With a phone call, my time slot as a volunteer ringing the bell for the Salvation Army was set. I’ve come to see ringing the bell at the collection kettles as an annual holiday tradition, like going to the office party. And, like going to the office party, it’s never as fun as I like to remember it. In fact, it gets pretty old after fifteen minutes. But, I’d say to myself, if you’re going to jingle the Christmas bells, it ought to mean something. Like food for the poor, and also shelter, I guess. And whatever else the Salvation Army does. Anyway, it’s probably pretty good. So, on goes the red apron and I ring for a few hours: a scant few hours out of an ever-lengthening season of over-indulgence. Clearly, I am a saint.*
The bell ringer operation is short-staffed this year, so instead of meeting a Salvation Army…soldier? Trooper? Officer? “Employee” just kind of indicates a lack of dedication to the cause. Instead of meeting at the supermarket as in previous seasons, I have to go pick up my bucket. The Southeast Regional headquarters is huge, and it takes me forever to find the right door. There’s another ringer already there, and I try to make small talk as we wait for someone to answer the buzzer. She seems very uncomfortable. I’m sure we are both glad we’re not doing this in pairs.
The Lieutenant gives me my kettle, apron and bell as well as the bucket for the guy he’s paying to do the next shift. He also tells me that I’ll need to bring my kettle back that afternoon, although I’m fairly certain he told me on the phone that he would pick it up. I probably frown involuntarily at the thought of fighting my way back up this commercial strip on the busiest shopping weekend of the year, because he thanks me profusely in a manner inconsistent with the actual amount of time I’ll be spending ringing the bell. “It’s great of you to do this.” Why, you’re welcome. It is quite great of me. I mean, my God. Four hours.
Truth is, I’d never done a four-hour stint before; the Chinese water-torture-like repetition of ringing for three hours had strained the limits of my feeble endurance in the past, and I had usually done only two. Today, I seem to have chosen the chilliest morning of the season and it’s not yet above freezing. The cup of coffee I brought goes cold remarkably fast. Before the first half-hour is out, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die like the Little Match Girl; freezing to death while dreaming of a warm hearth.
More likely, my last thought will be of ham. The purveyors of Boar’s Head meats have descended upon the store in a sort of pork-based marketing blitz of coupons and free samples. They’re also selling dollar hotdogs. I know this because the salesman keeps limping out the front door to yell about it.
Then he sings Christmas carols very loudly and gives me suggestions on how to bring in more money. Most of them involve singing, presumably like him, in a style that brings to mind a less talented relative of Justin Timberlake auditioning for American Idol. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I move to the other side of my Salvation Army sign so I can avoid eye contact. Looking the other direction with fake interest in other things quickly becomes genuine people-watching.
A woman with long, straight black hair and an orange-hued tan walks in the door closest to me, not tossing change in the bucket, I might add. Along with her abnormally high forehead, sour expression, and chunky, fuzzy boots, the combined effect is that of a skinny Klingon.
At the exit down the way, a woman comes out and drops her bottle of champagne on the ground. She picks it up and examines it closely for about 30 seconds. I’m no bottle scientist, but I suspect that a glass container of carbonated liquid under pressure generally betrays breakage in a fairly obvious manner, so this seems excessive.
That guy reminds me why I don’t wear sweater-vests anymore.
If the woman who parked in the expectant mothers spot is pregnant, she found out about it maybe last week. But, perhaps, she is planning for a family, because clearly, she’s saving her pennies, as I don’t get any of them.
One of the feel-good holiday stories in the news this season has been about a pricey antique gold piece found in a Salvation Army bucket. Of course, I have several people jokingly ask me if I’ve received one, and I laugh as if I haven’t heard this yet. I do, however, have one woman rummage through her wallet and then say, “I thought I had change, but all I have is this Ugandan Token.” I don’t know what that is, but I would love to know what you get when you redeem it.
I start to whistle the Mexican Hat Dance. (This is not totally random. That’s my phone’s ringtone, and I’m thinking how much I want the Lieutenant to call and say he’ll pick up the bucket.) Just as I begin the tune, an off-duty mariachi emerges from the parking lot and walks past me into the store. While I’m fairly certain I just performed a magic trick, it quickly becomes clear that it’s the type that only works once.
A couple of years ago when I did this at night, a pimply guy in his early twenties in a cheap, ill-fitting suit and a cheap, ill-fitting perm approached me from the parking lot. He tried to sell me something called an “entertainment pack,” which consisted of Thrashers tickets and Hawks tickets and tickets for what was possibly the women’s basketball team or perhaps a soccer team or something; I couldn’t entirely follow. But I told him I didn’t really like sports. He looked at me like I had said I occasionally enjoyed the strangling of puppies. I got the same look when he found out I was ringing the bell as a volunteer.
Then he tried to poach people who passed my kettle, and I started getting similar looks from them as if they suspected we were in cahoots. Eventually, the young entrepreneur wandered off into the dark parking lot, where a pockmarked man in a bad suit accosting people would, presumably, seem less suspicious.
Today, I’ve decided that if anyone asks, I’m going to tell them I’m doing mandatory community service for beating up a guy. I figure this will make me look tough. A red apron does not. Nor does it provide much in the way of warmth.
I take advantage of a slow moment to put on an extra shirt (although it should be noted that every moment of a repetitive task in freezing temperatures feels slow, but I digress). While I would like to use the one stall in the bathroom to change, it is, unfortunately, occupied by someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. I know this because I hear the sound of wiping for the full 8 minutes I’m in there.
