Silver and Bells
By Jeff Berg
Captain Kevin Bottjen had told me to be at the meeting place for my new, albeit temporary, money-specialist position at 8 a.m. sharp on Christmas Eve Day last year. At that time, I would receive training and equipment for my latest attempt at gainful employment.
The instructions for my new short-term job were pretty simple, and did not last long.
There was no meeting with the director of human resources to tell me all about the wonderful benefit plans of my new employer, nor was there much of a chance for advancement or a raise. 401(k) or health insurance? Not a chance.
Rather I was given my uniform, which consisted of an apron, spotted from heavy use—"They are really hard to clean," the captain remarked—and my paraphernalia, which consisted of a pen, a bell and a heavy red bucket and a stand for same. Captain Bottjen handed me a timecard to fill out, and I hopped into a battered old van to ride to a location he'd selected, where I would work for the day.
Once we were on the road, I exchanged introductions with my new co-workers, all of whom were vastly more experienced than I. But the strain of the long days and hours showed on some of their faces.
"We have 21 locations this year," the Captain told me. "But since we have been short of help, we don't have a bell ringer at each one. Usually we can get 15 covered, and 18 to 19 is the average."
So, my one-day job with the Salvation Army Red Kettle campaign last Christmas was as a bell-ringer. My six co-workers in the van had been working the entire season, which in 2004 began on Nov. 20, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The 2005 campaign kicked off at halftime of the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day football game between the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.
One of my van mates was a dead ringer (you must excuse that pun) for film director Quentin Tarantino. I couldn't help noticing another young man, who had very short hair in which he had the Zia symbol, so common in New Mexico, shaved on the back of his head.
Everyone was bundled up, as it had been a cold (at least for around here) evening, and the morning chill was still in the air. One woman had on so many layers that I hoped she wouldn't tip over, as she would surely never get up without help.
Captain Bottjen drove us to the first stop on our rounds, the Wal-Mart just off Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces. Several other "bellers" assisted in getting our first passenger out and set up, and then it was on to Hastings and the curiously named Big Lots.
"So, here is your training," the captain said to me. "Make eye contact as much as you can. Be friendly." (Who, me? The role model for Ebenezer Scrooge?) "Try and keep some holiday spirit, even though after a while, it will seem rather mechanical. This is the toughest day of the campaign, as many people have what we call 'donor fatigue' now. They are more interested in doing last-minute things and getting ready for tomorrow."
We pulled up to our next drop-off point, after Hastings, which was an Albertson's store. "This has been one of our best spots this year, so we always have someone here," the captain said.
Normally, the Target store next to Albertson's would have been the next stop, but the corporate moguls at that usually civic-minded chain decided no longer to allow the Salvation Army to solicit donations in front of its stores, nationwide. Target joined an array of other retailers, such as Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and Home Depot, in banning these merry minimum-wage-earning bell ringers. (My stint was actually as a volunteer, as were several other shifts that were performed by the Las Cruces Kiwanis last year. "We are really slow on volunteers this year," lamented Captain Bottjen.)
Ostensibly, the ban by Target was "to avoid having to choose between competing charities and out of concern for customers." Another of the reasons cited by a spokesperson for Circuit City, a nationwide retailer of electronic trinkets, was that shoppers "'are coming here for a reason, and the reason is not for solicitation of any kind by a third party."
And who knows? The two bucks that someone stuffs in a Salvation Army kettle might be well otherwise be spent on some "Made in China" item in one of the retail behemoths.
The previous year, bell ringers in front of Target stores around the country had been able to finagle $9 million dollars from the generous souls who passed by or into the stores.
The Salvation Army bell-ringers have also been, er, targeted by atheists objecting to the organization's evangelical underpinnings and by gay activists, charging that the organization's policies are not friendly to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. That brought a response from a group called Concerned Women for America (CWA); the director of the CWA's Culture and Family Institute, Robert Knight (no doubt concerned, but apparently not a woman), complained, "Needy families are not even on the radar screen of these homosexual activist groups, who are more interested in promoting acceptance of sodomy than in the Salvation Army's ongoing charity efforts to keep poor people fed and clothed."
The Salvation Army has been around since 1865. It claims to be one of the largest charitable and service organizations in the world, with 9,000 operations centers around the country. They feed the hungry, clothe the poor and help with all manner of natural disasters worldwide. Their Christian backdrop sometimes causes them to be on the defensive, but more often than not, the Army is there "supporting those in need, in His name without discrimination."
Nonetheless, 'tis the season for agendas. . . .
We drove on to the next stop, which would be my spot for the day, Sam's Club. I have to admit, I have only ever been in one Sam's Club one time. That was when Sam's Club opened its Santa Fe store, and offered a momentary free pass to everyone to come in and check it out. I was overwhelmed by all the "stuff" and have never been back.
