The Bell Ringer

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 . . .

[Flickr photo is by ndrwfgg and is protected]


20 thoughts on “The Bell Ringer

  1. I think it’s great that you gave your time to help a cause. I may not agree with the precepts of the cause (personally, I feel the SA should help everyone, not just those who convert or listen to the Gospel), but I still think it was noble.

  2. i go a little crazy when someone is playing an instrument by a kettle… deliriously happy. we had a guy playing christmas tunes on bongos once outside the local grocery. yes, they get my cash, and i suspect they enjoy my brief bout of delirium, too.

    you’ve got your head on straight, sir. merry christmas!

  3. You are one AWESOME dude! I hope with all my heart that 2010 is a good year for you. As someone who has had those bumps and bruises along the way (and just a few years ago, seemed to be forever overshadowed by a giant black cloud) I am almost frightened by how much better things are today. I was discussing this with one of my nearest and dearest some weeks ago as we were talking about the coming (and now wrapped) charity program at my office this year. You know, the one I donned an elf suit for.

    “That, my dear, is karma,” she said. “You put enough good karma out there and eventually it works its way back to you.”

    I don’t know if that’s really true, but that’s what I choose to believe. I’m believing it for you and yours, too.

  4. That’s an incredibly awesome thing for you to do Brian! I want to send my heartfelt wishes your way for a wonderful new year in 2010! I’ll be praying for you and your family. Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  5. You are a better man than I. I couldn’t do that.

  6. Nice job Brian. I’m not a big fan of SA doctrine either, but people ultimately trump doctrine and you have a great eye for appreciating them. And the picture at the end is the icing on the cake of a great post.

  7. Larry & Phoebe Thomas December 24, 2009 — 12:23 am

    Several years or decades ago – when Brian was a little fart – our house burnt down, and then a couple years later, when his Mom fell and broke both her legs . . . the SA was there for our family, providing food, clothes, etc. Yes, I was gainfully employed but they were there in an instant. They never asked that we listen to their sermons and swear an allegiance to their ways – they just said “Can we help?”
    For that reason, we always give when walking past their red kettles . . .

  8. Like scifidad and atimetorend, I struggle with the SA because of their very anti-gay doctrine. So the sight of the red kettles has invoked conflicted feelings for me this year, despite my many years of plunking whatever pocket change I had on me into them. But they do raise money to help people, so…

    I won’t try to sort that out here. I’ll focus on what matters instead and THAT is that you have such a giving spirit. The many ways you share it with others inspires me. Looking forward to Sunday. 🙂

    1. I guess for me, it came down to helping in a way that was easily accessible and visible. I wanted my kids to see compassion and volunteerism in action, and they went along on several ringing and volunteering shifts. Those damn kettles are everywhere. And volunteering came easy; they never asked me for anything other than my name and address. I suppose there are humanitarian organizations that are humanist in nature, but unfortunately they aren’t so visible. For next year, I plan to research this and try to put my efforts toward helping some of those organizations. But I fear doing so will mean nothing more than writing a check, and it is there that I lack.

      It all got me thinking, that’s for sure, and that was going to be the original point of my post. But in the end, I guess it came down to the people. Need knows no religion or sexual orientation, and believing, perhaps even naively, that the good I was doing might help others endure their days a bit easier is what drove me to volunteer for the SA. And now the money is in their hands. Let’s both hope they live by what they preach and reach out to everyone . . .

  9. Thank you all for your comments.

    Trust me, the irony of me, a reverent agnostic, ringing bells for the Salvation Army, is not lost. I questioned the volunteer coordinator and the local major at length about their process for distributing aid, and they both assured me that questions about religious belief, or sexual orientation, are not asked and that information freely given is not held against a person requesting help. Sure, they have a church, and their doctrine is extremely conservative, but attendance is not compulsory. I guess I can live with that . . .

  10. As an aware bell-ringer, you have made note of the diverse peoples who have crossed your path, and in your inimitable way have given them specific voices. This sure helps to underscore the fact thet we all need to climb out of ourselves and take note of who populates our worlds. Especially this time of year with the emphasis on providing self and others’ satisfaction it helps to be reminded we each have specific needs, hopes and wants. You are an amazing person, Brian!
    Have a great Christmas celebration with yours! G

  11. Merry Christmas Brian and family


  12. “…and then let him ring my bell…”

    i know what you were really doing…giving yourself a break so the arms could recover.

    merry christmas to you and yours. and may the next year bring you all good things.

  13. we learn so much if we just stand still and see what’s going on around us.

    hope you guys had a great xmas.

  14. You’re good to give. I admit to not always responding positively to the bell ringers — perhaps because we’ve got folks begging for money for their causes on every corner of our neighborhood, outside the grocery stores, etc. I try to give when I can, but sometimes the giving of cold, hard cash and coins seems so paltry and mindless. I have tried, this year, to give beyond my means, and that means keeping the two caregivers who help me with my disabled daughter. I can barely afford them, but I know that they’re reliant on me, as well, so I pared down to accommodate. That meant a little less giving to others. I suppose this can all be depressing but have to believe that helping one helps another and then another and then another. Thank you for your part.

  15. In your Post … I am humbled … I discovered the meaning of His birth and I am found wanting.

  16. Good on you, I’ve got a lot of respect for the Salvos (as they’re known here). They do a lot for people that don’t have much in the way of options.

  17. You are amazing. To keep such a great perspective in the face of all the Christmas nastiness. I loved this post, and I wish I could have seen those kids buried up to their chins in groceries. I’ll bet that is a going to be a funny memory for them.

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