I met Santa Claus at Starbucks this week.
Before the interview, I fully expected to write about a guy who will portray Santa Claus in 80 appearances around Tampa Bay this holiday season.
But an hour of big-belly laughs, baritone intonations and tugs on an authentic white beard convinced me Claus himself was sitting across the table. I wasn't quite compelled to sit on his lap, but I did start making a wish list between sips of my Cinnamon Dolce Latte.
Maybe, I thought, the jolly old fellow simply decided to enjoy a Florida retreat from up North like so many other snowbirds.
Bill Cheeseman, the alias Claus apparently uses in these parts, will doll up in one of his three $400 Santa suits for 23 consecutive days this month. He carries a pocket-sized calendar book denoting each appearance, as many as five a day.
Every Friday evening and Saturday morning this month, he's at Chick-fil-A on Waters Avenue. Every Sunday, it's the Oldsmar Flea Market. Weekdays may find him at an exceptional school in Dover, a Head Start program in North Tampa or a bank in Pinellas Park.
Before the holiday season ends, the 70-year-old retired Hillsborough County Fire Rescue paramedic will have greeted kids from 1 to 92 in Wesley Chapel, Wimauma, Temple Terrace, Lutz, Lakeland, Zephyrhills and every senior center in Hillsborough County.
Busy doesn't seem to do this schedule justice, but Cheeseman embraces the alter ego with the same zeal he did 28 years ago when a friend first asked him to suit up.
Gas fuels his 120,000-mile Chevy truck (kids, there's too much traffic for daily use of the reindeer) from his Carrollwood home. The chance to touch the young and old fuels his passion.
"Last year, the youngest person I held in my arms was 6 days old, and the oldest person to sit on my lap was an 106-year-old woman at an adult day care center," Cheeseman said. "I love being able to share in their joy for Christmas, not just with the kids but with the seniors."
After the personal connections, Cheeseman's biggest source of pride may be his white beard. He grew it after using a fake beard for his first Santa appearance for the kids who live at Paradise Lakes, a nudist resort in Land O'Lakes.
(Both he and the kids were clothed, in case you're wondering.)
In the spring, Cheeseman trims up his beard, but he lets it grow out in the summer for Christmas in July celebrations. Come November, he makes sure the beard is in full bloom. Some ladies run their fingers through it, but it's the kids who really find it fascinating.
He also has a belly that shakes like jelly, but Cheeseman quickly notes he has lost 40 pounds and would like to lose a few more and dip slightly below 300.
Most children insist they've been nice and begin reeling off gift requests. Contrary to television reports touting Zhu Zhu pets, Cheeseman said most kids are asking for an iPod or a Nintendo DSi.
The very young often fear him and begin to cry. He doesn't get down, however, because after meeting with a child psychologist, Cheeseman learned that kids develop their fear instinct between the ages of 1 1/2 and 2 1/2.
"There's a natural hesitation for strangers, but it's also tremendously heart-warming when a child standing and looking for a long time finally walks over and has a conversation with you."
In contrast, the seniors simply want a return to childhood memories, and it helps that Cheeseman goes with an authentic Miracle On 34th Street look. He also sings to them and with them, usually Blue Christmas or Holly Jolly Christmas.
One of his favorite visits occurs at a nursing home that specializes in serving Alzheimer's patients.
"There, I'm just a person," Cheeseman explained. "But every once in a while, I see that gleam of remembrance. That's very, very fulfilling."
Cheeseman attended a "Santa school" a few years ago. He quickly discovered he already utilized all the lessons the school taught.
There's a sincerity in his approach and wisdom in his words. He knows it's more than looking the part, it's about setting a genuinely warm tone.
My wife discovered Cheeseman during an appearance at Beef 'O' Brady's and says he's simply a natural at being Santa Claus. Or maybe Santa Claus is simply a natural at being Bill Cheeseman?
We may never know the truth, but it's worth noting that Cheeseman has no appearances scheduled on Christmas Eve. Think about it.
That's all I'm saying.