Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Charity begins at home, travels to a grocery store, and then heads back home again to fall asleep. (Thinking The Lions/Essays about Stuff)

Last night, to start my Christmas vacation, I finally fulfilled a dream I've had for years:

I was a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.

For as long as I can remember, I've walked past those little red kettles during the holidays with a mixture of envy, admiration, and a little bit of panic as I tried desperately to get my spare change out of my pocket to drop it into the kettle without breaking stride or making a big deal out of it.

(Although sometimes, I walked by with a mixture that could be best described as 33% envy, 33% admiration, with the remaining 33% being "I hope they don't think I'm a jerk because I'm not giving anything.")

And each year, I've thought to myself, I should do that. I should be a bell ringer. It looks like a really neat thing to do, plus I'd be doing something good for charity.

Then I'd add: Plus I'd get to ring a bell. That was a big part of the draw.

But I never did anything about it, in my previous forty years of existence. I'd just drop the change (or sometimes a dollar bill if I was feeling particularly rich and/or charitable) and think my thoughts and move on.

This year, that changed. This year, one Sunday morning after shopping the day before, I logged onto my computer and looked up bell ringing at the Salvation Army. As it turned out, they had a website where I could log on and sign up for a bell-ringing shift, a high-tech option that appealed to me because it made it easy to get into the charity, but also which ran contrary to my low-tech view of the Salvation Army, a view that has been created entirely from just two sources:

1. The Bell Ringers, who form my primary opinion of the Salvation Army, and

2. The movie version of Guys & Dolls, which we watched in a college class I took. The class was called Humor In American Literature, and it consisted of us reading (outside of class) such humorous american literati as Peter Benchley and probably others, and then, in class, never discussing those books because we were too busy watching movies by Preston Sturges, and also watching LA Story and Guys & Dolls.

The movie version of Guys & Dolls included a scene, to my memory, now, years later, in which someone, maybe a woman, played in a band on a corner or maybe stood by a bell-ringing-kettle, and there was also a revival meeting in which various gangsters (the colorful, fun gangsters of the 1940s, not the scary gangsters of later years) were saved.

To me, then, the Salvation Army is a group that does something or other that's charitable, and has those red kettles and bell ringers to raise money, and also puts on big showy song-and-dance-numbers. I didn't know how the website fit into that vision, but I shoved that aside and signed up for a shift, after first calling Sweetie to find out which 2-hour-block of time would work out best: the first two hours of my Christmas vacation, on Tuesday night from 6-8? Or the 8-10 a.m. shift on the 23rd, my first full day off?

Or, maybe Christmas Eve itself? I saw that I could sign up for a bell-ringing shift on the Eve, and my eyes teared up a little as I pictured myself, leaving my warm home on Christmas Eve to go stand (bravely, and cheerfully) in a blizzard, ringing a bell and raising money for charity (and musical numbers) on a holiday, giving up my own free time that day to do something good for others! I'd be like a hero.

Sweetie thought maybe the Tuesday night shift would work better, though, and I agreed, because I really didn't want to go out on Christmas Eve. So, not as much of a hero, but still pretty heroic.

After logging in and getting my confirmation email, I was all set to go, and then a cheery e-reminder on the day of the big charity gave me some last minute pointers: Bring your ID with you, it told me, and set out various security procedures by which I would be confirmed as a man who could be trusted with a kettle full of money and a bell. One particularly stern line told me that I was required to print my name neatly in big letters, and that worried me a bit because I have bad handwriting.

But it's for charity, I thought, and vowed to do the best I could.

I drove from my office to the grocery store where I would be ringing a bell for the next two hours, bravely (and cheerfully, and charity-ly) giving up my dinner and comfort to stand outside in a light snow, ready to greet grocery shoppers with a hearty hello, and as I realized it was snowing, I realized that I'd also forgotten my gloves that day.

Should I try to go home and get them, and risk being late for my shift? I wondered. Or should I tough it out? The thought of letting down all those starving kids or whoever the Salvation Army helps gave me the strength to decide to tough it out. I can always pull my hands into my sleeves, I thought.

With that, I grabbed my cell phone (in case of emergencies!) and headed into the store, where I got my first surprise: There was a bell ringer there already! That surprised me because when I'd signed up, the shift before mine (4-6) had been open, so I thought I'd be the only one that night. I kind of panicked: What if he stays the whole time? Will I have to talk to him? I wondered.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," I said, and added "I'm your replacement." That was the politest way I could think of to say "Don't hang around." I said I'd go sign in and I found the service desk inside, where a clerk took my ID and wrote down, herself, my name in the notebook. I didn't totally abdicate my duties, though -- I made sure she printed, in big letters.

