On a Saturday morning in December, I look down from the window of my high-rise apartment in Printers’ Row, a quasi-renaissance neighborhood in the South Loop of Chicago. The temperature outside is zero. Vapors rise from every nook and cranny of the cityscape. The El train creaks and squeals more than usual as it slowly passes on its steel trestle. Pedestrians swaddled in heavy overcoats and scarves lean into the biting wind as they scurry for the warmth of their cars or condos.

To the left, I notice a few men on State Street who are not hurrying anywhere: they are merely standing on the corner, hands in pockets, some without hats, enduring the cold. They are homeless. What do they do on days like today?

All I know is that I’d rather be anywhere today than on Chicago’s frigid streets. But that is exactly where I am headed. I have volunteered to do something I never thought I’d do: stand outside and ring the bell for the Salvation Army. I’m scheduled for five hours—11 to 4. The big chill.

My first image of the Salvation Army comes from when I was six. Outside the entrance to Sears, during the Christmas season, stood a man wearing a uniform. He looked something like a policeman, but he rang a bell while people walked up and put money into a red bucket. Mom told me the money was to help people who didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. I had never met anyone like that, but I nevertheless enjoyed putting a quarter into the kettle.

As a teenager during the late sixties and early seventies, I, along with millions of other young Americans, developed a strong distaste for all things military—even things that sounded military. I had no idea who the holiday bell-ringers really ...

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