MINNEAPOLIS -- Four-year-old Shira Rabkin wanted to ask just the right questions, so she thought long and hard.
"Dear Mr. Little Guy," she finally scrawled in big letters across a sheet of paper. "Do you like mints?" After some more pondering, she added, "and going to Camp Snoopy? Love, Shira."
Mr. Little Guy was nowhere in sight this early August evening, so Shira stuffed her letter behind his door at the base of a hollowed out ash tree. It's always open, and always full -- of letters, pens, flowers and coins.
The elusive elf has enchanted Twin Citians ever since the 6-inch wooden door appeared eight years ago, just off a walking path around popular Lake Harriet. Double takes led to messages, and messages to answers -- and somehow Mr. Little Guy keeps up, responding to the queries in typed notes half the size of business cards.
Some of his notes are left in the tree for children to find; others, if he has an address, are mailed. So many children visit that a patch of grass once leading to Mr. Little Guy's door is now powdery dirt. A flower bed bordered by stone surrounds one side of the tree.
Shira is headed to kindergarten, and she's a big believer. But parents are smitten, too.
"I think it's darling," said Susan Scofield, Shira's mother. "I think it's magical."
Said Shira's dad, Jeff Rabkin: "The really amazing thing is that here it is, in a public space all this time, and it hasn't been debated before the city council! Nobody has chopped the tree down!"
1,500 notes a year
Dave West and his son, Oliver, recently pedaled their bikes over to the elf's house. Oliver wanted to know how Mr. Little Guy survives and posed several theories. The 8-year-old figured there must be a bedroom and kitchen behind the brown door. Maybe even a long ladder running along the inside.
"A minnow could feed him for a week," he declared.
In an interview, the local man behind Mr. Little Guy said he gets 1,500 notes a year and answers all of them himself. While that give-and-take fuels his creative side, it's not so easy to do with a wife and young daughter, said "Thom," who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But he always responds, with a childlike directness of his own.
"dear bobby," says one response, typed in Mr. Little Guy's preferred lowercase. "i am taller than my younger brother and shorter than my older brother. i am fifty-one. i like soccer but i love elfball. i played yesterday, with a bunch of elves."
Another elf house has recently sprung up in the neighborhood, about 30 yards away. It has a wooden frame and roof and a tiny door that sits next to a tree. Mr. Little Guy isn't sure who it belongs to, but he doesn't mind having a new neighbor who is also reaching out to children.
Mr. Little Guy almost lost his house once, when someone marked the tree with a big red X, indicating it should be chopped down. City workers declared it a prank, however, and saved the tree.
That was a rare show of cynicism about the elf.
Most press reports tell of his good deeds and the fun he has around the lake, without revealing much about his life, what he looks like or when he might be seen.
And that's just fine with Mr. Little Guy. Any attention, he said, should be focused on his young friends.
"I don't know that all kids think they have somebody in their corner, so Mr. Little Guy is just a guy that's in their corner," he said. "It's all about being affirmative. Every letter finishes with 'i believe in you."'