It probably doesn't surprise you to learn that one half of all individual gifts to U.S. charities are made in the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's. It is, after all, the season of giving, and there is also that before-the-end-of-the year tax-deduction incentive to encourage us. Like most people probably, I like to think that I'm a fairly generous person and am sure that I make at least half of my annual donations in the month of December.
But the experience of being repeatedly buttonholed and bugged by cashiers at check-out counters to donate to the Crusade Against Ringworm or to underwrite a volunteer in the March to Cure Whooping Cough is fast turning me into a Scrooge or a churl, or both.
There you are at the head of the line at the register, having already surrendered your anonymity to get a few cents off through your store card and standing in front of friends, neighbors and acquaintances, when the always audible cashier asks if you, "Mr. Shields," want to donate a dollar or two to that current worthwhile cause.
It's no longer just your change into a plastic jug. Apparently, too many of us are using bank or credit cards. So the pressure is on. Do you have the guts to just say, "No, thanks," and invite the embarrassed silence of those within earshot? Or do you bow to the relentlessly cheerful extortion and then head to the parking lot with your purchases and a case of building resentment?
That resentment may increase when the local paper features the photo of the grocery store's regional vice president proudly presenting a six- or seven-figure check (comprised overwhelmingly of unseen customers' dollars) to the good people at Hurricane Relief. Whatever gratitude and good will the check generates goes to the store, which has basically pressed its own employees into pestering its own customers into contributing.
Recently, at the post office, I asked to buy a book of 20 41-cent stamps. The helpful clerk inquired as to whether I might want the breast cancer first-class stamp with a portion of the purchase price given to research on that dreaded disease. Figuring it would be an extra buck or so on top of the $8.20 for the book, I asked what the total would be.
"Eleven dollars," was the answer.
My math is not world-class, but even I realized that this would constitute a 34 percent surcharge. Awkwardly declining, I settled for the 41-cent flag stamps.
Awkward is really the operative word to describe these register check-out transactions. The customer who came only to get a prescription filled or a half-gallon of milk is put in the awkward position of deciding whether to give to a charity he may never before have heard of or spurning a cashier who has always been helpful, friendly and courteous.
Don't get me wrong. I am not a misanthrope. I actually love The Salvation Army and look forward at this wonderful time of the year to tossing bucks and coins into their kettles as often as I can. I frankly resent stores that now bar the Salvation Army from soliciting anywhere on their premises - just maybe because there is no favorable publicity photo in the paper of the store chain's regional VP presenting a check.
It is hard for me to believe that anybody who is not terminally grouchy has ever formally objected to The Salvation Army volunteers ringing their bells between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
And if you or any place of business ever needs a reference for The Salvation Army, just ask anybody who was ever in the U.S. military service to name the charitable organization they most valued and appreciated. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer will be The Salvation Army.
But could we at least call a temporary cease-fire on the cash register extortion? Thank you!
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.