A day in the life of a Salvation Army foot soldier.
I love the smell of lip balm in the morning.
It smells like victory. And petroleum jelly. But mostly victory.
Out here a chapped mouth can be a soldier's worst enemy and I'll be damned if a little trenchlip will stop me from seeing combat. A small tube of Carmex defends against the opposition forces advancing from the sun in the south and the biting December wind whipping in from the east. But cracked lips are the least of my worries.
I'm serving my tour of duty in Sector Whiskey-Mike, more commonly known to civilians as Wal-Mart. The intel from HQ is that this place is crawling with combatants. There's no telling when that damn yellow smiley face will topple prices and cause a massive scrum of humanity to hurtle through the front doors pushing, elbowing and gouging eyes in a chaotic effort to stake claim to a discount Xbox, Furby or whatever the hell else little Jack and Susie are pining for this Chriswanzaakuh.
I don't concern myself with why they're here, what they intend to buy and who they may or may not shiv in order to do so. My mission is to secure funds for the war chest and maybe spread some holiday cheer along the way. I'm going to show these people the Christmas spirit if I have to rip it out of their sternums with my bare hands.
I'm not a lieutenant in the Marines, an ensign in the Coast Guard or a rear admiral in the Navy.
I'm a volunteer in the Salvation Army.
By signing up I joined a fighting force that answers to a higher power. The Salvation Army was founded by an English minister in 1865 to preach to the impoverished people of London's East End before adopting a quasi-military structure in 1878, the year it officially became the Salvation Army.
Its officers-all ordained ministers-wear military style uniforms and hold ranks ranging from captain to general. According to the Salvation Army Web site, the structure "provides a useful analogy for the work of the Salvation Army, which organizes its soldiers (members) to do battle in an ongoing war against evil, injustice and oppression."
The organization bills itself as an evangelical arm of the universal Christian Church-sort of like how Sinn Fein is the political branch of the IRA-with its primary mission being to preach the gospel and serve the needy in the name of the big JC.
As for me, you could call me a foot soldier-or Lay Salvationist in the organization's parlance-although I haven't signed its "Articles of War" which officially enlist a person in the corps.
Such formalities are unnecessary considering my tour will be all of eight hours-although eight hours in front of Wal-Mart at Christmas time can't be much better than eight months in Fallujah. The dark irony of my assignment is not lost on me. Wal-Mart and the Salvation Army have a long-term partnership that allows kettles in front of all 3,800 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club locations nationwide. Wal-Mart is considered a plum assignment for soliciting donations to help the needy because of its high-traffic flow which-here's the irony-is comprised primarily of the neediest people in Santa Fe drawn to the big-box low prices.
I was mobilized into service by the announcement that the Santa Fe Salvation Army was looking for a few good men and women. And by a "few," I mean "1,000" and by "good" I mean "capable of standing and ringing a bell for a couple hours." But, as of Nov. 25, the local chapter still needed approximately 1,000 volunteers to reinforce the 19 who had already signed up as paid ringers. Hundreds more heeded the call by the time I received my battlefield commission a week later, but the lines were still porous and our window of opportunity was growing smaller with each passing day.
The timing is critical. A sizable chunk of the Salvation Army's defense spending is procured during the bell-ringing season, which runs from Nov. 18 until Christmas Eve. The time frame represents what those in the porn industry refer to as "the money shot." We don't work on the Lord's day, which means we have exactly 32 days-roughly the duration of the first Gulf War-to raise enough Benjamins to help finance vital programs that provide food, shelter, counseling and rehabilitation to those in need.
I answered the call with the blood of Christ coursing through my veins and the fire of the Holy Spirit welling inside my rib cage. As luck would have it, the Salvation Army's motto-"Blood and Fire"-represents precisely those two things. I would put them both to use serving under the command of my superior officer, Captain Jerry Gattis-director of the Santa Fe corps-who will arrive soon to deliver my primary munitions.
Lollipops. Cherry in flavor and brittle plastic in texture. These little red suckers are my arsenal for the Treat Offensive. But they are hardly the only weapon at my disposal. I also will have a snazzy windbreaker, a candy-apple-red donation kettle and-of course-a small silver bell.
Indeed, when I arrive at Wal-Mart shortly after 10 am and
my credentials to a pony-tailed civilian working the customer service counter, he hands me my red windbreaker and kettle. Then he drops the bomb:
"I don't know what the other guy did with the bell," he says with a shrug.
