Two hours as a Salvation Army bell ringer. Here's what happened in downtown Minneapolis.
10:57: "Walter" greets me in a blue Salvation Army apron. I'm given a red one with "Volunteer" prominently displayed, immediately raising my altruistic glow. He promises to be back at 1 p.m. sharp.
I notice the bells are smaller than before, a reduction in overhead, probably, with a ding more than a clang, but easier on the wrists. I'm in my red winter jacket, with wool socks, a vest underneath, gloves and my flashy cashmere scarf. I position myself next to the stand with the Salvation Army placard and kettle securely padlocked. I am ready. No one stops. It's cold.
11:17: My first donations! Coins tend to go clunk, while dollar bills have a sweet rustling sound as they squeeze through the crosslike cracks in the kettle. The donors and I exchange "Merry Christmas" and "thank you." After a brief rush, the kettle and I again wait.
Down the street, the TCF Bank sign blinks time and temperature. It's 38 degrees, short of the forecasted 40. The warm glow of the Macy's window display behind me doesn't extend onto the sidewalk. I'm beginning to feel like Andersen's "Little Match Girl."
Across the intersection, by the entrance to Barnes and Noble, a counterpart stands in a blue apron. She gets to open doors for passersby, a way to stay warm and to guilt at the same time. Appears to be quite effective.
11:28: An attractive young woman stops and slides some bills into the kettle. She asks to take my picture; must have been my scarf. I'm feeling warmer.
11:36: My friend John, who works in wealth management, comes down the street on the way to lunch, client in tow. I greet him. He looks puzzled until he recognizes me. I'm glad I have the red apron on that identifies me as a volunteer so as not to appear as a character out of the movie "Trading Places."
I'm wondering if dings work as well as the clangs of older bells. I calculate that with every flick of the wrist I get two dings. Averaging two flicks per second, I project 240 dings per minute; that's 14,400 per hour and 28,800 during my tour of duty. That rate should be effective in terms of enticement and keeping me warm, but neither seems to be working at the moment. I wonder if one could get carpal tunnel syndrome from volunteering.
11:54: The crowds have picked up and donations are starting to come in, albeit more clunk than rustle. When I rang at Ridgedale, I noticed that kids had a way of guilting parents into giving. We need more kids downtown.
12:15: TCF says that the temperature has gone up a degree. It's lying, I know; I'm still freezing and my ankle is starting to hurt along with my lower back. A video crew is coming down the street filming windows decorated for Christmas. I wonder if they will capture me for their newsreel. But they pass me by. Must not have seen my scarf.
12:38: John returns, hustling back to work in the IDS. He looks warm and satisfied, as does his client. I'm jealous. I'm freezing.
12:41: The time portion of the TCF sign must be stuck. A man in a yellow jacket comes by and tells me how he already gave money to my competition at Barnes and Noble. I tell him it's OK, but it still hurts.
Buses of schoolkids are coming and going from the Macy's eighth-floor Christmas display. A third-grader drops coins in the bucket and wants to pose with me for a schoolbook picture. For a moment, I feel warm again.
I'm getting good at directions. I know where McCormick & Schmick's is and that Target is only a block further down.
I wonder how many people donate online. I'm sure they'd like to explain as they hurry by, so they wouldn't have to avoid eye contact.
12:49: I'm really looking for Walter.
12:56: Here's Walter, smiling. We shake hands. His are warm.
I give him my red volunteer apron and head over to the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble. The ringer in blue holds the door. I make a rustling sound in her kettle. She smiles.
Tonight I will hear dinging in my sleep.
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Steven M. Lukas lives in Minneapolis.
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