published Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Cooper: Tales of a bell ringer

If you’ve only seen Salvation Army bell ringers who man their red kettles with only a grunt — if you’re lucky enough to get a word at all — you haven’t met “Perky.”

Perky — not her real name — is in her third year as a paid kettle jockey at various Cleveland, Tenn., and Athens, Tenn., area stores.

If you’re really nosy, those who do it get paid make minimum wage. But she’s done enough volunteer work in her life that the amount she makes is a drop in the bucket to all she’s given.

Now, Perky will bend your ear. Oh, she’ll proclaim the seasonally proper “Merry Christmas!” and “God bless you!” to entering and exiting customers, but she’s also been known to talk politics, religion, college football, newspapers and whatever else comes to mind.

“You have to have a positive attitude,” she says. “They check on you.”

It wouldn’t matter if they checked on Perky every hour. She exudes positive.

But she’s also come to some conclusions — not necessarily those of the Cleveland Salvation Army to which she reports — about those who put folding money and coins in the kettle.

n Men give more when the weather is bad — sometimes a dollar bill or two when they go in and some change when they come out — but professional men give very little.

n Women don’t give as much as men, but both men and women make sure their kids and grandkids have something to give.

n Few people give at Christian bookstores because of the expense of what they’re heading inside to buy.

Perky isn’t afraid to offer a little giving help, either. When shoppers utter the oft-used “I don’t have any change” excuse, she reminds them they can write a check or request cash back at check-out.

After all, if she gets more than $200 during her shift, she gets an extra hour of pay.

Perky, the daughter of a military man, is quick to shake an active-duty soldier’s hand and thank him or her for serving the country.

“If they haven’t given” by then, she says, “they give.”

Having worked 30 hours a week since Black Friday this year, Perky gets 30 minutes for lunch and two 15-minute breaks per seven- or eight-hour shift. She and other paid employees are not allowed to work more than 40 hours.

By now, she also has learned how to dress. Early on, she says, she put on long johns, slacks, sweater and coat and brought a vest. By noon, she was doing a mild striptease.

“You adjust to it,” Perky says.

And without her rubber mat to stand on, “at 73, these bones don’t want to get in the car” at the end of her shift, she says.

Over her three years, Perky says, she’s helped a little girl pick up the 200 pennies she dropped in an effort to put them into the kettle, stood in the rain to get sympathy dollars (bell ringers are allowed to go inside at such times), helped a college student insert into the kettle an entire pouch of money she saved for a year, surprised a University of Michigan jersey-wearing man by shouting “Wolverines!” (asking, “You didn’t think a Southern girl would know football?”), shared her faith with several people, and lost 10 pounds and six pair of mittens.

When people offer the bell ringers money, she says, they are told to put it in the kettle.

But Perky was given a pair of beige and purple earrings and necklace by a woman who thought the ones she was wearing matched Perky’s sweater vest, was handed a knitted scarf by another woman who also showed her a pleasing way to tie it, and had a cup of hot chocolate placed in her hands by a gentleman who thought she looked cold.

“Cleveland is a very giving-oriented town,” she says.

Of course, Perky is unable to charm everybody.

One man she greeted simply issued a Scroogian “bah, humbug.” When she followed with “Merry Christmas, and God bless you,” he just turned back and glared.

When another man, distinguished with wavy hair, passed without giving any money, Perky said, “You look just Billy Graham. Did anybody ever tell you that?” “All the time,” the man said — and walked on.

More typical, she says, was the pale, frail lady who was driven to the grocery store but later came back on her own and made a contribution.

“Are you all right?” Perky asked.

“Well, I’m dying,” the woman said. “[The doctor] told me that five years ago. But I’m taking chemotherapy, and I’m still giving to the kettle.”

“Things like that,” says Perky, “are sweet.”

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/Clint CooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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