Bell ringers’ view of hol­i­day sea­son

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - By Carl Nolte

The hol­i­day sea­son has come to life in Union Square in the heart of down­town San Fran­cisco. There’s a big meno­rah to cel­e­brate Hanukkah, a lighted Christ­mas tree, an ice rink — and the gen­tle ring­ing of small white bells next to red Sal­va­tion Army ket­tles.

The bell ringers are there with their ket­tles in front of Macy’s on Union Square in all weather — driv­ing rain, the pale De­cem­ber sun­shine, the chill of late fall — raising money the old-fash­ioned way.

“It is old fash­ioned and it is very use­ful,” said Maj. Darren Nor­ton, com­man­der of the Sal­va­tion Army’s Golden State Divi­sion. “It is very much a part of the Amer­i­can Christ­mas and it re­minds peo­ple that we live in a needy com­mu­nity, that there are peo­ple out there who are poor and need help.”

Macy’s is one of 100 lo­ca­tions in the city where the bell ringers are on the job, but the bells and red ket­tles are all over the world.

The tra­di­tion be­gan 127 Christ­mas sea­sons ago in San Fran­cisco with a

sin­gle crab pot near the Mar­ket Street ferry land­ing, a Sal­va­tion Army lieu­tenant and a bell. Enough money was raised to buy 1,000 Christ­mas din­ners for poor peo­ple, and the idea caught on world­wide.

“It was sim­ple and it worked,” said Lt. Kath­leen Grif­fiths, who runs the lo­cal pro­gram now.

Last year, the bell ringers raised more than $210,000 in San Fran­cisco alone, and $1.7 mil­lion in cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia. The money comes in small bills and some­times big ones. It goes to sup­port Sal­va­tion Army pro­grams rang­ing from drug re­hab work, meals for the hun­gry and dis­as­ter re­lief. The army was on hand for all the big fire dis­as­ters this year.

Bell ring­ing is vol­un­teer work and not the eas­i­est job in the world, stand­ing on your feet for hours, ring­ing away and look­ing hope­ful.

Agnes Boyd, who was at Macy’s the other af­ter­noon, rings her bell vig­or­ously and calls out greet­ings. “Happy hol­i­days! God bless you!” she says. She had her 4-year-old grand­son, Ai­dan Jones, be­side her the other day, mak­ing a team that was tough to pass up.

Boyd is a Sal­va­tion Army sol­dier, a vet­eran of 24 years.

“I had al­co­hol- and drug-ad­dic­tion problems, and they helped me,” she said. She works for the Sal­va­tion Army in var­i­ous mis­sions, but looks for­ward to Christ­mas bell ring­ing. “It’s fun,” she said.

A lot of peo­ple passed by with only a glance. That’s the na­ture of the bell-ring­ing busi­ness in the city. Peo­ple sweep by, mostly in bunches, lost in their own thoughts. Only about one per­son in 20 on a good day stops to lis­ten to the bell or drop change in the ket­tle. On a slow day, it’s one in 50.

But when they do, they bring their own kind of light. Mary Ann Alexan­der stopped by Boyd’s ket­tle with a fist­ful of dol­lars.

“I’m so glad to see you,” Alexan­der said. “I al­ways look for­ward to see­ing the Sal­va­tion Army.”

She had come from Va­cav­ille, with her grand­daugh­ter, Ad­die, who is 9 and lives in Fair­field. Three other rel­a­tives came, too. Alexan­der used to live in the city and comes back to San Fran­cisco ev­ery hol­i­day sea­son, an an­nual tra­di­tion.

“I like the hus­tle and bus­tle,” she said. “You don’t get that in a small town.”

Alexan­der’s first job in Christ­mas past was at the old Em­po­rium depart­ment store on Mar­ket Street.

“I was a clerk in the credit depart­ment and I re­mem­ber how all the em­ploy­ees used to have to stand at at­ten­tion ev­ery morn­ing to start the day. They waited un­til a bu­gle blew and then the store doors opened. A long time ago.”

What she re­mem­bered best, though, was the Em­po­rium’s Santa who sat on a big throne, like the king of the hol­i­day. Now she was tak­ing her brood to see Macy’s Santa.

The crowds walk­ing past Boyd ebbed and flowed. A cou­ple of street peo­ple came by. One man claimed he was about to do­nate sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars. He knew Oprah Win­frey, he said. Also Frank Si­na­tra. He be­gan to sing. The side­walk crowds avoided him.

Then came De­wayen Reneker, a car­pen­ter on his lunch hour, who stopped abruptly, as if on im­pulse. He is work­ing on build­ing the Muni sub­way un­der Stock­ton Street.

“These peo­ple do good work,” he said of the Sal­va­tion Army. “I just do my lit­tle part.”

He stuffed a $10 bill in the pot, then nipped across Geary Street.

Kenneth Chinn, also spend­ing the day ring­ing a bell at Macy’s, said he was on the job also be­cause of the help the Sal­va­tion Army had given him.

He is 35 and has been at the army’s Har­bor Lights cen­ter in San Fran­cisco. He had lived in the north­ern part of the state, Red­ding, Chico, places like that. He worked in the paint­ing busi­ness, paint­ing signs and houses. His shoes were streaked with paint still.

“I had a drug ad­dic­tion,” he said. “Heroin.”

Things got so bad he lost what he had and lived in his car.

“I had burned my bridges,” he said. “I had nowhere to go, and the Sal­va­tion Army opened their doors to me. They took me in.”

He got into a re­hab pro­gram and he hopes he is on the right track for good. He hopes to go home for Christ­mas.

So he was out in front of Macy’s ring­ing a bell, raising money for oth­ers.

Amy Os­borne / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Jane Drury do­nates with Sal­va­tion Army bell ringer Kenneth Chinn in the back­ground at Macy’s.

Sal­va­tion Army bell ringer Michael Griz­zle thanks Fran­coise Buck­ig­nani for a do­na­tion at Macy’s in down­town San Fran­cisco.

Amy Os­borne / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Kenneth Chinn rings a Sal­va­tion Army bell out­side of Macy’s in down­town San Fran­cisco.

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