Approaching the entrance to Walmart, I saw the holiday bell ringer call out to a young woman who had just passed him on her way out of the store. She stopped, turned around and looked at him, hesitated, glanced at an older woman nearby, then turned back around and continued on her way to the parking lot.
The bell ringer, moving several feet in front of his red kettle, watched her intently. Only when I came up behind him to put money in his kettle did he turn around. He thanked me for the donation, wished me a good day, and I wished him the same.
That's where it should have ended.
Instead, he called after me, "I think I embarrassed that girl."
"How'd you do that?" I asked him, turning around and looking at him closely for the first time. He was a small man, shorter than I, stocky but not fat. I guessed him to be in his mid-30s, and there was something just a little "off" about his face, starting with an oddly twisted mouth. When he spoke again, I realized it wasn't just his face that was out of kilter.
"I told her that all the girls here are prettier than the ones in Baton Rouge. And it's true, they are," he declared with a big smile.
"Well, then," I responded, "I guess this bell ringing job is not such a bad one, is it?"
He laughed out loud. "I told my friend that just the other day. The first three days I was here I got twenty-five phone numbers." He laughed again, gleefully, turning slightly red, not looking me in the eye.
I don't know why he chose to tell me that story. Maybe he thought I'd overheard his conversation with the girl, but I hadn't. I do know that if he expected camaraderie or congratulations for the imaginary notches in his belt, he didn't get either. Instead, I gave him a little wave and a tight smile (fake this time) and moved on into the store.
As offensive as I found this little man who was turning charitable bell ringing into his own personal brand of solicitation, I felt sorry for him. He probably got this job through people he knows from the soup kitchen, and he probably won't keep it long if he continues to pester the pretty, young shoppers. Nor should he.
Still, his situation makes me sad. I doubt that either a free hot meal or a rich fantasy life keeps him warm at night.