Then she gave me a little piece of paper with a red Santa stamped on it. "This is to give to the guy there now, so he knows you're official."

That seemed a little low-tech -- but I was okay with that, because it was more in keeping with the Salvation Army I believed I knew. I went back up front, where my predecessor was jingling his little band of green bells. I showed him the little Santa paper, and he handed me the bells and took off his Santa hat.

The bells were disappointing; instead of a big handbell, it was a little dog-collar type of jingly-bell bracelet. As I held them up, I said "These are my bells?" and he said:

"No," and then as he took off his Santa hat, and before he could finish, his cell phone rang and he took it out and got on a call. "Hi," he said into the phone. "What? It's snowing there, too?"

I stood there, looking at the kettle and the not-my-bells and the stool and the Santa hat. What was I supposed to do? Shoppers were walking by, and the Guy Before Me just kept talking on his phone. I realized that I didn't know if I had been supposed to bring my own bell or not; I'd just assumed they'd give me a bell to ring. Who has their own bell? I thought, and stood there dumbly while the guy discussed weather in Salt Lake City.

I didn't know what to do if I didn't have my own bell. I didn't want to just stand there, loitering, for two hours, and without a bell, I knew that's what it would look like.

Guy With Bell Standing By Kettle = Charitable person doing good.

Guy Without Bell Standing There= probably a mugger.

The guy kept talking, and people kept wandering by, looking awkwardly at us. Nobody was putting money in the kettle, and I didn't know what to do. Why wouldn't he end his phone call? I didn't want to ring his bells, plus, it seemed rude to ring the bells while he was standing a foot away talking on the phone.

Then there was the Santa hat he'd taken off and set down on the stool. Was I supposed to wear that, too? If they didn't give me the bells, would they give me a hat to wear? How many other people had worn that hat?

Finally, Guy Before Me was done with his phone call, explaining that his daughter's flight had been delayed due to snow. After we agreed, several times, that such things did indeed happen this time of year, he finally explained about the bells:

"Those are replacement bells," he said. "We've had a bit of trouble keeping bells this year."

That gave me a lot to think about, right there. Beginning with the we. Who did this guy think he was? I knew the gig: Everyone just signed up online and got their bell. He wasn't any big shot in the local organization; he was just another bell ringer, like me, and the We was jarring, smacking of a guy trying to sound more important than he really was. (Unless he really was important, I then thought, and wondered if I should be trying to impress him, show him I was a pretty up-and-coming bell ringer.)

Then, I wondered this: Who steals the bell after bell-ringing?

As I pondered those things, Guy Before Me picked up his Santa hat (Thank God!) and the stool, and left, waving to me. "See ya," he said, and I was left to wonder at his professionalism: He'd not only brought something Christmas-y, but his own stool.

Then again, I thought, the stool is not necessary, and besides the point. It seemed to me important that a bell ringer not sit; something about the position of bell ringer seemed to me to make it important that I be a little uncomfortable, put some effort into it. I'm glad I didn't bring a stool, I thought to myself.

And so it began: I had to start ringing the bells and raising money. I put the little bell-bracelet on my left hand and shook it experimentally. Good. Nice and jingly. Some people were coming in. I began ringing in earnest, ringing my bells up and down and realizing as I did so that they were knocking into my knuckles and it hurt.

So as my first patrons walked by, I was adjusting the bells and trying to come up with a system that wouldn't break my fingers over the next two hours. I then went back to bell ringing, and got it right this time, a good steady rhythm, up down up down up down up down, and some people came in, smiled at me, and one of them put some money in the kettle.

"Thanks!," I said, and she smiled, and I added "Happy holidays!" She smiled again and they went in and I began to give some thought to what I'd say to people. I kept ringing the bells, up down up down up down, jingle-jingle-jingle and decided I'd stick with Happy holidays. That way, I couldn't offend anyone who didn't celebrate Christmas. I suspected that the Salvation Army was a Christian charity (something about the Guys & Dolls movie made me think that, probably the trip to Cuba that Frank Sinatra took) but I didn't think that non-Christians should be forbidden to give, or put off by giving, and none of the emails had given me any kind of ruling on whether I should talk at all, or what I should say.

