In the Army Now

So what's it like to ring that bell all day? A first-hand report.

Just 15 minutes into my nine-hour-long day of bell-ringing, the monotony becomes almost unbearable. While volunteering for the Salvation Army stokes my altruistic side, this sucks. I am clearly the wrong man for the job: easily irritated, lacking in patience and not one for spreading holiday cheer.

But thankfully, and much to my pleasant surprise, by the time I hit the 30-minute mark I'm immune to the ting-a-ling wash of noise in my right ear. I can hardly hear it anymore. Even better, after an hour, I'm in meditation mode, hoping to see visions; I'm a modern-day, suburban Don Quixote, or maybe an ascetic old shaman writing haikus atop a snowy mountain.

Meditation eventually gives way to mild obsession: The more I get sick of ringing the bell, the more it wants to be shaken. So I shake it. Violently. Annoyingly. And the crowd digs it.

"You sure are enthusiastic with that bell, aren't you?" asks a customer exiting Sam's Club, where I'm stationed. Yes, lady, I am. How the hell else can I entertain myself? Charisma counts in bell-ringing; whenever I begin chiming in rhythm, more donations come in. On my lunch break, my homegirl Ricci brings me a "Feliz Navidad" Santa hat and some cheap sunglasses. I'm convinced that upped my intake. If, like some other bell-ringers I heard about, I had sung Christmas songs (perish the thought), my donation kettle might've spontaneously combusted.

Not everyone was in the spirit, though.

One teenager says, "How much you get paid for this?"

"Nothing," I reply, pointing at the word VOLUNTEER on my red apron.

"That's stupid," he chortles, running away to catch up with his friends.

Thus bell-ringing is an exercise in humility: In addition to ignorant little teenyboppers, I endure countless glances, some grateful (the "we're proud of you" looks are numerous), some nonexistent (more than a few customers refuse to acknowledge me, some plugging their ears as they walk by) and others simply ashamed (some passed the kettle guiltily, as if God were watching).

Silly as it may sound, I feel a little guilty, too. The sight of people tossing change in the pot makes me think I am the one taking the handout, like a dirty old down-on-his-luck guy lingering on an interstate on-ramp. But as much as bell-ringing feels like panhandling, it also feels like fortune-telling. ("She's good for $2," I'd say to myself, or, "He's gonna pass me up." More often than not, I'd be right.)

Bell-ringing is also a lesson in socializing. Everyone wants to chat with a happy-go-lucky bell-shakin' fool, it seems. My verbal interactions run the gamut. Some are absurd: An elderly woman advises that I wrap the bell in cellophane, "because you could change the way it sounds that way," she says.

There are Hallmark moments. A girl, maybe 6 years old, stands before me silently, cute as a kitten. She just stands there, waiting, waiting, waiting, until her purpose finally dawns on me. "You want to ring the bell?" I ask, feeling like a jackass for not offering sooner. Her face lights up as I hand it over; she shakes it, and then runs off with her dad.

More than cute little kids or weird old ladies, though, I am approached by people interested in kettle theft. Shouldn't be a surprise, really, considering what's transpired in the Bay area over recent weeks. Area bell-ringers gained national attention after Lee J. George began stealing Salvation Army kettles, ostensibly to fuel his drug habit. On Dec. 5, George was found dead in a submerged car in Tampa.

"People will make their own morality tale out of that," says Brian Pope, general manager of the Salvation Army in Sarasota. His sentiments echo those of many passersby I meet while bell-ringing, though many are more direct, saying it's all about karma.

Ironically, some of the money George stole might've ended up helping him — that is to say, legitimately. Pope isn't specific about where the kettle cash goes, only that kids, elderly people and those in need of social services (e.g. paying their utility bills) benefit.

He stresses the importance of holiday-time donations. "Whatever we do in November and December is what we got for the next year," he says. Last year was huge; Sarasota bell-ringers raised around $100,000. "That's probably twice as good as the prior year," Pope says. This comes despite a ream of bad press, notably from Target's banning of kettles outside its stores, and gay rights groups, many of which boycott the Christian nonprofit for refusing to extend health benefits to domestic partners of employees.

One group that hasn't as yet boycotted the Salvation Army are those staying at the organization's 10th Street shelter. Some bell-ringers make minimum wage, so it's a competitive gig. Pope tells me that every year he's flooded with applications from shelter dwellers, and with only 12 to 14 paying positions available, he has to decide who gets called.

"We stick with those we've had for a while," he says.

In all, though, most of the bell-ringing is done by volunteers. In the Sarasota area, 25 to 30 groups such as the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club and local businesses and churches, each of which rotates an untold number of bell-ringers, compete to see who can garner the most donations. It's for fun, Pope says, adding that the Siesta Key Rotary Club has won for the past five years.

Alas, I am an anomaly, bell-ringing solo and without pay on this sunny Saturday afternoon. I'm kicking some serious ass, though, bringing in (ahem, ringing in) $346.63 in spare change and bills by day's end. Though I haven't risked life or limb, I've worried about getting a serious case of tinnitus and carpal tunnel. And in this season of giving, isn't that sacrifice enough?

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