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December 03, 2012

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah
The first week of December, 2012


And so the Open Kettle experiment came to pass.
My sweet wife and I stood out in front of the City Market, rang the bell, jived a little with tambourine accompaniment, smiled, gave away small candy canes, and tried to look comfortable and at ease and Christmasy.
But we were nervous.
Because I had taken the lid off the kettle so the money in it could be seen.
And I had taped this message over the Salvation Army sign:


Exactly what the sign meant was up to the beholder.
It was open to interpretation, and maybe a little edgy, I admit.
If you have, give – if you need, take.
Not a lot of options offered.

The Salvation Army Volunteer Coordinator was also nervous – this approach was not in her manual.
But I reassured her that if someone took all the money, I would make it up to the kettle myself.

I didn’t think anybody would take anything.
I believed that the pot would come out ahead.
And no harm would be done.

And you? What would you have predicted?

The odds of success were slightly against us.
We picked a slow shift – Saturday at noon – on a beautiful sunny day - a ten K road race on the other side of town - Alabama vs. Georgia on television -and preparations for the evening Christmas parade kept the grocery shopping crowd to a minimum.
Not a lot of action at City Market.

Moreover, we were out in broad daylight at high noon.
People could clearly see the kettle and the message on the sign.

We set up our station a little away from the front door of City Market.
We could easily be avoided.

But the action we got was good.
People read the sign - some with amusement - some with confusion.
But nobody took anything, except the candy canes I offered.

The candy canes were a spontaneous sub-experiment.
Anybody who came near the kettle was offered a candy cane from my old Navajo ceremonial basket.
The canes were a little problematical because the wrapping of two separate canes were connected – you couldn’t take just one.
So people would pick up a cane, be surprised at getting two, and start to separate the packages.
And I would say, “No, take two – give one away and keep one. That’s the heart of the whole idea – help others and help yourself.”
The smiles I got back made my day.

Another result was the money we got almost entirely in the form of bills.
Singles, fives, tens, and twenties – not much pocket change.
With the kettle being open people could see what was in it, I guess.
The bills suggested what should be done.

Because we were noticed and could be avoided, it seemed that people went out of their way to stop by the kettle - especially after shopping inside – they came out the door with bills in hand.

As usual, there were surprises.
This one young guy – droopy dirty pants and shirt, a droopy face with an expression on it of stoic despair, as if he had just missed the last bus to Tucson - and a gelled-up gold-colored Mohawk hairdo that made him look like a land shark – came into the market and went back out, confirming my guess that he was going to stiff the pot.
And then he turned around, came all the way back across the parking lot, emptied his pocket of change and bills, and went back about his day and life – not even taking a candy cane.

Along toward the end of our shift a man brought us a peppermint-flavored hot chocolate.
A reporter from the local newspaper interviewed us – took our picture and put cash in the kettle.
One little kid put a quarter in my basket and tried to take all the candy canes he could carry – and his mom gave him a lesson in the nature of charity.

The only catastrophe was my doing.
Accidentally dumping the whole kettle onto the sidewalk.
Chasing money around while people watched was a carnival act I had not anticipated, but people noticed and helped chase down the bills, and one man even put some additional bills in the pot in case I had not recovered all the loose cash.

There, that’s the report from the Open Kettle experiment.
So . . . what do I think now?
Would I do it again?