I forget, sometimes, how swell it is to live in a place where so many people pour so much of what they have into causes that make us better humans. They aim to achieve a no-kill animal shelter. They buy, then bless, shoes for strangers. They spring for tens of thousands of holiday meals and fill a warehouse for Toys For Tots. That makes us a city where the ask is always out there, and the invitation to be part of it can be an honor. So I was pleased when Mike Lonergan asked if I would like to be a “celebrity bell ringer” for the Salvation Army at Tacoma Mall last week. “How about just a bell ringer?” I asked. “Deal,” Mike answered. That is how I ended up at the entrance closest to Cinnabon. (Keep that in mind. It will show up later as proof of the kindness of strangers.) Now, a Salvation Army bell ringer serves three purposes: First, we pass on cheery hellos and get generous with compliments. Second, we collect the donations that will make Christmas merry for people trying to get through hard times. Third, we encourage shoppers to locate alternate exits that might come in handy in case of, say, fire or riot. I am proud to say I accomplished all three. Deep in the parking lot, you could see some shoppers react to the bell. Burly men detoured to the Macy’s women’s department. People already sipping smoothies ducked into a restaurant entrance.
“It’s okay!” I wanted to yell to them. “You’re fine. No one will think ill of you if you don’t put a coin in the kettle.” Security is excellent in the mall lots, so I restrained myself. For every evasive action, there was a lovely entrance. “Merry Christmas,” I’d ring, “Have a great day.” It was surprising how easy it was to find compliments. “Your scarf matches your boots! How cool is that?” “Great hat.” “Fabulous smile! Have fun.” Bell ringers give them out for free – no donation needed.
It is just fun to be friendly. It is nice to have someone smile back at you and say that indeed they will have a fine day.
Sometimes, we get excited too soon about what looks like an incoming donation. Used to be, when someone paused 20 feet away to dig through pockets or a purse, they were dime fishing. On Dec. 7, a good half of them were fumbling for their cell phones. Still, it was nice of a senior gentleman to stop and say he had donated to the Salvation Army already, and bought 1,000 meals for guests of the Hospitality Kitchen. Who would not want to know that there are people out there with such great hearts? It is even more fun when the kids who have gone in, all scrubbed and formal, to see Santa, head back out again.
“I asked for a Barbie,” one girl confided. She, her toddler brother and baby sister had made the Big Visit. “Santa told me that Mrs. Claus has a HUGE Barbie collection.” The bow on her red taffeta-and-tulle dress had come undone and dragged through a wet spot. Her hair had returned to its natural state. Her brother’s face was orange with the remnants of a tomato-based breakfast. Everyone was happy, especially when they got to ring the bell and dish some Claus. Mom, who had already had a morning and a half, groped through her purse and emerged first with the cell phone she needed, then with coins to give her children. Princess Red Dress tiptoed to reach the kettle, dropped the dime and grinned. Through the morning, other kids followed, some taught the basics of sharing by their parents, some by their grandparents. All of them were on an early, happy start to a life of generosity. One mom, shopping solo, could not break the habit. She was on her way out with bags from Old Navy and Crazy 8 and a massive grin. “Love those stores,” I said to her, and she stopped.
The nicest people had helped her, she said. It was a bad year, and her children had outgrown their coats. Her mom had given her $40 for new ones, and the Old Navy clerk had helped her find two pea coats to fit her budget. At Crazy 8, the clerk sorted through the sale racks with her, then figured out how give her a 20 percent discount (plus boxes and ribbon!) so each child had a new outfit. “And you people are helping me, too,” the mom said, pointing to the Salvation Army sign. “I want to help, too.” She pulled out her wallet and took out two bills that may be small to you and I but are large to her. “Thank you, ma’am,” seemed inadequate. There were young people, too, who went in, then came out with big donations. There was the Cinnabon baker who brought a hot cup of lovely hot chocolate. To honor her, I tossed an extra dollar in the kettle. And then there was the young man who went in looking sour and left the same way when I wished him Merry Christmas and a good day. He was into the parking lot when I made my big mistake. “Grouch,” I said, I thought to myself. But he heard. He turned to glare, went to his car and drove by, glaring. I owe him an apology. I did not know what was troubling him. I had no business thinking, much less saying, that he was a grouch. Whatever the reason, I was having a better day than he was. So, sir, if you are reading this, I regret what I said. Have a happy holiday season. I put a dollar in the kettle for you.