Jingle Belle

New Times interrogates that annoying Christmas bell ringer.

May Showers won't set foot in Sportsman's Fine Wines.

"I'm not goin' in there," May tells me, "if there's smoking and spirits." I try to tell her that Sportsman's is just a wine and cheese shop, but she's adamant -- and so we settle in at a curbside table -- no fun for me, since curbside in Phoenix means a view of a parking lot and the roar of passing traffic -- but plenty okay with May, who's spent many a holiday season sitting just outside the front doors of local shops. For the past 63 years, May has been a Salvation Army bell ringer, one of those perennial Christmas elves who collects spare change in parking lots all over town. We sip coffee -- May likes hers straight, no sugar -- and talk about blessed kettles, jingle bells as weaponry and greedy transients.

New Times: I'm sorry, but I have to ask this: Is your name really May Showers?

From whom the bell tolls: Salvation Army soldier May Showers stays in the ring of things.
Emily Piraino
From whom the bell tolls: Salvation Army soldier May Showers stays in the ring of things.

May Showers: Yes. That's been my name for 60 years. Got a granddaughter named April.

NT: You've been a Salvation Army bell ringer for 63 years. Your arm must be really tired!

Showers: Nope. Seven generations of my family are bell ringers, and I won't have it any other way. It's a family tradition. I've done it when I was nine months pregnant. One of my sons was born one December, and I was back out there the next day, ringing my bell. My husband doesn't ring any more; he's feeble, and he can't stand there for eight hours.

NT: So, what's your bell ringing technique? Up and down, or side to side?

Showers: No, no, no. You're trying to make this more complicated than it is. I just hold it down here and I have a little rubber band on it, and it just swings by that rubber band. Lots of the stores complain because all that ringing can get a little annoying.

NT: Couldn't they give you a bell with a foot pedal or something?

Showers: Well, I have my own bell. Most ringers don't. It was given to me after 25 years of bell ringing. My bell's been blessed.

NT: By whom?

Showers: By me! And I bless my kettle every day before I go out.

NT: I'm guessing you have a special case for your bell.

Showers: Whatever gave you that idea? I just leave it laying around somewhere. The grandkids come over and find it and run around ringing it. Whatever.

NT: Have you ever hit anyone with your bell?

Showers: No. But not that I haven't thought about it. Lots of the other bell ringers do hit people, though.

NT: I caught a bell ringer sleeping outside of Safeway the other day.

Showers: Good thing I wasn't there to see that. I'd have woken her up, let me tell you. Sometimes they hire these homeless people, and they're not dependable.

NT: But homeless people are Salvation Army benefactors.

Showers: Yeah, but so many of them want a handout. The more you give them, the more they want. I've had them come right up to me when I'm ringing my bell to ask for money. And I tell them, "Look, I'm just collecting the money. I'm not here to distribute it."

NT: How do you know someone at Salvation Army isn't making off with the money after you collect it, and spending it on themselves?

Showers: Now, don't get smart. I know where that money goes because I've seen it. I used to work at the shelter and see the families come in. Course, there's those that take advantage, too. I had one lady come in with five kids, and she was getting child support from five different fathers. She was getting help from the kids' school and from us and driving a Cadillac yet. She was raking it in, let me tell you. I said to her, "Sweetie, I'm in the wrong business."

NT: Has anyone ever stolen from your kettle?

Showers: They can't. There's a lock on that kettle. But people are all the time losing their wedding rings or their keys in there. They have to call over to the office and someone fishes them out for them, because I can't open the kettle.

NT: You must be tired of the sound of bells ringing.

Showers: I hear it in my sleep. I can ring different Christmas carols with my bell. One day I was doing "Silent Night," and a woman came over and said, "What's that racket?"

NT: Has anyone ever asked you for change?

Showers: All the time, and it's tiresome. I can't do it. A guy came up the other day and he wanted change from me so he could buy cigarettes. I gave him an earful. And so he went around and picked up cigarette butts from the gutter and smoked those.

NT: Has anyone ever tried to pick you up while you're collecting?

Showers: Well, two years ago, one fellow came and asked me what time I got off work. I thought he was being fresh, but he showed up at quitting time with a big bucket full of money he'd collected. I still have that empty bucket. It's in my living room, and I've got a lamp on top of it.

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