You hear the bell clanging outside your local Publix and know it is officially the season. You reach into your pocket, pull out a crumpled bill and stuff it in the red Salvation Army kettle just as people have done for more than 100 years.
Maybe you're thinking no matter how rotten this economy is, it could help someone worse off, a gesture as uncomplicated as handing a coat to somebody who's cold.
Around here, the story of Jim Norman threatened to change that.
Norman's big-money job at the Salvation Army was actually the side story, the main attraction being news that the Hillsborough commissioner's wife took $500,000 for a vacation home from a millionaire with an interest in local politics.
A judge said this was a bald-faced gift to Norman and booted him off the ballot for the state Senate, and an appeals court reinstated him, and now we have muddied-up Sen.-elect Norman headed off to Tallahassee.
Without, it turns out, his controversial big-money Tampa job.
As the scandal trickled out about Norman's dream house in Arkansas, we also heard about his $95,000-a-year gig as "state community liaison" for the Salvation Army, in addition to his $92,000 commission salary. He drove a car courtesy of the Salvation Army and had a taxpayer-paid county car allowance.
And no one was really clear what he did for the Salvation Army. Weekend troubleshooting around the state, he said. "Engages in public relations and fundraising," a Salvation Army press release said, but "categorically … not a political lobbyist."
In case you thought that was the value of having a powerful politician on the payroll.
Turns out many people did not have contributing to Norman's paycheck in mind when they dropped off clothes and couches and put cash in those kettles. Salvation Army officials would not say how many calls, letters and e-mails poured in from people who vowed they would no longer donate, would not say if it was dozens or hundreds. A lot, they said.
So here come the holidays, during which the Salvation Army makes 60 percent of its budget through kettles, mail-ins and events. Would former donors make good on promises to stuff in notes bearing Norman's name in lieu of cash? Would money get sent elsewhere?
And did you just hear the Salvation Army breathe a huge sigh of relief?
In a remarkable bit of timing — the very week bell ringers are about to start collecting! — the Salvation Army announced Norman is retiring after 31 years due to the "significant duties" of his new job. Apparently he had time to tool around the state on weekends as a commissioner but not as a state senator.
Salvation Army development director Steve Dick said, yes, the parting was amicable. Yes, he said, Norman gets retirement, though he declined to give details.
If even with all this you remain an optimist — 'tis the season for it — maybe you will not be as surprised as I was to learn that in harder times like these, kettle donations stay steady and even go up, like we're willing to help more when we know someone needs it. The Salvation Army needs to get some distance from this mess, so bell ringers can ask for generosity with a straight face, and maybe we can even give it again without thinking twice.