I barely notice the added layer in this cold, but I do notice the inordinate number of people in shorts. Presumably, they’re coming from the gym, but man. It’s a windy 32 degrees. One woman has a number of unsightly bruises on her skinny legs. It would seem that she might have a double incentive for sweatpants. And then, there are all the flip-flops. ‘Tis really the season for you to spare me the sight of your toes.
But everyone, flip-flops, shorts, or not, is moving pretty fast from car to store and back again. People pause to dig for change less on cold days like this, and the special-needs grocery cart wranglers don’t slow down to talk to me.
Last year, one of them asked me my birthday.
“May 19, 1976.”
“That was a Wednesday,” he declared. “Ask your mother. She’ll tell you.”
Forget my mother. Get your things while I unhitch this money-bucket. The three of us are going to the nearest Indian casino.
You see a lot of stupid, jerky things when spending four hours in a parking lot. There are times when I say things under my breath that I’m fairly certain the Salvation Army would not want its bell-ringers uttering. Most of these are directed at the people who run the stop signs at the crosswalk in front of the store. Or park in the crosswalk. Or don’t yield right of way to pedestrians. Or park for a protracted amount of time in the fire-lane. Or leave their shopping-carts in the middle of a parking space to get knocked into cars. Fucking asshole motherfuckers.
But, my venomous mutterings are ultimately inconsequential; out-loud pleasantries have the most potential to cause real problems.
See, it’s hard not to religiously profile people when you do this, but you kind of have to. There’s no catch-all holiday greeting anymore. “Happy Holidays” used to be a pretty safe choice until the whole “war on Christmas” shtick, an outrage manufactured seasonally as if it was fruitcake. So, now, “Happy Holidays” is the more potentially offensive phrase.
But this neighborhood is tricky; it’s largely Orthodox Jewish. This grocery store has rabbis on staff and houses one of the metro area’s only Kosher Chinese restaurants, but inexplicably, several of the neighborhood streets have Yuletide-themed names such as Merry Lane, Holly Lane, and the seemingly unambiguous Christmas Lane. It’s confusing. So, while I’m sure the Salvation Army would prefer I say Merry Christmas, I usually pick what I assume is less likely to work people into a lather. Occasionally, I will make a decision, admittedly prejudicial, based on a person’s car, clothing, facial expression, facial hair, stylishness of eyeglasses, or race. Y’know. The usual.
But otherwise, I just kind of go with my gut on “Christmas,” which usually goes over pretty well, or “holidays,” which has earned me both gentle corrections and emphatic rebukes. Obviously, anyone in a Yarmulke gets the more specific “Happy Chanukah,” but it’s best to not get too creative. One time, the Lieutenant hung around for a little while after dropping off the bucket and said “feliz cupleaños” to a Mexican family who chipped in. And a very happy birthday to you as well, good sir.
I always like it when parents give their kids money to put in the kettle. It’s never too early to reinforce the importance of giving. It’s even better when the kids ask for the change instead of being prompted. One time, a girl was standing right next to me as her mom dug through her purse. Before I was able to decide if this was a “Christmas” or “Holidays” situation, the girl took the quarter and popped it into a gumball machine. There is nothing that encapsulates a teachable moment lost so well as a crappy toy in a plastic bubble.
While I’m perfectly comfortable taking change, my greatest fear while doing this is that some legitimately needy person will come to me for help. I have no idea what I’d do then. My second greatest fear, at least for the past few hours, has been the singing hot dog guy coming back. And, there he is; “One dollar hot dogs” And in nearly the same breath; “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Going against my own rule, I ring louder and faster.
See, in the past, I’ve found that the key to maintaining sanity, at least in the short-term, is to ring only when necessary; if there’s no potential donor in the immediate vicinity, I give myself a few short moments of blissful silence. Unfortunately, by the end of today’s shift, I’m too bell-addled to stick to this practice, and too cold to think of anything but ringing. So that’s what I do. Incessantly. It’s like blinking. Breathing. A heartbeat of metallic persistence.
The last 30 minutes pass in a blur; a jingling blur. My replacement comes out of the store finishing off a dollar hotdog. “I usually ring the bell all day. I don’t know why he cut my hours.”
“Yeah, that’s weird,” I say. Wait, did he say he usually does this all day?
I can only imagine such a day, and at this point, I prefer not to. Driving back to headquarters, not hearing bells seems odd and I feel a sort of phantom movement in my arm. This goes on for a surprisingly long time. It’s like walking after you’ve been roller-skating.
The above was performed at True Story!, a bi-monthly, nonfiction reading series in Decatur, GA. A shorter version was recorded for the radio program City Cafe with John Lemley on WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate. The segment was produced by Kate Sweeney. http://www.wabe.org/post/jack-bell-ringer.
*Despite my continuing admiration for the Salvation Army’s efforts in the alleviation of poverty and in disaster relief, this is probably a good place to note that I no longer financially support the Salvation Army, either through my own donations or through my volunteer efforts. For a long while, I was, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of their very retrograde views and practices regarding the LGBT community, and what rumblings I had heard, I rationalized away as a downside to a largely great organization. But, after learning more, I can no longer ignore their political activities and employment practices, both of which are contrary to the pursuit of equal rights for all. If you would like to donate money to organizations that are involved in both poverty relief and disaster response services, might I instead suggest your local food bank? Find out more about the national food bank network at http://feedingamerica.org.
Still, I miss doing the ringing. Which is weird, I know.