Ringing a bell for the Salvation Army

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Charles Featherstone

MOSES LAKE — The man walking across the parking lot noticed me immediately.

“How long until that makes you go tone deaf?” he asked of the tiny bell I was ringing.

“Well, I’ve been at this for 10 minutes and so far, I’m OK,” I said.

“So, 10 minutes it is, then,” he said as he folded a bill and dropped it into the little red kettle beside me.

Ten minutes. Only 10 minutes. It was going to be a long afternoon, standing here outside Safeway, ringing this tiny bell for the Salvation Army, trying to greet everyone walking by. And trying to raise a little money for those in need.

People I’d never meet.

I volunteered during an interview two weeks ago with Andrea Carrillo, social services director with the Salvation Army in Moses Lake. I figured it would be an interesting way to see the community.

And have the community see me.

It’s hard not to count the minutes. I glance at my watch a lot. And I have to tighten the bell, which is threatening to fly apart, every now and then.

I begin by proclaiming, to whoever looks at me, “A blessed Advent!” And not “Merry Christmas.” Because I know my church calendar, and I know it isn’t actually Christmas until Christmas actually arrives. But only a few — I could probably count them on one hand — knew what to do with “Blessed Advent.” Several insisted, almost angrily, upon “Merry Christmas.”

Eventually, I got too cold standing there to be that proactive. “Good afternoon” or “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” As I tried to keep the watch glancing down to every 10 or 15 minutes.

Who puts money in the pot? Older people, mostly, though families with small children are also big givers. Mostly because of the novelty, the excitement, of doing something they normally don’t get to do — put money in a pot, say “hi” to an approved stranger.

A mom gives a dollar to her youngest son, and he curls it up in his hand. It’s clear I’m just a little too big and a little too loud for him, and he just can’t manage it. He turns and buries his face in his mom’s pant leg, and his older sister grabs the dollar, folds it up, and puts it in the pot.

“The big sister knows how to do it!” she said.

One little girl, riding in the back of a shopping cart, held her hand out, grasping.

“Can I have some money from the pot?” she asked.

I don’t think it works that way.

Young people and single men of nearly all ages walk past, either avoiding eye contact completely or giving me what seem to be slightly guilty and ashamed or even suspicious looks. It gets colder, or I get colder after nearly two hours standing outside in December. I’m barely saying much of anything to anyone now.

And then my two hours is up. A young man looks at me. “I’m your replacement,” he said. He barely looks old enough.

But the pot is locked and secured and it isn’t going anywhere. I hand him the bell, tell him to stay warm, and then I’m off.

To get a few groceries. And some change. So I can fold up a bill, and put it in the pot myself this year.

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