Although I love the city of Atlanta, the holiday season is not its finest display of the year. The weather is usually more dreary than festive. It’s too warm to snow, the rain muddies the streets, and the skies are a dismal gray. There is a vicious surge in holiday traffic, so the pollution increases, and the potential for violence is only a horn-honk away. It’s Christmas time, after all, and nobody is in any mood to fuck around.
Atlanta is a far cry from the sleepy towns of the woodsy Northeast, where the untrodden snow lies dreamlike through the hills. The roads are winding and unobtrusive, almost designed for sightseeing. The houses are tucked away like hermits. The air is heavy with the smell of woodsmoke wafting out of their ancient stone chimneys, and there’s a candle in every window and a wreath on every door. And if a weary traveler is patient enough to stop by a snowy field, they may thrill at the sight of an elusive reindeer bounding through the forest, or at least some horned beast that looks like a reindeer bounding through the forest.
Down here in the city it’s nothing but famished coyotes and tomcats in heat, which all have their place in the urban food chain, I suppose, and it was one of these mangy animals I had to swerve to avoid hitting while I finished a few last-minute errands before heading north for the holidays. The rain was relentless, the traffic was as clogged as the storm drains, and this wet creature darted into the road, forcing me to veer onto an industrial side street, where I chanced to pass a nondescript Salvation Army building. There was a sign out front that read, “WANTED: SEASONAL BELL-RINGER.”
What a lucky accident, I thought. Intrigued, I jammed on my brakes and hydroplaned into a parking spot right up front. I walked into the processing facility, straight into a crowded waiting room with every manner of aspiring bell ringer hunched over the application forms. A sordid bunch, they were; a collection of nervous tics, neck tattoos, scars, blood-shot eyes, and piercings.
“May I help you?” said a woman to me from behind the front desk.
“I’d like to apply for the bell ringer job,” I said.
“Any qualifications?” she sighed, turning to look at the collection of misfits already seated in the waiting area and not wanting to add to it.
“I played percussion in high school,” I said. She frowned, handed me an application, and told me to fill it out. I took a seat. The others eyed me warily. I was the competition, and not to be treated with any type of courtesy.
A tense, perspiring man in a button-down shirt two sizes too small for him was bringing the applicants, one-by-one, behind a screen to be interviewed. It was about fifteen feet away from the waiting area, which meant the exchanges were clearly audible. What follows is a cobbled together transcript from the pool of applicants.
Interviewer: “Understand this isn’t a year-round position.”
Applicant: “That’s fine. I’m actually an aircraft marshaller in the off-season.”
Interviewer: “What’s that?”
Applicant: “I’m part of the airport ground crew that waves the planes to the gates with those lighted batons.”
Interviewer: “Impressive. I mean, you have experience with gesturing.”
Applicant: “Yes, thank you.”
Interviewer: “You need to understand, though, you can’t get all wild with the bell. You can’t go all this-a-way and that-a-way with it. A simple up and down technique—gentle, friendly, festive.”
Applicant: “Can you put me in front of a store that gets a lot of big juicy?”
Interviewer: “A lot of what?”
Applicant: “You know. Lenox. Phipps. Lotta big juicy mamas around there. Ba-donk-a-donk and whatnot.”
Interviewer: “We’re a charitable organization.”
Applicant: “Fuck dat.”
Interviewer: “Can you perform, for extended periods of time, a simple up and down motion with one arm while the rest of your body stays relatively still, and do it with a smile on your face?”
Applicant: “Yes, in fact I’ve got a serious porn addiction.”
Interviewer: “In one way that increases your eligibility, and in another way it destroys it. We’ll be in touch.”
Applicant: “So will I. Right when I get home!”
Interviewer: “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
Applicant: “I’m a big Anita Ward fan.”
Interviewer: “Good. You take your bell-ringing seriously. Fine. Like a comprehensive embrace of the bell-ringing concept. Can you keep a steady bell rhythm?”
Applicant: “Yeah, but if I see an attractive woman I may slowly and steadily increase the frequency of my ringing until it builds to an unendurable clanging, after which I might kind of collapse in satisfied exhaustion.”
Applicant: “What if I put the bell in my pants, and with a hip-thrusting motion, ring the bell in that fashion?”
Applicant: “What’s my cut?”
Interviewer: “Your cut?”
Applicant: “Yeah. I’m collectin’ money for you. I want my cut, or when you come to pick up the collection bowl you won’t find nothin’ but an empty chain danglin’ from a tripod stand and a broke-up fuckin’ bell layin’ on the sidewalk.”
I heard the interviewer let out a quaking sigh of despair, and I understood. The spirit of the holidays seemed to be collapsing amid the weight of every debased notion, instead of the other way around. Just when all seemed hopeless, the door to the Salvation Army blasted open, and a figure shuffled in, some kind of radiant nimbus surrounding him. Everybody stopped and stared, and nobody said a word. He seemed to float on by us, straight up to the interviewer, and in a calm, dusky delivery he declared:
“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams,
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams,
For they’re deep and they’re wide,
and the world’s on its side,
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride. Ring them bells… Ring them bells…”
“You’re hired!” shouted the interviewer, and with that, the rest of us shuffled out into the afternoon, that was suddenly not so gray.
Merry Everything, Everyone.