Occupy the North Pole:
Stand Athwart the Jolly One Percent!
(Originally appeared on Vanityfair.com, December 19 2011)
I did everything a diminutive mythical creature was supposed to do. I grew up in a suburban forest in a modest but clean two-limb tree. I was raised by my mother, a wood sprite and former model for the original D&D board game, and by my father, a Keebler clock-puncher for more than 30 years (Fudge Shoppe division). My parents wanted a better elf life for me than the one they had. So they scrimped and they saved, eventually sending me to the best post-secondary toy-making school they could.
Still, I had to take out significant student loans to attend Middle-Earth Community College. I majored in the practical field of conjoining blocks, with a minor in jacks. After writing a thesis titled “Leg(g)o My Lego: The Architectonic Ethic in 20th-Century Children’s Recreational Objects,” I graduated summa cum laude, and eagerly entered the workforce—only to find all the toy-making jobs had vanished, thanks to the newly digitized economy.
As the interest on my loans piled up like Lincoln Logs, I hoped to put my skills to use in expressing my impish creativity. I wanted to be the next Fisher, or perhaps Price. Instead, I had to make do with an unpaid internship at Baby Einstein. After months of toiling, one day I heard about an opening at Santa’s Workshop. The listing was for a senior wooden-toy-maker—all in all, my dream job. My wife, Nancy, and I relocated, deciding that since we’d be out there for the long haul, it made sense to buy a brand-new igloo rather than rent. This was 2006. It was the height of the igloo-market bubble.
On my very first day at the gig, management had news for me. I was told the Workshop was restructuring, and that I would no longer be providing design input on the new line of wooden toys. Instead, I’d be an assembly-line toy-maker. I was devastated—but I took it, as Nancy was 24 days’ pregnant, ready to burst at any moment. My “job” was—and is, five years later—inserting a dowel into whatever wooden toy we’re cranking out that week. Let me tell you, it’s real stimulating stuff. We routinely put in 14-hour days, and are permitted only one bed-of-hay break. My hands have crippling arthritis from the nonstop demand, at the age of nine; I hate to think what they’ll be like when I’m in my teens. Attempts to join the Tinkerers’ Union have been met with threats of being “naughty”-listed. To top it off, we’re all forced to wear demeaning green outfits, with ugly red safety goggles, and standard-issue, extremely narrow-toed work booties that painfully pinch our taloned feet. If we complain to management, they simply mince around and mock our high-pitched voices.
Having now been here a while, I can report that the Workshop is not like what you read about in the fables. Had I known this beforehand, I never would have moved out of that quaint, paid-off coniferous shrub in a leafy neighborhood. I feel trapped, destined to stay forever in our McIgloo located on half a million acres of property. I could go on—about how the security on our ice-floe development does nothing concerning the ever-present threat of polar bears, the lack of health insurance in a climate where I get pneumonia constantly, my 401(k) that’s been virtually wiped out by the carelessly overhung stockings market.
But the Scrooge here is the one percent.
While I’m barely able to put gingerbread on the table for my family, my C.E.O. is happily obese from ham and candy canes—some might even say jolly. Each morning, I squeeze into a crowded commuter snowmobile, while my boss, usually blotto from spiked eggnog, swans around in a nine-reindeer sports sled with a booming mega-jingle sound system. I get 18 days off a year, none during the holidays. He works for one night. In 1960, he made about 10 times the salary of the average Workshop elf, and now it’s 475 times the amount—not including milk-and-cookie bonuses related to toys delivered. Or, you know, not delivered. Doesn’t matter anymore. Because of his bookkeeping records, opaque as chimney soot, he’s known around the office as “Secret Santa.”
I’m not asking for much: just an igloo that’s worth more than its weight in shaved ice, and an occupation that takes advantage of my artisanal training—not belittles it. Does a hardworking, two-foot-tall ethereal being dressed from head to toe in Yuletide colors no longer command respect in today’s world? Must a quasi-magical entity of proud Norse heritage take on a mortifying second job dressing up for kids’ parties as Crackle? Or moonlighting at Vegas conventions as “Elvish” Presley? I demand answers.
And so, as I bang on this toy drum day and night, I ask you to think about me every time your child squeals with delight from his brand-new wooden plaything that contains a dowel—bought for $79.95, of which I see but chocolate coins. I am an elf, and I’m just a very small part of the 99 percent. Keep heading north and you’ll find me. I’ll be the one chained in protest to this plastic evergreen, fighting for myself—and for all the other little guys.
–Co-written with Teddy Wayne