Another person came in and dropped some change. "Thanks," I said. "Happy holidays," I added. He smiled and said "You, too," and I felt good about myself.

My arm was getting a little tired. I checked my watch. 6:04.

I switched hands, over to the right, and kept going. People came in about every 10 or 15 seconds, stamping their feet and smiling at me or not. This was the after-work rush, I realized, and it would be pretty busy as people stopped on their way home for groceries or last-minute supplied.

As the next 20 or 30 people came in, I picked up quickly on the different kinds of looks people would give. Nearly everyone met my eyes as they came through the sliding doors -- the kettle had been stationed just inside the door, where the carts were, so I wasn't totally out in the elements and my lack of gloves wasn't a probelm -- but there were those few people who determinedly didn't notice me at all.

Those people would come in through the doors with their eyes locked firmly ahead-and-up-to-the-right, looking off into the corner of the produce department that lay behind the doors I stood in front of, seeming not to see me or the kettle as they took the four or five steps through the vestibule. They seemed to have heard my bells and opted for complete disregard rather than at least a nod or smile as most people did.

Another type of person was the brief eye contact group. These people would be caught by surprise, coming in the door and seeing me; making eye contact required that they acknowledge my existence and they would do that, smiling or nodding or saying Hi or something like that, before themselves becoming engrossed in their shopping cart or the 6-pack of paper towels on display across from me, turning off to whatever caught their attention next with a look like they were saying I'd love to be charitable, but I really need to focus on whether the 6 big rolls are really the equivalent of 8 regular-size rolls. You understand, right?

I tried, for my part, to project "Understanding," with a mixture of "Slight guilt and disapproval," so that maybe next time, they'd give a little.

The third type were the people who would interact with me, some of them givers and some not. They included parents of children, pointing me out to their little toddlers. "See the bells?" they'd say, and I'd try to jingle with a little more spirit, and smile at them. The kids didn't care.

Others would say "Hi," or comment on the weather or my position there or say random-seeming things like "Nice, huh?", an actual comment I didn't get.

The givers usually had their money ready -- they were folding bills or grabbing for change as they came in the door, my bells having alerted them to the opportunity to do something nice. They'd tuck in their money and I'd say "Thanks!" and add "Happy holidays!", something I kept doing for some time until one lady stuck some money into the kettle, about a half-hour in.

"Thanks!" I said. "Happy holidays!"

She looked back at me with pursed lips. "Merry Christmas," she said, with a determined and steely air. I was taken aback, feeling like I'd offended her by trying not to offend her. As I kept ringing, I wondered which of us was wrong: Me for not assuming she was a Christian, or her for assuming I had assumed she wasn't a Christian? It was all very confusing and mixed me up as the next person, an older guy, put some money in the kettle.

"Um. Thanks. Happy... merry Christmas!" I said, and he smiled and said I should have one, too.

After that, it was all Merry Christmases for me. I didn't want any trouble. As more people came in I kept up the jingling, switching arms every few minutes and wishing people a merry Christmas.

Then my cell phone rang. I took it out and saw it was my Dad. "Hello?" I said, answering it, and had to explain to my Dad that yes, the message I'd left earlier was true: I was ringing bells for charity.

Dad, undeterred, launched into a conversation, making me nervous again. I didn't know if I was supposed to be talking on the phone or not. None of the rules had mentioned that, or said anything about socializing or entertaining oneself.

Guy Before Me had used headphones -- he'd rung his bell while listening to music, which seemed wrong to me, as wrong as sitting down. This was supposed to be a selfless act of charity, and how selfless is it if you're sitting there, all comfy on a stool, listening to The Who? (Guy Before Me looked to be about the right age, and had the right kind of beard, to be a Who fan.)

I assumed that I could chat with people -- and that if someone had come with me to bell ring, I could have talked with them, but talking on the phone seemed a whole different thing. It seemed rude and distancey, like I was one of those high-powered executives in a Christmas movie, the kind who can never put down the phone and go spend time with their young daughter on the night of her big pageant, until they learn a valuable lesson after almost being run down by a bus driver who lost his own daughter on Christmas Eve, twenty years ago, so they rush to the Pageant and throw their phone in a snowdrift on the way.

I got the feeling that talking on the phone would interfere with charity and that feeling was confirmed because as my Dad droned on and on about all the same things he always talks about, I kept ringing but nobody gave any money. They'd look at me and then look away, and I could feel their disapproval raining down on me.

