They say that everyone should wait on tables at least once to get a sense of what servers go through.
The same is true for ringing a Salvation Army bell. If everyone rang a bell for a few hours, they’d be much less likely to walk past bell ringers outside supermarkets and department stores with their trusty red donation kettles.
I know because I was a bell ringer once. In his infinite wisdom, my editor John thought it would be terribly interesting to station me at a Bridgeport, CT., shopping center and write a first-hand account for the Connecticut Post. About the only thing I remember is that my shift seemed interminable, and I was amazed at how many people refused to make eye contact as I rang, rang my bell.
I didn’t discuss this blog post with the Curmudgeon, nor have we ever discussed the kettle drive. Yet last night, he said out of the blue: “Have you seen that Salvation Army bell ringer at Wal-mart? She’s a little over the top, don’t you think? She’s a little too high on life if you ask me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was wearing a NY Giants sweatshirt and she said, “Go Giants!” I turned and said, “The Giants suck.”
“Why were you so mean?” I asked.
“If you want to get on my good side, don’t talk about the Giants,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about them this year. It’s a sore subject.”
Oh dear. Is it possible that my dear sweet Curmudgeon is among the ranks who snub bell ringers, or did she just catch him on a bad day? I told him that I was going to make him ring a bell outside Wal-mart for an hour to understand what they do. He seemed terrified and sheepish. At the very least, he put himself in the bell ringer’s shoes, and I’m pretty sure he won’t be as fresh the next time he sees one.
“That’s really hard to do, so try to be nice,” I said. “I had to do it once, and I hated every minute of it. I can’t believe how rude some people can be.”
My bell ringing gig was the farthest thing from my mind when I ran into Wal-mart for a few things. I was in full suburban mom mode when I heard the bell tinkling. I was suddenly transported back to that assignment, one of many first-person accounts I wrote.
I rifled through my purse, thankful that I had some cash to stuff into the kettle and would not have to resort to coins. Bell ringer Laura seemed happy with my modest donation: “God bless you,” she said.
“I’ve done this,” I said, stuffing $3 into the kettle. “I once had to ring a bell for a story I was writing, so I know how hard this is to do.”
Actually, I don’t. Though reporters often step into other people’s shoes for first-hand accounts, we’re always wearing our reporters’ hats and know that our time in certain situations is limited. Standing in the cold ringing a bell for hours on end is monotonous and boring. I also found it humiliating because I don’t enjoy being overlooked or ignored by people.
Laura is much better suited to bell ringing than I am. She has a bubbly personality – a glass half-full outlook on life – and isn’t easily offended. In fact, she claims she can make anyone smile by making eye contact, smiling and wishing them a Merry Christmas. (Apparently, she forgot about the Curmudgeon.) I don’t doubt it. The 51-year-old grandmother from New Haven, CT., has a $1 million smile and warm brown eyes. Her hug isn’t so bad either.
Laura has been a bell ringer with the Salvation Army for 19 years. She earns $10 an hour to raise money, but for years worked as a volunteer to show her gratitude for an organization that helped her family when it was down on its luck.
Laura said the Salvation Army helped her mom, a single mother of six kids, when one of her brothers was murdered in 1979. The organization also stepped in when the family had a house fire.
“They were just there,” she said. “My mother didn’t have an easy time, and they helped her out. I’m not sure where we’d be without them.”
The red kettle has been synonymous with holiday giving since 1891, when the first ones appeared in San Francisco to raise money to feed the city’s poorest people. It quickly spread nationwide and now there are Salvation Army chapters around the world. The funds are used to help about 4.5 million people between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I didn’t ask Laura’s last name and I was pretty sure she wouldn’t give it to me. She said things are much tougher for bell ringers because they have to undergo a background check. She said many longtime bell ringers are not on the job because they could not pass the background check.
“Please write something wonderful about the Salvation Army,” she said. “They really do a lot of wonderful work. I’m here because of what they did to help my family through the years. A lot of people don’t believe in God, but I do. I pray all the time.”
Laura said the current focus of her prayers is her husband, who went completely blind due to glaucoma two years ago at age 55. She said caring for him is a full-time job, noting he’s having a hard time adjusting to the world without vision.
“He says that he should be the one taking care of me, but he’s my husband and this is the way it is,” Laura said. “I’m trying to help him get through. Sometimes, I bring him to work, and he rings the bell. It gives him something to do.”
Stationed outside the Wal-mart in Guilford, CT., Laura rings her bell and wishes people a Merry Christmas, seemingly oblivious to whether they donate or not. She said she understands when people pass her without a donation, noting, “Some people just don’t have the money. But most people are very giving and nice. It’s pretty much the same everywhere I go. Most people want to help.”
It’s hard to know how to donate these days. We’re bombarded with charitable requests by the phone, mail, on Facebook, at the check-out counter at CVS and the supermarket. But to me, there is something charming about the red kettle campaign. It’s a throwback to an earlier time when people hit the streets and counted on people’s generosity to help their less fortunate neighbors at the holidays.
I can’t ignore the bell, not after ringing one myself. I doubt anyone could.