Bell ringers, beware

I was ringing the bell next to Salvation Army’s big red kettle in front of Barnes & Noble one night 10 years ago. It was part of my duty as a Rotarian and I did it happily. People smiled as they came up and tucked a dollar bill or two into the slot. I smiled, wished them Merry Christmas and kept ringing the bell.

I watched as an older model white Lincoln Continental drove up and stopped in front of the store door and, essentially, me. It was one of those landboats that old people drove, and I was admiring its lines because, even then, I was an old person.

A man got out of the back seat, left the door open, and walked the five feet to the kettle with a bill in his hand. He acted as if he was donating, and I looked away, believing it is rude to watch people put money in. When he said “The sergeant major told me to pick this up.” I turned back and see that he had unfastened the kettle from it’s chain. By the time, I realized what happened, he was back to the car with the kettle. I shouted “Wait!’ and started after him, but he was in, the door was closed, and the car drove away.

I carry a pen all the time — a longtime journalist’s habit — and wrote the driver’s license on my hand. I pulled out my phone and called the police. I reported what happened, an officer took the information, and said someone would call me back the next day. OK, I thought, it’s not a major crime but the next day? I had his plate number, and it was a distinctive-looking car.

I called the Salvation Army contact, told them what happened, and they said basically, “Well, it happens on occasion.”

The police did call me the next day. I told them everything that happened, gave them the license plate number, and said I would recognize the guy. He could have passed for the old L.A. Lakers guard Norm Nixon, except he was about 7 or 8 inches shorter. They thanked me for my time and hung up.

Never. Heard. Another. Word.

I was furious and ashamed. Furious that those guys — two in the front seat and the thief in the back — would steal from the needy. Ashamed because I had been responsible for the kettle and its money, and I lost it.

And I felt guilty. Guilty enough that I wrote the Salvation Army a check for $100, although I had no idea how much money was in the kettle. It didn’t help me feel better, though.