Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true


Tuesday December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true
* Shaking a Salvation Army bell is tedious, but it's Terri Brown's way of saying thank you.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Sav-on Drugs on Sepulveda at National -- too hot and dry to be nearly Christmastime. Too hot and dry to be standing out in the sun swaying back and forth and ringing a bell at 11 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, but somebody has to ring the bell because if nobody rings it, then people forget to toss their extra pennies and dimes and quarters into the red Salvation Army kettle, and the change ends up on dressers and in laundry lint traps, doing not a whit of good.

So somebody has to ring the thing. And it might as well be Terri Brown, whose debt to the Salvation Army is second only to her debt to the Lord, whose husband, Cedric, is also a bell ringer, who, with her brown-black curls and kind green eyes, tries to remember, with each flick of the wrist, where she's coming from and where she's going to.

God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas....

Hers is just one of 299 bells ringing across Los Angeles County, bells that have heralded Christmas for 114 years but may not be ringing as loudly much longer. Volunteers are scarcer than ever, holiday shoppers leave stores with credit card receipts rather than loose change, and Target and some other national chains are sweeping solicitors from their sidewalks, including bell ringers and their iconic red kettles. So it's Sav-on for Brown.

Most people avert their eyes this morning, but that's OK. Brown keeps smiling; she can't afford to look down on anyone. Remember where you're coming from. Remember when you were 17 and your baby girl died and the pain was like a heart attack and you had to run away to keep on standing. Remember being raped, each of four times. Remember smoking crack on Los Angeles' skid row. Remember sleeping with the rats.

The kettle and the bell saved her, the kettle and the bell and Jesus -- when Brown and Cedric and their six kids found themselves homeless in Vegas three years ago, the Salvation Army sheltered and fed them and Brown tossed the crack pipe for good and began shaking a little silver bell. She rang it in Vegas and she rang it in San Francisco, and now she's serenading Angelenos.

Doesn't pay much, minimum wage, but who cares? Try to understand that some day Brown aims to start her own shelter that lifts up homeless people, physically and emotionally and cognitively. Try to understand that some day Brown will fill a book with the lessons she's learned over 37 years. That's why she's smiling, and also because her children are honor students living with their grandmother in Moreno Valley, and because when the Salvation Army van drops her home each evening, she and Cedric watch the news and read the Bible and remember where they've been, beam together at how far they've come.

Staying upbeat

Sure, there are people like the fiftysomething man wearing an American flag cap who flies out of Sav-on at 12:42 and insists to the world that Brown wants to take and take and take everybody's last hard-earned cent.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

Or the homeless guy in a soiled green afghan who sets up camp nearby and explains to Brown and to anybody who stops and roots for change in pockets and purses that Jesus is a punk.

God bless him too. Brown won't ask him to find another sidewalk -- she can't be that person. She can't whitewash this moment of its sadness and ugliness because, even while he slanders her god, she sees herself dressed in his afghan, feels his hunger and desperation deep in her gut, knows his hell.

If anybody will stop at the kettle, children will. They point their tiny fingers at the oscillating bell and yelp and giggle. They pull their grown-ups by jackets and pant legs toward this red-vested woman. And when they leave, their curiosity hardly satiated, they stare back at Brown and she tells each of them goodbye, sweetheart. Merry Christmas, sweetheart. Goodbye.

The Christmas spirit isn't universal; many people walk by and stare straight ahead without giving, without God blessing in return. That's why the Salvation Army can't find enough volunteers this year; it's why many shoppers in the Southeast will be greeted by cardboard bell ringers built with motion sensors that trigger a recording, ding-ding-ding.

When too many people don't believe in Christmas, Brown slides on her headphones and hums and sways to gospel. Today, it's Karen Clark-Sheard who helps her remember, helps her smile. Then an old woman stops and spends six minutes dredging the pennies from the folds of her ancient change purse.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

A retired Verizon executive named Pearl stuffs a bill into the kettle. Target is terrible, she says, never shopping there again, she says, Target ought to be ashamed.

The shrill ding-ding-dinging follows Dana Troubridge and her frizzy purple sweater into Sav-on, it wafts from cosmetics to the candy isle, it echoes in her skull as she waits and waits at the register. Since the brain injury, noises like this hurt her, they puncture her.

It's not fair to make me hear this. She shouldn't be ringing a bell in my face. It's not fair to force your holidays on people.

God bless me? Merry Christmas?

Happy Hanukkah, she tells Brown, and Brown smiles.

Kevin Considine from Amsterdam isn't into that religious thing, either. And the bell ringing is annoying; it makes sense that they're getting kicked out of places, really, but he drops his change into the kettle anyhow, because there are lots of hungry people out there, because he's not one of them.

It's too hot and dry to be standing and ringing, and it stays that way until about 4 o'clock, when the rough concrete wall of the Sav-on begins to throw a shadow over the sidewalk and into the parking lot. If not Jack Frost weather, it's certainly cooler, and Brown and her bell ringing seem less ridiculous because it feels a little like Christmastime, and now maybe one in three people stops to chat or donate, and a few go as far as to God bless Brown too.

At the end of the day the take is $150.85, which isn't bad, but the kettle is locked so Brown can't know this and so this isn't what makes her day. What makes her day, if you really want to know, is the old man wearing tan slacks and a pristine gray sweater -- he could be a banker -- who shows up at 5:30 to do the jitterbug on her sidewalk.

He bobs to-and-fro, bends his knees and sways, taps Brown on the arm and grins. Somebody -- a brother, a friend? -- drops him off every day so that he can hang with the bell ringer. There's something wrong with this guy, definitely, but there's something wrong with most of us, and Brown knows you either like somebody as they are or you don't like them at all.

That's why she'll be here tomorrow. Because people like this are counting on her, counting on her bell and on her smile. That's why she can't give up, on this or on herself, because, as she sits in the van heading home, she remembers to remember all the obstacles that stand in front of her, that she wants to overcome.

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