Friday, August 12, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

A small returned smile


Tucked close to Dahl’s, barely sheltered from the weather, is a bundled-up figure standing outside the store. Julie rings her bell, smiles, and in a soft, husky voice wishes everyone good cheer. Many smile back. It’s an older crowd this bright, cold morning. They almost all put money in the red kettle.                 

“I make eye contact and wish them a happy holiday,” is how Julie explains her technique. But she leaves out the genuine warmth she shares with everyone. And she leaves out her use of endearments like “sweetheart” and “hon” that spill off her tongue with a trace of Southern drawl. Oh, yeah, she also leaves out that she is standing on cold concrete in low-30s weather.                 

“Thank you, hon.”                 

Julie is a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. She is paid a small salary to man the kettle. And she does. Every morning, all morning, outside the Dahl’s on Beaver Avenue, she rings her bell. The store patrons come up and visit — ask if she needs coffee — and drop money in the kettle. “I love my regulars; they make it all worthwhile.”                 

Julie has been in this spot for three years. Her life is not easy: Her children are back in California, she has seen the inside and outside of marriage and she is living with very little extra. But she feels that the Salvation Army helped her back in the day, and it is a gift to work for them now.                 

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“Thank you. Happy Holidays.”                 

But the cold? She laughs and pulls out the blanket she wraps herself in when the wind is blowing from the south.                 

“I am spoiled,” she states matter-of-factly. One of the Dahl’s baggers sometimes buys her lunch, and they all make sure she has coffee on a cold day. And she glows when she speaks about the woman in the Dahl’s bakery who greets her with “Hi, Sugar” and a warm hug. “I just love these people here.”                 

However, when pressed, Julie admits that she has a little “God-box” at home. She puts inside lists of things she would do differently about her life. “I pray over it.” As to her future, however, she is clear-eyed: “There is no job without an education.” And now she has just two tests left before she gets her GED. “With that piece of paper and the grace of God, things will pick up for me.”                

“Hon, you have a Happy Holiday.”                 

What is the downside with being a bell-ringer? “I don’t care if someone puts nothing in the kettle, but what burns my hide is when I give someone a smile, and they turn away with their nose up in the air.” Hold it. Are you telling me that you’re willing to stand for hours in the cold for a small returned smile?                 

“Thank you, sweetheart. Happy Holidays.” CV 

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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