And you thought the troops in Iraq were ill-equipped. I'm suddenly a bell-ringer with nary a bell to ring. I half-heartedly drag my kettle stand out onto the sidewalk and set up my post between the Fanta and Pepsi machines.
I am fully prepared to lamely mutter, "ding…ding…ding" until reinforcements arrive but, as I squeeze into my red jacket-the one with "Need Knows No Season" stitched across the left breast-I'm delighted to find the bell has been stashed in a coat pocket.
It's in a sad state, however, with tattered baling twine tied to the handle and a twisted paper clip where the actual bell should have been. I give it a few pathetic dings. It isn't much, but better than nothing.
The store already bustles with activity. The parking lot is full of cars, the aisles are crowded with people and the cash registers are humming. Still, more than 30 minutes elapse before anyone acknowledges my presence. Psychologists call it the "fight or flight" response. People hear my meager bell as they stride out the door and immediately look to the left, ostensibly to check for traffic, until they're clear of my blast radius.
I should have known.
Before being deployed, I had rolled through town on a recon mission-wary of IEDs by the roadside disguised as Toys for Tots boxes-where it became apparent this war had already taken its toll. Our ranks were decimated. Many posts had gone abandoned, leaving us defenseless in broad daylight.
One comrade in arms debriefed the situation to me in front of the Sanbusco shopping center (code name Sierra Bravo). Like any good covert operative, she declines to be identified. But, given the huge black Ted Kaczynski aviator sunglasses she sports, I affectionately call her the Unabeller. She wisely cautions me to the sometimes cold indifference often exhibited by our quarry.
"It can be discouraging when people walk by and completely ignore you," she says. "Sometimes I feel like if I was collecting money for the animal shelter people would be more generous. For some reason people in this town seem to care more about dogs than they do other people."
The Unabeller and compatriots like Mr. Cash-a grizzled cowboy posted in front of Trader Joe's with no apparent need of a first name-are among several people who are being paid the city's $8.50 living wage an hour to man kettles because the corps is so desperate for volunteers.
"Basically we're mercenaries," Mr. Cash says. "I'm a hired hand. Bell-ringers during this season are basically the backbone of the Salvation Army-this is where a lot of their funds come from-and this is good work, giving of one's self. After all, above anything else, this is about helping people in their time of need."
Nobody seems willing to help me in my time of need. When I
finally do get recognition, it comes from a kid in a reflector vest pushing shopping carts across the parking lot. He bobs his head to the ringing bell and coos
Girl, shake dat Laffy Taffy, dat Laffy Taffy, dat Laffy Taffy
. I try to adjust the cadence accordingly but D4L songs aren't exactly my specialty and my creative license is hamstrung by my paperclip bell. When that fails, I tell the kid I'm taking requests. He smirks and demands that I play the 17-minute Iron Butterfly epic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
"Don't be monotonous to the people with your ring," Mr. Cash had instructed me. "You have to mix it up, find your own style and go with it. But don't ring the bell just to ring the bell. There's no sense ringing it unless somebody is there."
Then again, there doesn't seem to be much sense in ringing the bell if nobody is listening. Most people look at me with timid reluctance when they look my way at all. It's as if I'd forgotten to put on pants when I left the apartment this morning. I cheerfully wish everyone who passes a good morning, most reciprocate the greeting and offer a quick smile before they dart past. A few can't be bothered with such meager pleasantries, including one self-important fascist in sunglasses who simply sneers past.
I nevertheless understand their reluctance. I've done the same thing and so have you. The most common method is the premeditated diversion. You fumble in your purse, review the contents of your shopping bag, quickly call someone on your cell or at least pretend to. You wait until some other poor sap gets sucked over to the kettle, then blow past on the other side. You look at the ground. Look at the sky. Fake a heart attack. Whatever it takes.
I personally haven't given much these days. The simple fact is I'm not capable of carrying hard currency anymore. I peddle exclusively with credit cards. I would love to feed the homeless, save the Canadian whooping crane and sponsor some snot-nosed orphan in Burkina Faso but frankly, buddy, I don't see any crease on you where I'd want to swipe my Visa.
Nonetheless, besides the cherry lollipops and sheer guilt of my presence, I have other strategies to solicit donations if I needed to break the glass in case of emergency. I could offer incredulous claims like, "Every penny you give to the Salvation Army cures a leukemia patient in North Dakota," or utter ambiguously menacing statements like, "I'm afraid I'll do it again if you don't put a quarter in the kettle."
Then again, if I wanted to go the paranoid intimidation route, all I'd have to do is sing a few select Christmas carols. Have you actually listened to the lyrics of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"?
