It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s chilly. The department store parking lot is filled with cars.
A woman rings a bell, standing beside a green bucket. She’s raising money for kids with cancer. She wears a Santa hat and sings “Joy to the World.”
I put a few bucks in the bucket. It’s not much, but every bit counts. Ringing a bell for donations is rough work.
Once, I rang a bell outside a supermarket. I was a pathetic, skinny, nineteen-year-old Southern Baptist wearing a stocking hat.
I stood beside a bucket from morning until late afternoon. Hardly anyone noticed me. A few smiled, some tossed in pennies, but most pretended I didn’t exist.
My first day ringing the bell, I raised seven dollars for a program at our church that bought gifts for children in the cancer ward. Seven lousy bucks.
That night, Brother James, looked at my stack of quarters and said, “Don’t feel too bad about it, son, lotta people are busy. They ain’t bad people, just busy.”
But I did feel bad about it. I had met some of the pediatric cancer patients. They were normal, happy, fun-loving kids with hairless heads and big hearts. For some of them, it would be their last Christmas. I wanted to know that these children would get a few gifts from a fat man in a red suit.
I decided not to give up. One night, I went to my uncle for advice.
He listened to my problem without responding. And after I vented my frustration, he smiled, patted my shoulder, and said, “Reach into my cooler and get me another beer.”
He popped the tab. “I think the key here, Sean, is to reee-lax. You’ve done all you can do, that’s all that counts. You want a beer?”
“But,” I explained to my uncle. “I’m only nineteen in this story, and I just said a few paragraphs earlier that I was Southern Baptist.”
“Suit yourself. This is your article.”
The next day, I invited my friend Andrew to play guitar to attract attention from passerbyers.
The day started off strong. One man put in a dollar. Another woman gave us loose change from her pocketbook. But after four hours, I was growing homicidal.
Because Andrew, I came to find out, only knew three songs on his guitar: “Margaritaville,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and the chorus to “Jive Talkin’.”
“Don’t you know ANY Christmas music?” I asked.
Andrew shrugged and launched into an encore of “Jimmy Crack Corn.”
I considered gagging him with my Santa hat.
We made four bucks that day. After I counted the money, Andrew said, “Hey, I can come back and help you again tomorrow if you want.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll have my secretary call you.”
The next day, I asked my friend Tammy for reinforcement. Tammy sang in church. She had a good voice and she knew lots of songs. And even if she didn’t know a particular song, she would make up the words because Tammy was a theater major.
That day, Tammy sang, she clapped her hands, she twirled, she even chased one woman to her minivan while singing “Feliz Navidad,” and almost got pepper-sprayed.
We didn’t even make six bucks that day.
The next morning, I stood by the bucket with a sour attitude. I felt sad inside. Not for myself, but that I hadn’t been able to drum up more than more than a few dollars in three days. I sort of gave up altogether.
A familiar, beat-up, rusted Chevette pulled into the parking lot. Other cars followed behind.
My uncle stepped out of the car. A slew of his friends were with him. These were old men in gaudy sweaters, stocking caps, carrying kazoos, tambourines, bongos, and jingle bells.
This crowd of loud men formed a mass choir in front of the supermarket. They sang “Silent Night” and sounded like Labrador retrievers with chest colds.
They drew a crowd. A big one. They sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and people started singing along. Folks were tossing money into the bucket, hand over fist. And when my uncle sang, “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” he got three marriage proposals and one restraining order.
We made over eighty dollars that day. I was overcome. I sat on a curb with my uncle and almost started crying. I asked him how he’d managed to get all his friends together on such short notice.
“Son,” he said. “I’ve learned one thing in my life. People are good. And good men will help you do anything when you promise them free beer.”
I know life gets busy.
But don’t forget about the kids this year.