I got off the phone with my Dad -- not an easy thing to do -- and redoubled my efforts. I'd been at this for a long time now, and my arms were really tired, but I wanted to make the last little bit count and really finish strong. I figured it must be about 7:20, maybe 7:30, almost through my shift. I checked my watch in a lull.


Oh, man, and my shoulders were getting a little sore, now, from the jingling. I tried to mix it up, change rhythms and get a little jazzy, but, really, there's only one way to ring a set of bells, and that's jingle jingle jingle jingle. Any other attempts at rhythm, at least for me, quickly fell apart and went back to the basic four-beats-to-measure.

I tried to think of a song that had a good rhythm, one that I could jingle to, as people went by and dropped money and got their Merry Christmases. My mind went blank; the only song I could think of, seriously, was Radar Love. It was as if no other songs had ever existed.

I went with that, humming Radar Love to myself, and jingling the bells in time, and wondering if anyone else could make out what I was jingling. Would they go away from that store humming Radar Love themselves? Would they forever associate Radar Love with Christmas, and wonder why?

Things were slowing down as 7:00 approached, seemingly an hour after I'd checked my watch at 6:55. I was switching hands more frequently now, and getting bored in between people. For a while, I amused myself by reading the sign advertising the various pre-cooked meals one could order at this store, turkey and ham dinners for 8-10 with various sides. I tried to figure the costs of cooking the meal oneself versus the cost of buying it, as a way of distracting myself from the increasingly-tired arm and shoulders I had, and also making time go a little faster.

That last thought made me feel morally confused. Was it wrong, I wondered, To want my charity shift to go by quickly? Either way, I would spend two hours doing this, and that was the charitable effort, right? So did it have to seem long, for it to be truly charitable? I didn't know. My morals seemed to lay somewhere between "Sitting on a stool listening to Baba O'Riley" and "Saint."

Whether it was right or not, I wanted time to go by a little faster. My knees were getting stiff from standing, and as I stood there, I realized that it'd been a really long time since I'd stood for two consecutive hours. I tried to remember the last time I'd done that, and couldn't think of when it might be. Was it when we went to Sea World last year? I tried to remember, and decided that, no, even at Sea World I'd probably sat down here and there. It might have been a decade, or more, since I'd stood for two consecutive hours, and my knees and back were starting to ache.

Across from me there was a display of snow shovels, and for a while I stood by them, jingling and looking at the various brushes and shovels and trying to decide if after my shift I should pick up an ice scraper for my car. I needed one, as the other day I'd been reduced to trying to use a soda can to get some ice off and had scratched my windshield a little.

Before I could make up my mind, I got moved back to the other side by the stock boy, who came out to fix up the display of paper towels. He and the manager worked on that while I jingled and people gave money and got their Merry Christmas, and I listened to them talk about the grocery business and the manager's sweater.

From time to time other store employees came in or out, including a small woman who had to push all the carts from the parking lot to the entry way. I felt bad for her; it looked like a lot of work, and I wondered whether I should help her out. I'm not really here for the store, I reasoned, and occasionally chatted with her about the weather while not helping her.

For a while, the little grocery baskets were gone, too, and shoppers would come in and notice that, commenting to their friends, or spouses, or sometimes me, about the lack of baskets. I felt somewhat obliged to do something about that, too, but I didn't, because I didn't want to abandon my post to go search for baskets for them. Instead, I decided that the next employee to come through, I'd mention it to. Then I didn't do that, either.

About 7:15, I noticed that the snow shovels weren't called shovels. They were Poly Snow Pushers, a name that struck me as overly technical, and unnecessary, and irritated me a bit, by that point.

Then, I noticed that there was a set of handbills posted for various plays and productions that were going to be put on in our city soon; the notices were across the room, near the door people came in by. I wanted to go look at them, to help kill time between the increasingly-sparse shoppers and donors, but everytime I wandered that way, people came in and I had to retreat back to my kettle. The best I could gather is that one of them had to do with a bridal show.

By 7:25, I was getting pretty tired and hungry, too, and the shoppers seemed less charitable. One lady came in and said, as she walked by me, holding up a hand "I donated yesterday, so don't think I'm bad," walking quickly. I said "Thanks, and Merry Christmas" anyway.

Another lady came in and shrugged at me. "He's coming with the money," she said and pointed a thumb back over her shoulder. She went into the grocery store and I kept ringing.

A woman and a small child came in.

Then an elderly lady came walking by.

