Pretty much every story I tell about my 20s could be summed up by the question, “What was a nice lesbian like you doing in a place like that?”
To an outsider it might appear that I was trying to find a purpose in life by process of elimination.
Bible College. Naw.
The convent. Nope, definitely not a good fit.
Heterosexual engagement? I discovered I was not, in fact, a straight person months before my wedding date. I’ve still got a few “Kelli & Jay May 10th: Building a Household of Faith on the Foundation of God’s Love” napkins, if you, should by any strange chance, be in need of some.
While it’s true that I was scouting around for my purpose, I was also simultaneously trying to survive. Since I had only completed high school and also had no discernible job skills, this was not a simple undertaking.
My short-lived employment at the Bass Pro Fishing Lure Factory was particularly lackluster. Because I did not have the knowledge base needed to fill the complicated fishing lure mail orders, I got demoted to night shift worm counter.
The task of the worm counter was—you may have guessed this already—to hand-count worms into small styrofoam containers sold in the company’s live bait vending machines. If I stopped at the grocery store on the way home, inevitably some small child would exclaim, “Phew! Something smells like worms!”
That something was me.
I got fired one night when I fell asleep and my supervisor found me head nodding into a vat of black dirt and nightcrawlers at 4 a.m. Perhaps it was for the best.
Thus unemployed, and dejected and broke, I answered a want ad for Salvation Army bell ringers. I reported to what we would probably now call a group interview, but at the time seemed to be a Situational Depression Tolerance Experiment.
Dave (“Not Davey,” he warned us) was the Salvation Army employee tasked with giving us an orientation to our responsibilities. He spoke slowly and sighed loudly after about every third sentence.
“So,” he said. Long, tired pause.
“This isn’t a good job, I don’t guess, but it’s a job. All you gotta do is ring the bell and don’t steal the money. ” Pause. Sigh.
It took almost 90 minutes for him to drag through the list of rules. We were to be to the left of the Salvation Army sign at all times. We were to stand at all times. We were not to have anything to eat or drink at our posts, not even water. We were supposed to smile at everyone who walked by. People had to put the money through the slot directly into the locked bucket—we were never ever allowed to touch the money.
And finally, we were required to ring the bell continuously every minute of every hour of our eight hour shift.
“People who work at the business you’re standing in front of, they’re going to complain,” said Dave. Sigh. Pause.
“Just smile and keep ringing the bell.”
For this we were paid $3.35 an hour, no benefits, no sick days.
When Dave left the room to get the hand-out about the bell-ringer dress code, all the future bell ringers began to chat. As we exchanged stories, I realized I was one of the luckiest ones in the group, even though I had just been deemed unqualified to count worms.
Some of the bell-ringers had been recruited directly out of the shelters that the Salvation Army ran into town, including at least one new mom whose newborn had to stay with a relative because the shelter didn’t allow children, even three-month-old children. There was a trio of guys I knew because they hung out at the downtown library. All three were veterans, frequently drunk, well read and always seemed on the brink of something vaguely catastrophic. An older man told me he hadn’t been able to do his accounting job since he had a stroke.
“Just got to take whatever kind of work comes my way,” he had said with a shrug that betrayed not even a smidgen of self-pity that I’m pretty sure I would be marinating in, were it me in that situation.
The hand-out on the dress code had been run off on a mimeograph machine that had seen much better days. I strained to read the smudged print.
“Um, for women white shirt….um black skirt,” I gestured at my stocky masculine-for-a-chick-figure. “Maybe I could….maybe I would look better in…some dress slacks?”
“You…you especially should wear a skirt.”
I spent six days a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas outside the Kmart strip mall on Daytona Beach’s busy Volusia Avenue, ringing that bell every minute of every hour of my workday. I stuffed my chubby figure into a blue skirt that I had tried to dye black. The color hadn’t taken, though, and the skirt was mottled grey except for one clearly demarcated palmprint on the front where I had attempted to apply the dye directly with my hand, like paint.
Earlier that summer I had bleached my hair with a $2.35 box of Clairol hair color and then volunteered to be a guinea pig for a friend’s home spiral perm project. The unintended effect was that it looked as if I had been using Clorox as creme rinse.
The feedback from the shopping public made it clear that they saw me as a slightly unhinged teenage drag queen, which was perhaps not so far from the truth.
More than a few men made inexplicable comments that involved my age, my appearance and whether or not I could actually be gainfully employed as a sex worker although they didn’t phrase these comments nearly so respectfully as I have here.
One a woman a few years older than I was came to a complete stop in front of me, walked back to her car and returned with two friends. They pointed, “Oh my god, what is it?”
I just kept ringing my bell, smiling at people, not touching the money. Those hours did not pass quickly.
At the end of each day, Dave would come by in his red panel van, take the bucket off my stand, unlock the tiny padlock and empty the money into a large canvas bag. When I asked how he was, each night he’d reply the same way.
“Running ragged, Shelly,” he’d say, inserting a name but never quite my name, “Running ragged.”
I was beginning to understand his deep weariness of life.
It’s been many years since my desperation led me to my bell ringing gig and things have certainly gotten much better for me; I went to nursing school, discovered stand-up comedy, wrote some books, came out as queer.
But since then — or a least since the advent of social media — each fall I start reading similar posts about the Salvation Army, posts that bring me back to those days. I was luckier than most folks doing the bell ringing gig, had some advantages that they didn’t have, and I have many more options now.
You can read the controversies surrounding the Salvation Army and their historical homophobia as well as their current statements about their relationship with the LGBT community and decide for yourself whether their mission is one you want to support.
But when I read about folks (and believe me, it’s all kind of folks) hassling the bell-ringers over Salvation Army policies, it’s hard not to think of it as a form of bullying. While kettles are sometimes staffed by Salvation Army officers and occasionally volunteers, the seasonal workers they hire are mostly just people having a really hard day.
Don’t want to support the Salvation Army? It’s easy. Just don’t put money in that red bucket.
But don’t preach or hassle or be snippy at the bell ringers. They are not the enemy.
Kelly Dunham is an author and speaker living in Brooklyn.