He sees you when you're sleeping / He knows when you're awake / He knows when you've been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake
. Music and lyrics by George Orwell.
Turns out, none of that is necessary. My first donor comes 36 minutes into Operation Enduring Need'em when an elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat drops 15 cents in the kettle. I never thought I'd be so happy to be nickel and dimed. Soon after, a nice old biddy, who has been waiting for a senior citizen shuttle for more than an hour and is wearing a sweater with kittens stitched on it, drops in a dollar.
Here's a free stock tip: Put all your money into whatever company makes Special Kitty cat food and Tidy Cats cat litter. An inordinate number of people leaving Wal-Mart are older ladies hefting 20-pound bags of these products.
There are other items, sure. Judging by the shopping cart contents, there's a sale on Brawny paper towels and 23-inch televisions. People come. They go. They buy toilet paper, 12-packs of generic cola, jugs of canola oil and antifreeze, home theater systems, ice scrapers and bags of potato chips.
What most of them don't appear to have is spare change. After an hour I've netted about $2.52. Then a middle-aged woman with big black hair and sunglasses stops and asks, "Do you guys take checks?"
Hellfreakingyeah we take checks.
"I've been wanting to give you guys something but I never have any cash," the woman, who declines to be identified, explains. "I think the Salvation Army is a wonderful organization. I've seen them help a lot of people-they've helped me at times-and I think it's just a really good thing."
With that she stuffs a $10 check in the kettle.
As the morning drags on, and with nothing better to do, I decide to collect intelligence on troop movements. From 11:15 am until 12:15 pm, 498 shoppers walk out the exit, and 30 of them donate something. At that rate I am going to see approximately 4,000 people walk out of Wal-Mart and about 240 of them-or 6 percent-drop something in the kettle. I need to up the ante. I find an extra paper clip and magnify my ringing ability twofold. It's on like Donkey Kong.
Except it's not. I'm starting to show signs of battle fatigue well into my fourth hour on the line. I shake my notebook for five minutes before realizing it isn't the bell. At this pace, by the end of the day I'll be drooling on myself and staring quizzically at the Fanta machine like Jack Nicholson post-lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Three soldiers in US Army fatigues approach my position. I'm uncertain what the protocol is for saluting other branches of the military but it turns out the only salute I would be inclined to give them is the one-fingered variety after the three stride past without giving me a second glance.
It's time for reinforcements. Jerry Gattis to the rescue. The captain arrives and apologizes for being late. He was showing some visiting Islamic clerics around HQ. Now it's game time. Gattis may only be a captain in the Salvation Army but he moves around a kettle with the confidence of a field general. First, he moves my position so that it's directly in front of the exit. No retreat, no surrender. Then he hands me his personal bell, shiny silver, unencumbered by twine and with an actual bell instead of a paper clip.
He expertly begins greeting each person with a hello, Merry Christmas, God bless, how are you today, etc. He advises me in no uncertain terms not to fire until I see the whites of their eyes. After that, he leaves me in command. Turns out his strategy is far more effective, if a tad less subtle. The meek may inherit the earth, but they sure as hell aren't going to win a war like this one.
Then again, it seems the meek are the ones financing this war.
During my recon mission, comrades like the Unabeller, Mr. Cash and Juan George Martinez-commander of the Sam's Club kettle-had informed me that the needy are the most inclined to give to the needy.
"The ones who donate the most are the young, the poor and the elderly," Martinez says. "The rich don't. You can tell them by their clothing, they dress the part. Basically they're all business when they walk out of here. They rarely stop. But I still wish them a Merry Christmas anyway."
Ah, the old "Merry Christmas." I had attempted to avert that linguistic land mine by greeting people with an innocuous "happy holidays" but soon discovered most people appraised my politically correct posturing with eye-rolling derision.
"Merry Christmas," a middle-aged woman retorts as she forcibly stuffs a George Washington in my kettle. "Ditch that 'happy holidays' crap."
You're either with Santa or you're against him.
The consumers of Wal-Mart are with him, even if not all of them seem to be entirely with it. This appears to be a favorite shopping locale for the mentally disturbed. And I am apparently the nougat in these nut bars. One unnerving young woman-who resembles the creepy prepubescent from The Ring-stands a few feet from me for the better part of an hour chain-sucking lollipops and occasionally breaking out in a manic cackle, her eyes trained squarely on me the entire time. Then comes the dust buster.
"You with the Salvation Army?" the robust woman asks, accusingly.