I kept ringing and began to figure the lady had lied to me, and in a particularly elaborate way: Why make up a whole "guy who's coming with the money?" I thought. Why not just walk by? She didn't have to create this big work of fiction.

A minute or so later -- about five minutes after the lady had gone through -- a guy did come in, and he got his wallet out and put a $5 into the kettle. "Thanks, and Merry Christmas!" I said, and privately, I decided that this was not the "guy with the money." He was too far behind that lady, who'd I'd long since decided was a liar.

There was then a run of hipsters, for some reason: young people in their twenties with haircuts that looked stupid, but expensive stupid, and sideburns (but not on the women) and fancy boots that went up past the ankles (on the men and the women.) I tried to figure out why there was a sudden influx of hipsters. Had a coffee-bar-poetry-slam just ended? I also tried to figure out why none of them gave any money. Was charity uncool? Were there more-hip charities out there, maybe raves which donated the proceeds to Goodwill and were DJ'd by Moby?

That train of thought ended when a girl with a leather jacket, lots of zippers, strangely-colored eyeliner and a very symmetrical haircut put a $5 into the kettle, and I stopped thinking mean thoughts about hipsters and instead tried to focus on how much time was left.

Throughout the night, too, I'd tried not to notice what people were giving. Bills had to be folded and shoved in and as people did that I tried not to look directly at the kettle, figuring that was between them and God and the Salvation Army. I tried to give the same cheery Thanks and Merry Christmas! to people whether it was change or paper they gave.

It was 7:35 and I was trying to make it through the home stretch, trying to figure out something to make the last leg go by more quickly. Maybe some Christmas Carols, I thought.

For a few minutes, then, I thought about whether I had it in me to be the cool Bell Ringer -- to sing Christmas carols and toss jokes out at people and wish everyone who walked by a Merry Christmas and a very happy new year, to be the guy who would be so jovial and entertaining that people would talk about it at their own Christmas parties: "You should have seen this bell ringer the other day," they might say.

I'm not that type of guy. I want to be, but I don't have it in me, and it's not my personality. Some people -- maybe Tom Selleck-- could get away with that. They'd pick up the bell, start jingling, sing a couple lines of a Christmas song, and a crowd would gather, drawn in by their natural charisma and charm. It would become a spontaneous Christmas-y event, one people would enjoy and love.

I lack any natural charisma or charm, and I feared that if I began singing, it would seem weird. So I didn't sing out loud, but under my breath; I began to sing under my breath and jingle in time with the songs.

My early blankness continued, as the first song I could think of now was "Frog Round," the song that goes:

What a strange bird
The frog are
When he sits he stands

I sang that for a while, anyway, under my breath, stopping only to thank people and wish them a Merry Christmas, jingling away, and finally, finally, I remembered another Christmas carol, one that would carry me a good ways towards 8:00: The Twelve Days of Christmas.

I began singing that, but my tiredness and the continued interruptions to thank people and wish them a Merry Christmas! and the jingling really threw me off: I couldn't remember whether it was two turtledoves or two calling birds, and I kept singing Six maids a milking instead of Six Swans a swimming. I made it through, and it was 7:50. I tried some other Christmas carols, singing quietly, but nothing worked.

Instead, I jingled my way through to 8:02 quietly, working until 8:02 because a group of people came through and I didn't think I should just abruptly up and pick up the kettle in front of people. After they were done, I took the kettle and carried it into the service desk with the bell and the little wooden stick they'd given me to push money down into the kettle with.

"Here," I said to the service desk girl.

"Thanks," she said, and took it and walked away. I felt a little let down; it seemed like there should be a check-out procedure or some sort of acknowledgement, a card or a thanks or ... something. I mean, sure, charity is it's own reward, yeah, I got it, but that doesn't mean that charity can't give you a pat on the back at least.

I didn't get one, not this time. I walked out of the grocery store, got in the car, and headed towards home, with only a brief detour to buy Sweetie some Christmas cookies. Charity may be its own reward, but Sweetie deserves more than that. She deserves some frosted sugar cookies shaped like mittens.

I didn't get one for myself; I already had my reward: the good feeling that came from volunteering my time, and the better feeling of knowing that I was done volunteering my time and could go home and watch TV.


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Happy Holidays!


lisapepin said...

Wow. I can't believe someone gave you attitude for wishing them happy holidays. Especially when you were ringing a bell for her religion's charity. I don't even recognize the United States I used to live in. Bravo to you, though, for being a hero! Love the self-portrait, too. Well done!