I had my little silver bell.
I had my red kettle.
I stood, ready to flash a megawatt smile in exchange for a few coins or bills.
This would be my first time tending a red kettle for Lodi’s Salvation Army.
Sure, I wanted to spread some holiday cheer.
And I definitely wanted something good for a story.
But most of all, I wanted money. At least $150. That’s how much a typical bell-ringer takes in during a standard shift. That’s what keeps the Salvation Army’s lights on.
Could I somehow persuade people to give that much to a complete stranger? Much less a stranger standing cold and nervous outside the 7Up machine in front of the Food-4-Less on Kettleman Lane?
It was 9:56 a.m. I had four hours.
The work seems easy to an outsider. But it takes determination, thick socks and genuine goodwill toward others to be a successful bell-ringer.
Bell-ringing is among the biggest fundraisers of the year for the nonprofit and goes directly into the general fund. Capt. Martin Ross, who runs the Lodi branch with his wife, Tori, signed me up for half a shift on Saturday.
That’s eight full hours of standing outside in the cold. In my four-hour shift, I would settle for about $75 or $80. Anything less, and I’d be a Christmas failure.
The Lodi Corps runs 23 bell-ringing stations six days a week during the holiday season in Lodi, Galt and the Lockeford areas. Ideally, these would all be manned by volunteers. But the Salvation Army makes a few hires each year to fill in the gaps.
Those hires met up at 9 a.m. for a quick meeting in the Salvation Army conference room.
Kathleen Hogue, a bell-ringer with four seasons of experience, stepped forward to help me get set up. Her list of advice was short: “Say Merry Christmas. Sing if you want. Be cheerful and high-energy. Also, don’t forget to hydrate. You’ll be warmer.”
She asked if I had a scarf and gloves in the car. I said I did, wanting to look prepared. I lied. This is California. Id be fine in a sweatshirt and jeans, right? It was only a few hours.
Hogue handed me kettle No. 6. It was bright red, with a handle and a thick padlock the size of a child’s fist. Whatever went in there would not be coming out.
It was my job to cart it out to the store, set up the station, and get to ringing. How hard could this be?
Stationed in the field
At the store, I located the kettle stand and asked a cashier where I should position it outside.
“Oh no, we have nothing to do with that,” she said.
Um, OK. Great. So I’ll just take this cumbersome metal contraption and walk out, then.
In his debriefing, Ross told me smiling was the key to turning a walk-on-by into a donor.
“We do not ask for money,” he said. “We smile, and say ‘hello’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’ Maybe a ‘God bless you.’ They see the kettle. Most people know what it’s for.”
As a former Girl Scout cookie saleswoman and a reporter eager to get quotes for my stories, I know how to turn on a smile. It’s bright, it’s big and it hones in on a target with laser focus.
Before I could unleash that grinning weapon, I had to get the jitters out.
The first 10 minutes were nerve-wracking. How loud should I ring this bell? Like a cowbell, or more of a delicate jingle? Should I be singing? Maybe not. I don’t want to scare anyone off. Do I stand on the tiny stained rug that came with the kettle stand? Do I say hello? Hi? How are you? Just merry Christmas? How much eye contact is too much? A determined stare or casual glance?
I was so wrapped up in my nerves that I almost didn’t notice my first donor. A man in a tan sweater strode by and quickly tucked a few singles into the red kettle. I stammered my thanks.
That was three dollars. Seventy-seven more to go. I rang louder.
As the cold sank in, I knew it was time to up my game. I turned on the smile. Bam.
The next target was a blond man returning his grocery cart, who pulled a few green bills from his pocket and donated them.
I tried it out on a woman in a pink vest. She grinned back and dropped in her pocket change.
The smile was warmed up. Will this one open his wallet? No. Try the next one. I see her reaching for her purse. Nah, she’s just getting her car keys out.
All right, here’s a kid in a Spider-Man T-shirt with his mom. Would he like a free lollipop? Of course he would. And there’s mom with a dollar in her hand. In the kettle it goes. Thank you very much, ma’am.
An hour into my adventure, the rush of shoppers slowed down. I bounced on my feet and swayed in place. Time to belt out a Christmas carol. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” came out in a whisper. “The Little Drummer Boy” was more confident. By the time I got to “Deck the Halls,” I was singing with gusto. That’s when I noticed a guy in a Food-4-Less jacket was giving me the side-eye, as though an alien had popped out of a crack in the sidewalk. Sing-along time was over.
I shot my next megawatt smile at a man in a gray sweatshirt. He slipped a small wad of dollar bills into the kettle and started talking. The man was an apartment manager and told me how some of his tenants needed help with food and rent last winter. The Salvation Army was there for them.
It was a cool story, but if I was stuck talking to one person, three more walked by before I could holler, “Merry Christmas!” Those were potential donors getting away. I offered the chatterbox another grin and a cheery “That’s wonderful,” and he finally left.
No one had the guts to ignore me outright. Instead, they awkwardly tried to justify themselves. One guy gave at another kettle. Another wrote a fat check to the Salvation Army. Several said they paid with a card at the store, and had no change.
Guys, I don’t care why you don’t donate. It’s your choice. Just don’t make this weirder than it is.
By 2 p.m. my shift was over.
I picked up my kettle and shook it a bit. I heard a few coins rattle. Was it empty, or were piles of dollar bills muffling the sound?
“It doesn’t matter how much someone puts in, in coins or dollars,” said Ross, who had arrived to take my kettle and take over the station. “It’s about the heart of giving, and God blesses that.”
It mattered to me and my frozen toes. But I wouldn’t find out my total for three days.
Back in the office on Tuesday, I searched though my email for a message from Ross. This would reveal exactly how much money I was able to raise for the Salvation Army with a bell and my best smile.
I found the message and clicked to open it. I had raised $176.79.
Not bad, for a rookie.