You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it’s a little thing, do something for others – something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.
~ Albert Schweitzer
The first time I rang the bells, I stood outside the entrance to Sears in Glenbrook Mall. The fountain before me usually got all the coins, but on this night those nickels and dimes found their way into the red kettle mounted on a stand beside me.
Two things I learned my first time ringing the bells:
1) That shit is hard! The bells I used that night were the muted kind. Less annoying to the shoppers and merchants, but you gotta really shake them things to make them jingle. When my arms started aching and my wrists seized up, I checked my watch; I’d been at it a whopping ten minutes. It was going to be a long night . . .
2) Most people are crabby. Especially in the mall. I’d smile and say “Merry Christmas!” or “Good evening!” if people glanced my way and made eye contact, but only a few responded in kind. Most just scowled and walked on by . . .
But not the family with the little guy in the stroller. He really wanted to put his change in my kettle, so they wheeled him over. I leaned the kettle down so he could reach it better, and then let him ring my bell before he and his parents wandered off toward Macy’s. The boy had cerebral palsy and a killer smile.
I had arranged with the local Salvation Army volunteer coordinator to ring the following morning at a grocery store. The sun broke through the clouds every once in a while, but added little heat to the air. The wind chill factor was about ten below zero, and I wore enough layers to where I resembled me back in my fat dad days. A lady with bobby pinned hair and a fur coat offered to buy me some Starbucks. I showed her my sixty four ounce insulated mug of hot chocolate and declined. She just shook her head, dropped in a folded dollar bill, and went about her busy day.
The next day, I met Manga Lady. Sitting on the bench next to my post by the automatic doors, she drew fan-fiction sketches of Cardcaptor Sakura. She mistook me for a fan when I commented on her wicked skills – how she kept the eyes big and the mouths small – and started rambling on and on about the love triangle her character had found himself involved in. I just smiled, shook my head, and thanked the baby Jesus when her bus showed up.
Later that same morning, I met Placement Guy. He had walked over from the McDonald’s across the street where his sister worked and he hoped to gain a bit of employment. They told him they could maybe give him five to ten hours a week, tops, and he figured that would be enough to keep the people in charge of his “placement” happy. It showed he had potential. And gave him just enough free time to prepare for his GED exam. He wore a button-up shirt under a zip-up hoodie that wasn’t zipped, and all that shivering made his voice shaky. He bummed my phone to call his mom and I overheard as he made plans to maybe get together over the holidays. I hope they worked it out. I told him that I too was out of work and wished him the best in the days ahead.
And then there was the family that reminded me of the clowns. I helped them to their car the following night at the Community Harvest Food Bank distribution center. I pushed the cart plumb full with over 120 pounds of canned foods, ramen noodles and frozen turkey. And I laughed out loud when I noticed four kids piled up in the back seat where the food had to go because the trunk was crammed with Toys for Tots. No way were they going to be wearing seat belts. As they climbed out and began running around the car . . . well, I thought of the clowns at the circus that pile out of a car way too small to hold so many clowns. We managed, and they drove away with the back of the car scraping the ground when they hit the bumps.
So many faces.
So many stories.
So many people in need. And so many people willing to lend a hand. It made the weeks leading up to Christmas more than a drudgery of days. Those hours spent swinging a bell or pushing a cart meant something. To me. And to those who will find a helping hand when they need it most.
This has not been the most pleasant of years for me and mine. But all that gets lost in the din of the bell ringer . . .