Captain Bottjen and Quentin Tarantino helped me set up my kettle close to, but not too near, the entrance of the huge store.
"Hand me your pen," the Captain said. Puzzled, I complied. "Don't allow money to be touched by your hands. If someone tries to hand you some money, just ask him or her to put it in the bucket themselves."
He shoved an imaginary dollar bill into the small slot in the donation bucket using my Salvation Army pen.
"You get two 15-minute breaks, and a half-hour lunch, or you can combine that for an hour lunch. If you need to use the restroom, take the bucket in the store, and leave it with the people at the service counter.
"If anyone steals, they go to jail," he went on. I must have had that look in my eye, but the captain was smiling when he said this. "Also, don't let someone distract you, as they may have someone working with them to steal your kettle.
"We have had workers steal from us before, and you can tell when they do it. It hasn't happened this year." I remembered the captain saying something about a video called "Help, Someone's Stealing My Kettle," but I think I lucked out on having to watch that, since I was just a one-day wonder.
The captain and Quentin Tarantino piled back into the van, and sped off in the old rattletrap to the next bell-ringer spot. I was on my own.
It was still quite early, just before 9 a.m., and Sam's Club was slow to come to life. The sky was wintertime blue, and the sun was lazily making its way over the Organ Mountains as I settled into my spot. I felt a little silly standing there with nothing really to do, except wait.
The captain had told me that the average amount that the Salvation Army has been collecting per kettle this season is $180 per day. In 2004, the amount collected nationally totaled an astonishing $95.3 million dollars, although some of that comes from corporate sponsors. About 83 cents of every dollar goes to good deeds in 5,000 communities nationwide.
"This week, the Sam's Club kettle has wrangled up between $100 and $250 per day," I was told. Talk about pressure.
I later learned that the Las Cruces Sam's Club can pull in $30,000 a day in sales. I guess I must be the only person in town who does not shop there.
After a half-hour or so, people started to come to the store. I palmed my bell, and let 'er peal in hopes that most people are used to the Pavlov's dog type of thinking that goes with it, and would come up with a fistful of dollars. At times, I did a little two-step, but not when anyone was actually watching.
I love watching people, and thank the maker of Ray Bans daily. I can be a hidden observer behind my dark aviator glasses, but still look friendly and charming. Well, friendly, anyway.
I noted the following:
Business was rather brisk as the morning went on. I tried ringing my bell in little patterns, or not at all if no one was nearby. After a while, it did seem like a mild form of torture. One of my genteel co-workers in the van later told me that he tried counting the number of times he rang his bell one day, and came up with the figure of 47,539 rings. No one questioned whether he was telling the truth.
An elderly woman walked by, frowning. She stopped and began to ramble on about pregnant teenagers. I didn't have a clue as to how this came up, since I am neither, or why I was the recipient of her diatribe, but I rang my bell louder and more steadily as my eyes rolled back even further into my head, hoping that she'd get the message. After a few moments, she mumbled, "too much freedom," and headed into the store, probably to verbally assault an unfortunate employee.
The day passed quickly, especially after my wife showed up with a meal in a tortilla, a genuine burrito from the nearby Grille de la Convenience Store. Since I hadn't really done any work, other than to call my carpal tunnel out of retirement from shaking the bell, this gargantuan treat, filled with scrambled egg, taters, rice and queso, sat rather heavily in my digestive system for too long a time.
But the day was most successful, I decided. Many of the people who came to Sam's Club have been generous, disproving the donor-fatigue idea. Only a few ignored my gentle cajoling. The two people who I arm-wrestled for $5 each, also left in good spirits.
The only other incident of note came when a young boy was swiftly and brusquely escorted back to the family sedan for a "time-out," to help treat a bad case of the "I wants."
About 3 p.m. or so, Captain Bottjen pulled up in the scruffy and cluttered van. We loaded my kettle and myself into it and took off.
Captain Bottjen and his wife, Tina, who is also a Salvation Army captain, had been in Las Cruces for just over three years (they left for a new assignment sometime during 2005; my later phone calls and emails to them went unanswered). They had also been in Oregon and Montana, and he had earned a business degree while he was living in Colorado.
His cell phone rang every two minutes during the short time I spent with him.
As we picked up the rest of the bell ringers, I spoke with most of them briefly. Several dozed off immediately; others were animated and still full of energy. One older man told me, "I was 10 years old, and the only Christmas I had that year came from this outfit (the Salvation Army). I have never forgotten that." The man, slender and weary-looking, will probably have to rely on the services of the Salvation Army again this year.
We pulled up to the vacant storefront that was been donated to the Salvation Army to conduct its kettle campaign. All of the kettles were stacked in the cramped office in the rear of the store, where another small army of volunteers had gathered to count this day's glad tidings.
I filled out my time card, turned in my apron and bell, pocketed my Salvation Army pen as a souvenir, and faded away into the growing dusk of the evening.