing Santa at Restoration that I joined Mrs. Claus on her stops throughout the community when the event was over. We stopped at the VIDA office for their Toy Giveaway event. We stopped at Moon Glow for their marketplace event. At every stop, I entered in full character, my voice bellowing ho ho ho’s and a Merry Christmas! Santa Claus had arrived in Bedford-Stuyvesant!
Our last stop was at a Block Association Christmas Party. The organizers are friends and community stakeholders. The event was beautiful and a welcoming respite for old Saint Nick. By now, the day was waning, and so was my energy and hearty spirit. The Santa suit is heavy, and I started to long for the days when I could be Marlon, wearing a sweatsuit and sneakers.
As I sat near the front of the event space, through the door came a young lady. She wasn’t wearing any hat or gloves and was carrying an open glass bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water. Immediately, she saw me and asked me the strangest question,
“Are you from our block? What house?”
With a deadpan look, she waited for my answer. I replied, “I don’t live on your block. I’m here to spread Christmas cheer.”
Immediately she volleyed, “Are you from the community? How long have you lived here?”
I realized now that this was an interrogation of sorts, a stance to figure out who the big Black guy in the Santa suit was. I joyfully answered, “I’ve lived here all my life.”
A cunning smile began to etch from her lips. Her eyes centered on mine. She was ready to ask the question that would validate her presence while at the same time lessen mine. It was a simple question indeed. She asked,
“How do you like all of the changes?”
Just like a child who has scribbled with a crayon on your white wall and then stands there smiling, awaiting you to tell them how beautiful their drawing is, this young woman stood there teeming with pride at a creation of which she claims ownership.
I needed a point of reference, a time stamp on her arrival into this village. So then, I had a question for her. “How long have you lived in our community?”
She stuck her chest out, and with pride, she said, “I moved here in 2021.”
So many things ran through my mind as I stood there with Ms. San Pelligrino. I thought about my grandmother, who moved from Harlem to Madison St. and Nostrand Ave. in the 40’s so that she could be closer to her job. She was a cleaning lady for a Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay. I thought about my father, the Mayor of Greene Avenue, who regularly worked with his neighbors to handle whatever criminal activity was happening in this community. I thought about all of our trees – the ancestors that did the work to ensure that Bed Stuy was vibrant and worthy of praise. I thought about Al Vann, Jitu Weusi, Sam Pinn, Shirley Chisholm, Sonny Carson, and every ancestor that traded blood, sweat, and tears to make this community solid.
And then, I looked at her. A child with a crayon that scribbled on our wall and wanted me to exalt how much better the wall was now that it was chaotically scribbled upon. But, instead of cursing her and the horse she rode in on, I answered her question.
“The community hasn’t changed much since you arrived.”
My gift to our new neighbors this holiday season is a simple one. It’s a word of love and notice. This community will flourish and thrive as long as we remember to be good neighbors. So, be a good neighbor.