December 02, 2007


By Paul McGuire © 2007

Santa nodded off on the subway. He did that often, always after he copped. Friends would often tell him that they saw him passed out on the subway. They’d try to get his attention, but he was in his own world.

Of course, Santa was not his real name. He was born Marvin Carver in a small town in Missouri outside of St. Louis. Everyone he grew up with called him Junior. He was named after his father Marvin, a carpenter from the rough streets of East St. Louis, who migrated to California to build gliders for the Army. After the war, he moved his family to New Mexico, just on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

When Marvin Jr. first moved to New York City in 1949 and began playing the local jazz clubs in Harlem, the musicians called him Santa Fe Marvin, since there was already another Marvin in the same band. Within a year, they just called him Santa.

Santa was a promising up and coming bass player and had the opportunity to sit in with legends such as Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Mingus. But Santa was also a very weak person and fell into the wrong crowd the second he arrived in New York City. He met the wrong woman, a waif-like dancer from Detroit, named Nancy. She was bad news from the beginning. She sweat Santa for months before she finally gave him his first ever blow job. The two moved in together in a boarding house in East Harlem. She drank too much and fooled around with other guys whenever he was out of town doing gigs with the Philly Jones All Star Band. She not only stole most of his money, but she also broke his heart when she ran off with one of his rivals.

Unable to cope with such a devastating loss, Santa turned to heroin. For years he avoided junk and occasionally smoked reefer. He was afraid of needles, especially because a lot of young jazz musicians thought heroin helped them play like Bird or Miles, and that was never the case. Coltrane got hooked, and so did dozens of Santa’s friends. They shot junk into their veins and awaited a miracle. What usually happened was that they got sloppy and addicted and the next thing they knew, music no long mattered as much as the craving to get a fix. Quickly. Before the shakes started, and the queasy stomach took over and the skin began to itch everywhere...

Santa was also hooked instantly as his career slowly deteriorated. He was a functioning addict for all of the 1950s. He maintained a steady income, enough money to keep his habit going, but never got too fucked where it prevented him from showing up to work. His addiction finally spiraled out of control and it got ugly when he agreed to do some gigs in California in 1960. He was hired to play with Ornette Coleman’s band and they had a two week run at a club in Los Feliz. Santa had a tough time finding decent junk in Los Angeles and he got sick. In order to get rid of the shakes, he started drinking and taking downers. He would get severe hangovers and when he tried to drink through; it just made him sicker. Santa got fired in the middle of a gig when he puked onstage during My Funny Valentine.

When Santa returned to New York City, he was in bad shape. He caught pneumonia and nearly died. When he was in the hospital, the doctors told him he was going to die if he kept it up. He vowed never to touch heroin again. Twenty minutes after he got out of the hospital, he was on the street looking for dope. Over the next few weeks, he got deeper and deeper into smack. He got kicked out of his apartment and he eventually hocked his bass for drugs. After a while, he stopped playing altogether.

It usually took Santa most of the day to wrangle up enough cash to buy a couple of caps. His mother told him that God blessed his fingers and that’s why he was an amazing bass player. Santa soon discovered that his amazing fingers also gave him the ability to pick pockets with relative ease. He’d wander around Penn Station in the mornings hoping to lift a wallet or a billfold from a businessman getting off one of the trains. Some days were better than others and when he found a nice score, he’d get as much smack as he could and shoot up for several straight days without once venturing outside.

As soon as he stole or begged or figured out how to get his hands on cash, he headed uptown to shoot up at Slick Fleming’s basement apartment on 122nd Street. He’d stumble back to the subway station, get on the next train headed downtown and within minutes he’d nod off. He’d frequently miss his stop and spend most of his evening high and slumped in the corner of a subway car. He’d eventually wake up, stumble on home, and shoot up the rest of his dope before passing out and waking up the next day to repeat the process.

Within a few years, Santa’s fingers were not so magical anymore. His talent faded at picking pockets. He got sloppy and was not as agile as he used to be. The junk wore down his reflexes. Plus he would walk around totally disheveled. When he first started out, he’d wear a suit and newly shined shoes. No one ever expected he would roll them. Now, he looked like a bum and obviously stuck out. Potential marks could see him approaching from far away. And he could no longer sneak up behind them. His foul stench tipped them off before he could get close.

It had been snowing for a couple of days and Santa had a tough time scoring. Slick Fleming went out of town to visit his family for the Christmas holidays. The other two guys he usually scored from were nowhere to be found. He heard one of them got busted. He tried to hit up some old hotspots, but could not find anyone to sell to him. Riddled with sickness, he bought a fifth of whiskey and drank the entire bottle over an hour. That calmed his spastic shakes down a bit, but he still couldn’t stop the itching and burning sensation underneath his skin. Santa remembered a store down in Chinatown that sold cough medicine with codeine. He threw up a couple of times on the subway but when he arrived in Chinatown, all of the stores were closed for the night. He had lost track of time. It was nearly midnight and he was out of options.
Santa passed out and on a set of stairs in front of a building. When he came to, a figure stood over him and said, "Get the hell outta here!"

He didn't see the policeman take out his night stick and cock his arm back. Santa did not have any time to move before the policeman unleashed a series of vicious blows to his head. Blood gushed down his forehead and some of it clouded his eyes. After the policeman beat him senseless, he left Santa in the cold to die.

The eventual cause of death was frostbite, but when the coroner took one look at the trackmarks in Santa’s arms, he concluded his report that it was an accidental overdose of heroin that killed Santa. A bit of irony perhaps that Marvin "Santa" Carter, Jr. died on Christmas Day in 1963.

Paul McGuire is a writer originally from New York City.

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