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?
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.
NT: Do you donate to other bell ringers?
Showers: Well, here's what I do: I shop on Sundays. Now, bell ringers aren't out on Sunday, so I never see them. But I'm donating my time, all the time. I used to go out to the saloons and collect money, but I can't do that anymore. I used to go do War Cries and open air, but they won't allow us to do that anymore.
NT: What are you talking about?
Showers: War Cries was our newspaper, and we'd go out and sell it. I used to love to go to taverns in South Phoenix with my tambourine to collect. I had one man tell me, "You're always in here collecting." I said, "Yeah, you're always in here spending your paycheck, and then we have to take care of your family." Open air was where we would take our horns out to the lowest place in the city. Usually it was the bowery. And we would try to save people there. I've been condemned many times for kneeling down and putting my arms around a drunk, dirty old man.
NT: That doesn't sound very sanitary.
Showers: It wasn't, and it didn't matter. It was my duty and my ministry. But hugging them drunks is the only way to win 'em over to Christ.
NT: What do you do when you're not ringing a bell?
Showers: Well, I live in the Salvation Army assisted-living facility and . . .
Homeless woman: Excuse me. Excuse me. Y'all got a dollar?
NT: I'm sorry. I don't have any cash. Just plastic.
Homeless woman: Thank you anyway. Bye.
Showers: Wait. Here's the number of the Salvation Army. They'll help you. Call that number on that card there. God bless you!
NT (watching homeless person walk away): You hired her! She was a plant!
Showers: No. She probably recognized this uniform. It says I'm a soldier of the Salvation Army. You don't have to wear it, but you get more money if you do. I got a thousand dollars once. But you know how you didn't have any change when that lady came up? That's our biggest problem. Everyone is buying credit cards. You pay with a credit card, you don't get change. So you don't have anything to drop in the kettle on the way out. That's why we're not getting the money we used to.
NT: Sorry. Hey, how come the Salvation Army stores all smell like urine?
Showers: Now, they don't. You just, I don't know. You're maybe thinking about a different store. But not ours. Don't say that. We're a church. People forget we're a religious organization; they think we're a thrift store or a place that gives handouts. We're a church, blessed by the Lord. The Lord's gonna give me another 10, 20 years.
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NT: He's told you this?
Showers: Definitely. And don't even bother to ask me if I'll spend those years ringing bells for donations. I don't care if I'm a hundred, I'll still be out there, ringing my bell.
NT: What if you get the flu or something?
Showers: Well, I just won't, that's all. People ask me all the time: What's an old woman like you ringing a bell for? I've been in this wheelchair for five years, and people think it's for sympathy, you know, so I'll get more donations. I don't want pity. Just spare change, thank you.