It had been a crazy day and Keith Lane needed a break. He left the office where he runs an advertising agency and headed for the Stop & Shop at Vinnin Square in Swampscott to grab a sandwich.
The entrance to the supermarket was a swarm of people, some coming, some going.
Keith Lane heard the bell before he saw her.
For the last nine years, Denise Jackson has been ringing the bell next to a Salvation Army kettle at various spots on the North Shore, and she is as familiar a character at the Stop & Shop in Swampscott as the kids who collect the shopping carts in the parking lot.
It was one of the rare cold evenings of late, and something made Lane stop and put something in the kettle. But he lingered.
“I sensed she needed something more than a couple of bucks in the kettle,” he said.
Jackson is 53 years old. She lives in Lynn, is legally blind, and has bad arthritis so she sits by the kettle. She was bundled up, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a Patriots wool cap.
“Do you need anything?” Lane asked. “Can I get you something hot to drink? My treat.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jackson said. “I’d love a hot chocolate.”
“Anything else?” he asked. “Something to eat. What would you like to eat?”
Jackson sat there in the cold and thought for a moment.
“You know what I’d really like?” she said. “I’d really like some Clementine tangerines.”
It wasn’t what he expected, but Lane nodded and disappeared into the supermarket and soon delivered a Dunkin’ Donuts hot chocolate and a bag of Clementine tangerines to Denise Jackson. She was very appreciative, and after wishing her a good evening Lane started walking away.
But then he stopped and turned around.
“A good number of people had been watching us, and after I walked away, a bunch of people streamed up to the kettle and put some money in,” Lane said. “They were all talking to her, and she was smiling and laughing.”
And so Lane stood there and took it all in, and while it wasn’t the most profound moment in his life, it made him think.
“We’re too hard on each other,” he said. “We don’t give each other enough credit. I think most of us have been down at some point or another. But when we need each other, we’re there more than we think.”
Jackson vouches for that.
“The reason I’m doing this job in the first place is because the Salvation Army helped me out years ago. They fed me more than once,” she said. “So I wanted to give back. I had a few jobs where I wasn’t able to stick it out for a long time. But I think I was made for this.
“It took me a couple of years doing this before I started to feel comfortable. I’m very outgoing. I’m very friendly. But we don’t ask for anything. I just ring the bell and say hello to people. And most people are nice. You wouldn’t believe how many people have bought me hot chocolate. At Stop & Shop, there’s a $5 chicken day. A whole rotisserie chicken for $5. People give me chickens all the time.
“People give me blankets, scarves, gloves, handwarmers, footwarmers.
“Last Christmas Eve, a gentleman drove all the way to Revere Beach and he came back with a Kelly’s Roast Beef sandwich for me. Can you believe it?”
Believe it. Lane is right. We live in a culture that pays way too much attention to jerks, but most people aren’t jerks. Most people are decent. And most people are generous.
And often it’s only at this time of year, when we hear bells ringing, that we even bother to stop and notice.