The Northville Review
an online literary journal
Blowing for Dough

Tommy Ellis

When one reaches retirement, there are suddenly extra hours to fill up.  If you’re lucky like me, not long after you retire The Salvation Army runs a TV commercial in support of its Red Kettle Campaign.  The commercial shows a family being rescued from a flooded house – makes you wonder where FEMA is – and another family living under a bridge in a cardboard box. Finally, the commercial has a poignant scene of an intoxicated man, with his pants unzipped, sprawled on a subway platform.  In each vignette, a female member of the Army – dressed in a uniform last redesigned before Pearl Harbor was bombed – tolls her bell, reminding us that the Army helps those in need.

Ringing a bell at the famous Red Kettle seemed like a good idea.  I hoped that the Army would issue me one of those cool pre-WWII uniforms. But my uniform consisted solely of a button that said “Salvation Army Volunteer.”  I should hasten to point out that I hardly consider myself a “do-gooder.”  While the family living in the cardboard box does kind of get to me, I mostly enjoy opportunities to watch the human circus unfold.

Also, I lied about the drunk in the commercial having his pants unzipped.  I just think it would just be more realistic if he did.

My first Army deployment was to a Red Kettle in front of a busy Barnes and Noble – an upscale and generous customer base.  I quickly learned:  people who won’t make eye contact are not going to give, and women will go to extraordinary efforts to paw through a handbag in search of change. Most of all, you can never predict by clothes, body language, sex, or age, who will actually contribute.

The little kids are the cutest, though.  Their parents give them a handful of change, and it takes them a full five minutes to get all the coins in the slot.  I’m sure that most of them have no idea what they are doing, but the wide-eyed looks on their faces make standing out in the cold worthwhile.  I remember one young lady with dark eyes as big as saucers putting her money in the kettle.  When she was all done, I wished her a Merry Christmas.  She proudly announced, “My family celebrates Chanukah!”

After a few years, Barnes and Noble decided that organized panhandling destroyed their ambiance.  So the Army packed up the Red Kettle and moved down the food chain to T.J.  Maxx.   The customers of the Maxx are not as well heeled as those of B & N, but the people who appeared to need help were often as generous as those wearing designer clothes.  I was also surprised to learn that the class of citizen frequently referred to as “smart ass teenagers” are often very generous and kind.

Ringing at T.J. Maxx introduced another new element to the experience. Most shopping emporia pipe Christmas music over their PA systems.  While I could listen to Jose Feliciano sing “Feliz Navidad” for hours on end, listening to Elvis sing the Christmas classics is almost too much for me to bear.  And when Brenda Lee gets her groove on in “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree?” Atheism begins to sound like a good idea.

As luck would have it, I am also an amateur euphonium player.  Wikipedia will tell you what a euphonium is. Amateur means that I don’t get paid, and my skills are on par with the average high school kid who plays in the band because he sucks at sports.  Also, I’m old and don’t generally give a crap what people think of me.  Starting to get the picture?

The Wikipedia entry on the euphonium can’t quite convey what one sounds like.  I always describe it as a cross between a trombone and a French horn.  What I hadn’t realized previously, is that when played within the acoustics of the typical strip mall? A euphonium is friggin’ LOUD.  Like singing in the shower.  Shortly after I began my first Koncert by the Kettle, a man came up to me and said, “What is that you are playing?  I could hear it all the way across the parking lot!”

I had the perfect weapon against the Brenda Lees and Elvises of the world.

Despite my limited musical skills, most patrons seemed to enjoy the change from the incessant bell ringing.  The euphonium is particularly well suited to the more sentimental of the Christmas classics, and I could definitely see an uptick in contributions.  One night, a man came running out of T.J. Maxx yelling on his cell phone, “Jennifer, ya’ gotta hear this,” and held his phone in front of me.  After I finished my selection, he explained that his daughter played euphonium in her high school band.  I guess he wanted to show her where a career on the euphonium would lead.

On another night, a woman came up to me and asked if she could sing with me.  We did our best with “Joy To The World,” while her companions took pictures of us with their cell phones.  When we finished, I realized that she had probably had a drink or three before our performance. After putting a respectable contribution in the Kettle, she confessed that she had done it to win a bet.

Sadly, another Volunteer had an ugly confrontation with the manager at TJ Maxx, and the Army was forced to decamp to yet another venue.  However, that new location was simply not worthy of my new euphonium celebrity.  I was moved to the main entrance of the biggest shopping mall in the region – right in the midst of a concrete amphitheatre formed by three up-scale restaurants. BIG TIME!

One of the technical challenges of playing a brass instrument in freezing weather is that it sounds like crap until you get the horn warmed up a bit.  So I usually start out my Koncerts with a few quiet verses of  “Silent Night” to warm up the pipes – after which I launch into my favorite, “O Holy Night.”  At the risk of sounding immodest, “O Holy Night” on my trusty horn almost brings tears to my eyes.  It has some soaring crescendos that boom across the parking lot.  On my first night in the BIG TIME, I let out all stops.  After all, I was helping to get that poor drunk off the subway platform!  I played “O Holy Night” as strong and loud as was humanly possible.

Halfway through this artistic achievement, I noticed a man in a suit approaching me – and reaching for his wallet.  Since he didn’t look like a typical contributor, I figured that I had really rocked his world.  But he just stood next to me, without putting any money in the Kettle.  Finally, he stopped me. “Your playing is really lovely, but we are trying to have a conference in the restaurant. We can’t hear the speaker.  If I give you $20, will you stop for 15 minutes?”

A $20 in the world of Red Kettles is nothing to sneeze at. I readily agreed.  Only later did I discover that it was a conference for so-called health care professionals, on osteoporosis.  I now wish I’d offered him $40 to deal with it.

I hope my tales have inspired you to never pass a Red Kettle without helping to fill it. However, it’s my more earnest prayer that when you see an intoxicated man passed out on a subway platform, you let him know if his pants are unzipped.

About the author

Tommy Ellis' estate is in Western NY, on the grounds of a former ski area. During the winter, deer sleep on the grass over the septic tank. Though he thinks his writing resume is quite thin, you have to start somewhere. His high school English teacher was a real hottie, which probably delayed his development.