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What I heard on Center Street

With Thanksgiving Day behind us, we get the call. Over the bypass and through the park to the downtown streets we go, stationing ourselves at the stands where the plastic pails hang, jingling those little brass bells. We're service club members, volunteers to help the blue-clad Army ring in Christmas for the needy.

My hitch is from 4 to 5 in front of the shoe store on Center Street. The sky looks like a rumpled gray flannel blanket, but there's nothing comfy about it. The bitter cold seeps right through.

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I'm here for the fun of it, although an inventory of my discomforts doesn't add up to any laughing matter. I've put on my heaviest socks, and my pinched toes are squeaking for relief. My long johns itch, my woolen shirt chafes my neck, my nose is running.

Maybe fun isn't the word. Exhilaration is better. This is the ninth straight year I've made this early liftoff into the season of love and goodwill, and not a letdown yet.

Up comes a heavyset man in a soiled and lumpy windbreaker, his red face framed in a hunting cap with the ear flaps down. He digs and brings up a dime and some pennies, goes on digging until he finds a quarter. Awkwardly he maneuvers it into the slot of the pail cover with thick fingers seamed with grime. He appears apologetic, but whether because of his clumsiness or the size of his contribution I don't know or care. He has started me up and away.

He has also broken the ice - figuratively speaking, but too close to literalness for comfort. Others in the street are encouraged. Two women, each carrying an infant, fumble with their purses and drop in a few dimes. This time the hands are small and brown. Another member of our local minority, coming from the opposite direction, slips a quarter in. He's old and frail and shouldn't be out in this cold, or does that fire in his fierce black eyes really protect him? It warms me, anyway.

An unsmiling young man in a battered cowboy hat and a stringy denim jacket stops opposite me and passes a coin down around his knees to a bedraggled long stocking cap with arms. The stocking cap marches toward the pail, and when it tilts back I see the face of a five- or six-year-old beneath it, also unsmiling. A very big nickel for the needy.

I run a low-pressure pail. Nobody gets the eye, nobody has to give. Some people don't even see me, or they pretend they don't. That's OK. They give in their own ways, and I'm not one of them.

Besides, if there are minuses there are also pluses. The well-dressed woman who says she just sent a check but deposits a couple of coins to make my time worthwhile. The pink-cheeked young couple with smiles on their faces, money in their hands, and a new baby in their immediate future.

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A foursome of high school students comes larking down the street, taking an extracurricular course in Advanced Jostling. They stare at me. The three girls giggle at the spectacle of the duded-up old turkey ringing a bell. An awful thought occurs. Should I try for my handkerchief which is all but inaccessible in my hip pocket, or will one far-reaching sniff clear things up?

My decision is delayed by a business acquaintance. He's ready for the ski country in an outfit that would make a down payment on a house. His electronics company is a cinch pushover for every fund-raising project in town: There's always a committee in his reception room waiting to see him. From his thin, sleek wallet he extracts a new twenty, which he feeds crisply into the slot. It's like he can't pass up this chance to give some away. They say he's extravagant, I say he's grateful.

An industrial engineer I know nods to me, on his way to or from making some job easier to do. I wonder how automation people would accomplish what I'm doing. A robot, a bell that never stops dinging, a scoop that zips out to collect from everyone, a recorded thank you, complete elimination of this inefficient human being? No doubt, and what a pity. No one there to see this little girl's face as she carefully counts her pennies into the pail.

The high school squad comes back, still putting on a show. I feel sorry for kids of that age at Christmas. They're too old to get a kick out of toys, too young to appreciate the joy of giving. They all come over, and quarters plunk into the pail. Now it's got to be my handkerchief, because my eyes are watering too.

Every few minutes another act of sharing and goodwill, another coin or two. The money hasn't gushed in, but there's been a good trickle, some from people you would have said couldn't be bothered or couldn't spare it, all of it given freely without peer pressure or ulterior motives. What it lacks in volume it makes up for in class.

Just before 5, my relief shows up and takes the bell from my numb hands. As I shiver my way down Center Street the lights come on. Red and green lanterns glow from light poles, tiny brilliants strung above the street are twinkling. From speakers on the store roofs the p.a. system lets loose with ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.''

Downtown is a giant jukebox, but up here where I am, beyond the din and the dazzle, a sweeter song is afloat for those who will listen.

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