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A report from the kettle: A holiday story starring practical jokers and cheapskates

Voilá! It's Mr. Practical Joker, sneaking up and jerking the bell from my hand. Although he gives it back immediately, the lack of respect and the violation of my personal space infuriate me. I call him a "stupid motherf----." Not exactly the kind of utterance one expects to issue from the jolly orifice of a Salvation Army bell-ringer.

"You want to do battle, tough guy? Be my guest." Beckoning make-my-dayishly, he assumes a classical, pugilist stance at the entrance door--which opens and closes erratically as he rocks back and forth, activating and deactivating the motion sensor. Having talked the talk, I am expected to walk the walk.

I gracefully decline the invitation. Though advanced age might grant me the first punch, the muscular youngster is no match for a pudgy, old gentleman armed only with a tiny bell. Furthermore, I most certainly would be fired for inappropriate behavior.

"Chicken," he hisses, turning into Walgreens.

And then there's Cheapskate City: "Here you go, Quasimodo. Don't spend it all in one place."

I think "stingy bastard," but reply with a courteous, "thank you," as I do to every contribution, in accordance with bell-ringer etiquette. Cheapskate City climbs into his Hummer and, with a gleeful roar of motor and squeal of tire, races away. A familiar face from last year; the same smirk, penny, and Quasimodo crack.

Don't get me wrong: Pennies are the foundation of nickels, beget dimes, father quarters and are the stuff of dollars. Pennies house, feed and clothe the homeless. People give a penny or two, and that's just fine and dandy, but this guy was undoubtedly filthy rich: Hugo Boss pinstripe suit, cutting-edge sunglasses, vintage Rolex watch, a yawning billfold thick with dough and credit cards.

Thanks for the red cent, Cheapskate. Cautiously, I smoke a cigarette.

At the kickoff, the coordinator--Donald Trump-like, addressing the cadre of aspiring bell-ringers--had listed all the infractions resulting in immediate dismissal. "If you stink of alcohol, steal from the kettle, smoke on the job--you're fired." We were admonished to know thy supervisor and beware of false ones demanding kettles, to keep our backpacks and shopping carts with worldly possessions well-hidden, to shower often, use deodorant and refrain from sporting clothes with Budweiser logos and risqué texts.

The only cameras that might play upon us are the security ones in storefronts. At stake were not positions at Atlantic City casinos, but minimum-wage jobs.

Back to the bell-ringing. "With this infernal bell-ringing, who needs tinnitus?" Perhaps this was the tinnitus sufferer who had written a letter to the editor commending Target for trashing the nerve-racking bell-ringers.

"Psychological torture for a good cause?" I ventured.

He suggested that the seemingly benign little bell should come with a boldface warning text: Prolonged exposure to jingling is detrimental to sanity. You guys in charge at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, take heed: Bring on the bell-ringers! Perpetual ringing interspersed with jovial ho-ho-hos--when coupled with sleep deprivation, nudity and sex games--is a winning combination on the ol' cellblock.

"You're a saint for standing here."

"Thank you, ma'am." (Let her think I'm doing this from the goodness of my heart.) She empties a jar of pennies.

"How about donating your telephone number to the bell-ringer?" These brief encounters at the kettle more or less constitute the extent of my social life.

"Sorry. My fiancé wouldn't appreciate that." Is there anything more pathetic than an old bell-ringer on the make?

"I heard that Safeway won't let you guys jingle."

"Target," I say.

Strange things occur sometimes. Stretching the perimeters of obesity to new, hitherto unimaginable girths, a woman laboriously huffs and puffs into Walgreens and, to my knowledge, never comes out again.

Three kings follow a guiding star. Soon a child is to be born in the city of David. Nearby, young people from a faraway land engage in battle. They are shooting, getting shot at, being blown up. Perished so far, this Christmas Eve: more than 1,300. Men and women die so that the corporations and war profiteers may live; abundant oil may feed the hungering tanks of Hummers; and a presidential son may proudly continue wreaking the havoc of his father.

And somewhere on a paved-over section of the Sonoran Desert, a bell-ringer jingles one last jingle.

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