Call of the Bell

One person rings a bell. Another person puts money in a kettle. The key is the bell. So, it seems, is the problem. In order for the Salvation Army to raise $4.5 million, money must come from many sources. But the hallmark and mainstay are the bell and kettle. Celebrities and volunteers create visibility and raise considerable funds, but the day-by-day laborers at the kettles are the needy themselves.

Hired bellringers are paid the minimum wage on a weekly basis and--if they need it--the Salvation Army provides three meals, a place to sleep, and whatever support services they need to get back on their feet. It is nearly a perfect job for anybody reaching for the first link in the economic food chain.

The Harbor Lights Center, behind the Greyhound station in downtown Minneapolis, is one of 10 service centers that staff about 300 bellringer locations in the metro area. About 60 of us filter in between 7 and 9 a.m. through the battered doors of a ramshackle garage behind the center. There is coffee and doughnuts, 50 or so chairs, one toilet, and an action movie in the VCR. The place looks like a poster for We Are the Third World.

The Salvation Army is purely functional at the level at which a problem needs to be dealt with. There is nothing fancy here. When the toilet overflows, somebody prods the sleepers so they can raise their feet until the problem is solved.

At 9 a.m. the chaplain turns off Mission: Impossible, reads a short selection from Proverbs, and follows it with a short commentary.

A woman in the second row says, "What do you mean?"

The chaplain looks at her sideways: "That was just a figure of speech," he says.

"That doesn't sound right. Read the Bible thing again."

"We have to move on. These people need to get to work."

"Yeah, but if I don't understand, then--"

"Be quiet now or step outside." The chaplain asks the Lord to watch over the bellringers and turns the VCR back on. Tom Cruise escapes a fiery helicopter crash. Jon Voight doesn't. Ten minutes later the VCR goes off again, somebody shouts "Listen up," and we are all assigned to one of 10 routes. We get our ID badges and a bag lunch and climb into the van that will disperse us from Monticello to Lakeville.

First time out I rang at Cub Foods in Elk River. People looked up when they left their cars and opened their purses and billfolds. One man said, "I was damn near wiped out last summer. When the tornado hit the Salvation Army was up here that night. The next day we had food, clothing, and temporary housing. I'll never forget it." For a couple of days I was at Target and Rainbow on East Lake Street. It's a blue-collar neighborhood where nobody says much, but the stream of coins and dollars is steady.

Some people are naturals at bellringing. Two days after he arrived from Youngstown, Ohio, Michael collected more than $400 at the Target in Buffalo. A clean-cut, outdoorsy guy who was on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia, at age 13, Michael keeps going the 40 miles up to Buffalo and coming back with heavy kettles. When I ask him how he does it he says, "I just stand there. Jesus brings the money." He won't stop talking about Jesus long enough to tell me how he can consistently wind up in the top 10 locations. Finally I say, "Michael, when you're up there on the pavement, do you tell people about Jesus?" He grins and says, "What do you think?"

You can talk to people or even sing carols if you want. You can't yell, "Show me the money."

At Rainbow on East Lake one day, Honduras Jose is on the exit door and I'm 50 feet away at the entrance. Jose doesn't have much of a clapper in his bell, so all of a sudden he starts banging on the side of his kettle with the bell, then the top, then the bar that runs up to the Sharing and Caring sign, and then the sign itself. He works out a really noisy salsa thing. People are looking up from all over the parking lot and laughing at him while he jumps around. The money picks up until he tires and stops his act. He looks over and shrugs. "I get bored," he says.

At Burnsville Center, the sound of the bell over the parking lot gives people time to make up their minds. I'm at the side door at J.C. Penny--not an imposing entrance, plus there is a snowstorm creeping up from Iowa. Suddenly, around 11 a.m., I am invaded. Young mothers with children in handsome plaid strollers are coming from everywhere, bearing neatly folded dollar bills their toddlers--except for the painfully shy--will put in the kettle slot with great intensity. Children like the bell and I let them ring it. But they really like putting money in the slot, one coin at a time.

By 1 p.m. most of the strollers have departed for nap time. The snow line has halted south of the city, so the next wave is older people venturing out now that the streets and sidewalks are safe. Among them the best contributors are pairs of women friends. The most amusing are old guys who poke through a palmful of change and finally come up with the same thing their father doled out to waitresses and charities alike. A quarter.

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