Submitted by Tony Robles, “The People’s Poet”:
Another holiday season is upon us. I find myself in new surroundings—specifically Western North Carolina—to which I relocated to from my birthplace of San Francisco several months ago. The weather here is quite nippy, by San Francisco standards, the barometer at a steady 26 degrees as I write. My hands feel a bit numb as the words jitter across the screen, however, they are nowhere near as numb as those digits affixed to the hands of those souls in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles—not to mention the east coast—where, according to the National Weather Service, an arctic outbreak is expected with subzero temperatures. This Arctic Outbreak, apparently, began thousands of miles away in parts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The Weather Service reports that super typhoon Nuri caused winds and giant waves in the Bering Sea and, in the inner workings of pressures and fronts, will undergo something called a bombogenesis. In an effort to avoid any further numbing of my meteorologically challenged mind, let’s just say I’ll stick with the 26 degrees that has permeated my bones in this part of the world.
In this time of year people speak of getting the blues. Christmas music seems to creep in sooner as well, as early as Halloween. This is also true of Christmas décor in display windows of businesses looking to get an early jump. I too have fallen into the dreary holiday funk to the extent that I wished I were a bear that could retreat into a cave for a few months only to reemerge after the holidays to fatten up on berries, salmon, washing it down with leftover eggnog if still available.
In this part of North Carolina there are many retirees. Many have gray or white hair and beards. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a guy in a supermarket, at the gas station or in the public library that—with varying degrees of girth—fits the description of Santa Claus. However, in the case of the library sightings, an equal number of men who look like Dostoyevsky can also be seen, sitting on foam chairs, mouth ajar, sinking into the subconscious under a stream florescence the color of 2% milk.
I made the decision that I would preempt any feelings of holiday funk by volunteering as a bell ringer for a well-known organization whose name does not need mentioning. I applied online and arrived at my assigned location, the entrance of a supermarket. I was met by a lieutenant of the organization, a young man of excess weight and cheer. He issued me a regulation apron and left me with the donation kettle (Actually a red plastic bucket)—secured by padlock—along with a sign, tripod and, lastly, a small bell. The lieutenant got into his van. Be back in two hours, he said.
I began ringing the bell. Some folks were pleasant, offering a nod of acknowledgement while others were too focused on their shopping lists to offer a glance or smile. 30 minutes in, I began to feel the coldness enter my bones. I hovered side to side on the balls of my feet. I rang the bell. Then, thinking out loud I spoke.
Me: Man, I’m freezing my ass off out here
Bell: You think you’re the only one? Think about Santa and that bulbous nose, the reindeer and those frozen antlers flying through the sky every which way.
Me: Wait, you’re a bell, you’re not supposed to talk.
Bell: What kind of dingbat are you? Of course I can talk. I’m multifaceted.
Me: You’re in a mood. What’s your nickname, raging bell?
Bell: What were you expecting, the hammer of Thor? But don’t talk about being cold and freezing. Think of the homeless. Why do you think we’re out here?
Me: No, but I tell you, if it gets any colder, you’re gonna turn into a damn pop sicle.
Bell: You got to put some rhythm into it. You’re holding me like you’re at a funeral. You’re ringing the
bell like this is some kind of last rite. You got it wrong. Get the blood flowing. Get into it!
Me: How long have you been a donation bell?
Bell: Decades, before you were in diapers.
Me: Speaking of diapers, I have a question
Me: What do you do if you have to pee
Bell: You gotta go, you gotta go
Me: Well, I can’t just leave the donation kettle out here unattended
Bell: Yeah, and you can’t pee in it either, that would be against regulations
Me: Well, what do I do?
Bell: Don’t ask me, I’m just a bell.
Me: I’m serious
Bell: You know, an old guy asking me that a couple weeks ago. He inquired about being a bell ringer. He said, what do I do if I have to pee? That depends, I answered. We never heard from that guy again. But if I were you, just unhook the bucket from the chain and take it with you when you have to go to the little boy’s room. Just don’t take off with the bread.
Me: Thanks. One more question
Bell: Go ahead
Me: Does it matter to you if I am a left ringer or a right ringer
Bell: Hey, let’s not get into that. Politics is off limits. But I’ll say this, we better get our s**t together because the bell that rings the loudest is the one that we ring together—elders, immigrants, the poor. We can’t forget about one another.
I stood ringing the bell for 30 more minutes. A couple of people dropped donations into the bucket. A nice lady bought me a cup of coffee; another gave me a pair of gloves while a gentleman gave me a knit hat.
Merry Christmas to you they said. I looked at the bell.
Bell: When you give something, you get something in return
Me: I guess you’re right
Bell: I know I am
Me: And what are you giving?
Bell: You a bad time
Me: You know, I was thinking. There’s a way we can get a huge donation, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars
Bell: Yeah, how?
Me: I can tape you to a wall with duct tape. I’m sure we could fetch at least 10 grand for you.
Bell: Hey, a word to the wise: A dead ringer is of use to no one. Just ring the damn bell, okay?
I laughed and kept ringing that bell. It felt good giving something back to this place, even if I’ve only been here a few months. I rang and rang until my bones felt a bit warmer.