She’s not only going to look at me, she’s going to say “God bless you”. Maybe if I don’t look at her as I’m making my approach–perhaps at my keys or the people coming out of the store–she’ll get the idea that I’m on an important mission and didn’t even see her. You who walk around with your cell phones in a constant state of arousal have it easy–you can pretend that you’re talking to someone.
If she says “God bless you”, what should my response be? If I say it back to her she may think I’m a fellow believer and will wonder why I’m not putting money in her bucket. If I don’t say it, she may think that I’m a snob, or one of those people who avoid eye contact with passersby on the sidewalks. I might be going into the store to steal a grape, run over a stray tomato with my cart, or whip out a baguette and go postal.
If I do give her eye contact and smile, then she’ll probably think I’m a tight-fisted phony.
Then there’s the other issue. The Salvation Army discriminates against homosexuals. If I give her my pocket change, am I not supporting the organization’s homophobia? As I’ve walked past these people countless times each year, I’ve mumbled under my breath, “You don’t want my filthy homo money…”. Like not buying Dow products during the Viet Nam war, this usually works for me on the surface level, but it doesn’t solve the issue about walking past them in the first place.
And then I have to go through it all over again on my way out. Sometimes my discomfort is relieved by the sheer mechanics of having a cart to navigate.
Last night I tried something different. As I neared the woman ringing her bell, I heard that she was singing a Spiritual. Not loud, but to herself. She was happy as could be, smiling and making the best of what was probably a very boring way to spend an evening.
Hey, I once spent a Friday evening hawking flowers on a street corner in Saticoy. I know from boring.
Because she was singing–and because I’m a musician, I suppose–I found that I wanted to look at her, wanted to say hello, wanted to put some money in the bucket. Nothing else mattered at that moment, nothing but her lovely voice and smile, her overall good-natured attitude, and the instantaneous melting away of my stupid barriers. I remembered that in my wallet was one lone dollar bill that I’d been carrying around for several weeks. I pulled it out and folded it, and as I put it in the bucket I said, “I’m giving you my last dollar just because you’re singing, and everyone should be singing this time of year.” She smiled and replied, “God bless you, honey. Have a Merry Christmas!”
I went on into the store wearing a grin, better able to face the long lines (caused by a computer outage) with patience and good humor, joking with the people around me. I even let someone go ahead of me. On my way home, I realized that I was actually happier for what had happened. What had always been an annoyance had been transformed into a spark of joy caused from my personal encounter with the woman and knowing that my dollar was going to help someone. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Seeing as how I’ve been on the receiving end a number of times, I thought of my dollar as seed money that will help bring about an ability to give to others on a regular basis.
It’s unfortunate how much energy I’ve put into avoiding these seemingly trivial moments when it’s so much easier and more pleasant to simply submit. Of course, I’m not putting money into every Salvation Army bucket I encounter this year, but I learned a valuable lesson. The Salvation Army’s tagline reads, “When you put money in our kettle, expect change.” I didn’t know that they meant me as well.