SALT LAKE CITY — Fifty-one-year-old Clifford Tucker has an easy reply when asked why he's willing to stand in the winter cold for seven hours at a time and ring a bell beside a Salvation Army red kettle.
"I love to see the smiles," he says. "This kettle brings smiles to people's faces. All day long."
So that's part of it.
The other part is the $7.50 he makes an hour.
It used to be, the people standing next to the ubiquitous kettles around Christmas time were members of the Salvation Army itself, either that or your next door neighbor, your barber, or some other local do-gooder taking time out during the busy holidays to help solicit funds for the poor.
But anymore, it's an army made up of guys with plenty of time on their hands like Clifford — fundraisers who could use a few funds themselves.
Clifford, as an example, has been ringing bells for 14 straight Christmas seasons. He started not long after he arrived in Salt Lake City from his native Washington, D.C., back in 1995. He needed a place to stay, the Salvation Army provided him with one, and he learned about the need for kettle workers.
It's steady work from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve.
This year Clifford started on Nov. 18. By the time he's rung his last bell this Saturday, he'll have worked five full weeks, six days a week, seven hours a day. That's 210 hours. At $7.50 an hour, that works out to a cool $1,575 before taxes, and Clifford doesn't figure on much of a tax load this year.
"I work when I can," he says. "But honestly, I haven't been working much lately. Not until this."
For the life of him, he can't see any losers in the enterprise. He gets the chance to earn some money to help make ends meet. The proceeds from the kettle — which far exceed his meager hourly outtake — help out all sorts of people in need in all sorts of ways. And the people who stuff their money in the kettle walk away feeling good and wearing a big smile to prove it.
"Everybody wins," says Clifford.
Up the street, at another kettle, 52-year-old Kirk Hallmeyer is doing the same thing as Clifford — logging yet another seven-hour shift in a job that has become, for him, a December staple.
"This is my fifth straight year doing this," says Kirk, who started his kettle-ringing career in his native Washington state and continued it when he moved to Utah a year and a half ago.
He says the Great Recession has kept him consistently out of work even though he has a degree from a technical college, where he learned to be a printer. The printing industry's decline has paralleled Kirk's.
But every Christmas season, he can count on five weeks of work with the Salvation Army.
"I wish I could say I was salting the money away," he sighs. "But I've got an Oldsmobile that really likes gas, a student loan I have to repay and a monthly storage unit fee. It's a good thing I don't have a wife; no way could I afford one."
Like Clifford, Kirk talks of the "good feeling" that comes with the work.
"It lifts you up to see people giving," he says.
Also like Clifford, he talks about the $7.50 he gets every hour.
"If I was doing well, like if I was in the middle class, I believe I would volunteer to do this for free," he says. "But I've had a rough couple of years, so ..."
As with any job, there are keys to doing it well. Kirk says the secret is to keep the bell ringing and to talk to the people walking by. The more personal you make it, the better.
He knows whereof he speaks.
Last year he got a year-end bonus – an extra $18 in cash – because his kettle totals were consistently high.
When this year's gig is over at the end of this week, Kirk isn't sure what the employment future will bring.
"But, you know, I've been thinking about giving customer service a try," he says.
Heaven knows he's already had plenty of training.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday through Friday. Email: [email protected]