I confirm her suspicions.
"I used to work for them but I was too ugly," the woman says, before adding, "Everybody is going to be turned to dust. Ain't nobody going to turn me into dust. God has already turned me into dust."
Um…how's that working out for you?
The kettle is finally starting to work out for me.
As the Friday afternoon crowd turns into the Friday evening crowd, my little red-headed tin begins to swell with pride, if not dollar-bills. The joy of the impending weekend, the holiday ambiance or perhaps good old-fashioned caring seems to have imbued folks with generosity largely missing earlier in the day. The lollipops don't hurt either. When they run out, I am forced to enter the chaos inside the store to procure emergency Blow-Pop rations.
I am quickly discovering that the blue-collar people-whom my fellow soldiers had predicted would contribute the bulk of donation-are indeed assuming the role of both primary benefactors and likely beneficiaries. Which is somewhat expected. This is Wal-Mart, after all, and that is an idle Pontiac Grand Am blasting Great White's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" in the parking lot.
Nevertheless, this scene is steadily turning into a freaking Hallmark Channel special as the mostly bedraggled masses line up to the kettle. People in wheelchairs, walking on crutches and carrying oxygen tanks.
Old women and little boys divvy up whatever they can. A mother empties all the change in her purse and divides the meager sum evenly among her five blond children, none of whom are tall enough to ride a roller coaster. They step up to the kettle one at a time and timidly deposit their cargo. One malnourished man with a ragged beard and watery eyes follows to deposit his pocket change.
"I haven't done one thing right all day," the man croaks, "but at least I can do this."
It's a heartwarming scene, even if I feel like I'm robbin' the hood by taking from the poor and giving to the…poor. But as my fellow volunteer Karl Moffatt had opined while manning the Walgreen's on St. Francis Drive the previous day, sympathy kicks empathy's ass any day.
"I guess people who have lived on the edge are a little more cognizant of what it's like to need a helping hand," Moffat, a former journalist, says (for some reason, four of the five bell-ringers I speak with have worked in the newspaper business in one way or the other). "Things are hard these days. But for the grace of God, that could be you or I standing in the chow line at the Salvation Army."
Now we're defending it. If for nobody else than the children, who repeatedly charge toward my kettle like it's the fallen flag on that hill in Iwo Jima. Most of them are initially leery-considering I look like Kris Kringle's Harley-driving stepbrother-and it takes a two-minute debate with one 6-year-old girl in order to convince her that I am not, in fact, Santa Claus but a humble elf afflicted with gigantism.
Once they deposit their money, the kids smile, whisper "Merry Christmas" or "Feliz Navidad," then scamper away happily with a Salvation Army lollipop clutched tightly in their tiny hands.
The sight warms the cockles, which is good because my cockles are frozen. As the daylight fades, the wind picks up its assault and the mercury drops. Hey, Holy Spirit, wanna stoke that fire? It's getting a little nipply out here.
Rumor has it that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. I figure I've done my part to repopulate the armies of heaven but at this point of the day, every time a bell rings, my grip on sanity loosens ever so slightly. The ding-ding-ding of the bell is ringing in my head even when the bell is silent. For variety's sake, I attempt to sound out the rhythm to Dr. Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringing" and AC/DC's "Hell's Bells." It doesn't go over well.
As night falls, the parking lot lights come on, the Wal-Mart sign overhead blinks to life and the Fanta machine washes the storefront in an eerie orange glow. Headlights dance across my position as a caravan of cars jockey for parking spaces and droves of people usher in and out of the door. The checkout lines are each at least 10-deep. With this kind of traffic, we may need to think about adding a new Super Wal-Mart. Oh yeah, done and done.
My legs are getting weak. I'm starting to fade. But the people keep on coming and the kettle is beginning to make the stand sag under its weight. Finally, as my shift nears its end, Jerry pulls onto the curb in his van-kind of like the A-Team van except not cool and with a Salvation Army emblem on the side instead of racing stripes-to relieve me of duty. He lifts the kettle and nods with approval.
"This is a good bucket," El Capitan says. "You can tell by the feel. I'll bet there's $400 or $500 in here. You did good."
I did good. That's all I need to hear. I slowly drag the stand inside, pull off my windbreaker and stash it behind the bustling customer service counter. My tour over, I shuffle out into the chill December night ready to rejoin the civilian ranks.
My legs are stiff. My back is sore. My cheeks are singed with wind burns. The frigid weather has long since sent my testes on a spelunking expedition into my esophagus.
But it feels good. It feels like victory.