Steven Malikowski, 5 December 2023
One of my favourite stores in Missoula is Rockin Rudys. It’s an old-school store for college students with incense in the air, groovy posters, old LPs, and a few bits for smoking something other than tobacco. Occasionally, that smell is in the air as well.
Something else I like about Missoula is that it has the main campus for the University of Montana, what I refer to as the other U of M. That makes Missoula a college town and easily the most progressive town in Montana, but after living here for almost two years, I’ve realized the cowboy culture still shows up, sometimes in the most surprising ways.
After walking toward Rockin Rudys, I turned a corner and suddenly saw Santa. He tipped his red cowboy hat and said, “Howdy Pardner.”
Of course, I was surprised at the red cowboy hat and almost as surprised at the fluffy white band above the brim. His face was wrinkled and rough, as if he spent a lot of time in the sun, wind, and cold. His voice was as rough yet warm. “Care to share some holiday cheer?” He glanced down.
I did the same, saw red cowboy boots, and some bills inside a bucket, which looked strangely similar to a spittoon. Santa spoke again. “It all goes to help homeless folks.”
I dropped in a few bucks. Santa tipped his red cowboy hat again and said, “Much obliged.”
While I put away my wallet, he asked, “And how’s your Christmas season?”
I paused, since my answer was different than most. “It’s a quiet one this year.”
His wrinkled face showed some concern, as if he’d heard that answer before. “I do hope it’s not too quiet.”
“No, it’s not too quiet. I’ve just been really busy with work.”
He nodded. “That happens sometimes.” He pulled down the brim of his red cowboy hat and looked directly at me. His voice sounded rough again. “I hope it’s worth it.”
I looked away and nodded. “I think it is.”
My little comment, or maybe the way I said it, made him pause. He spoke with a softer sound. “Mind if I ask what you do?”
My gaze wandered back to him. “I have two jobs, actually. The one that matters most is a book I’ve been working on, for five years. It’s a story that might help people, who are struggling. I don’t think I’ve worked harder on anything, and now, the ending is in sight, so I’m spending even more time on it, haven’t even had time to send messages to friends.”
Santa nodded. “That sounds important, but make sure you keep in touch with the people you care for during Christmas. That’s important too.”
“You’re right. I’ll send them a little something.”
“Good. Mind if I offer a tip?”
I nodded, and Santa continued. “People sometimes struggle with finding good gifts.” His voice became more warm than rough. “Instead of finding a gift for one special person, give a gift to share, with some of their favorite people. That’s a pretty special gift.”
I blinked and thought about Santa’s suggestion. Every person has a few groups of friends. Each group is a little different, which leads to different ideas for gifts.
“Thanks for the suggestion. I just thought of a gift for the people I care for. I’m pretty sure it’ll make them smile, and they might want to share the gift, at least I hope so.”
“Very Good. And you make sure ’n tell ’em that Cowboy Santa says ‘Merry Christmas.’ That might make ’em smile as well.”
“I’ll do that, and Merry Christmas to you.”