Maybe it was the clanging of the golden bell rising above the usual background din of recorded Christmas carols and impatient traffic outside the Cross Street Market. Or perhaps it was that inner voice, that thing people used to call, in times of greater moral clarity, "your conscience."
Something made them stop, backtrack a bit, juggle packages or children and remove their gloves in freezing temperatures to dig through a pocket or purse and send coins rattling or bills rustling into my red kettle.
"It ain't much," one woman said apologetically as she dropped 26 cents into the kettle.
"Every penny helps," assured Nancy Rush, a Salvation Army volunteer who helped me through a three-hour turn manning a Christmas kettle outside this South Baltimore market.
"Someday, it could be me who needs it," said another giver, feeding what seemed to be more than $3 of change into the kettle.
Although my motive wasn't purely charitable -- I wanted to get a firsthand look at giving this holiday season, coming as it does in the midst of a recession -- I still felt part of a tradition that is now in its 100th year.
It was Christmastime 1891 when a Salvation Army officer in San Francisco put out a pot to collect money for a holiday dinner for the poor. Soon, Salvation Armies across the country followed -- Baltimore's group started in 1898 -- and today the kettles are a familiar part of the seasonal landscape.
So familiar, in fact, that I worried most people would be like me -- tuning out the vaguely annoying bell-ringing in the grim rush to get in or out of stores. The tough economic times -- either you've felt their impact or fear you're next -- seemed just another reason to walk on by.
I wasn't entirely right: The Salvation Army says total contributions (which include mail as well as kettle donations) are up about 16 percent nationwide. Baltimore, however, is less flush; contributions here are "flat," an estimated 1 percent above last year, according to Maj. David Jones, who heads the Salvation Army operations in Baltimore city and county.
Major Jones said he expects to raise about $150,000 through the mail and the 50 or so kettles sprinkled throughout the area for holiday projects. But even as giving increases in some parts of the country, demand for assistance is also on the upswing, and at a greater rate: More than 25 percent for the Army nationally and about 10 percent locally, Major Jones said.
Volunteers and workers say they are heartened by any increase in giving during these harsh times. (The Salvation Army used to depend on an all-volunteer corps to man the kettles, but as the program has spread, it has had to hire temporary workers to do much of the work.)
"The giving tends to be good in hard times," said Maj. Lon Kinley, commanding officer of the Baltimore South area. "People FTC respond when there is a need. People relate and can see -- 'I could be in the same spot, but I'm not.' "
Indeed, at the Cross Street Market, donations seemed brisk -- we had barely hung the kettle on its stand when people appeared with dollar bills. The Army doesn't like to release figures of great specificity for fear of attracting robbers, but the Cross Street spot tends to collect about $125 to $130 a day, Major Kinley said.
I was expecting mostly pocket change, so I was surprised at the number of bills -- I even got a $5 bill from one woman. Major Kinley confirmed that trend. "We've had more big bills this year," he said, although he added he has yet to get a $1,000 bill like those that periodically get dropped in kettles elsewhere.
I thought I'd be able to categorize the givers, but just when I'd get a good stereotype going -- Hmmmm, mothers with babies in their arms or in strollers don't seem to be stopping; maybe they have too much to juggle physically and economically -- someone would prove me wrong.
I did notice more middle-aged and elderly people giving, but then, they're largely the ones shopping at the market in the middle of the week. Younger people, apparently workers coming to the Cross Street for lunch, weren't as reliable givers as the older shoppers.
Still, we received money from all types. Three kids from nearby Southern High School came by, and I took little interest in them, potential donor-wise. "Got a dollar?" one asked his companions. Affirmative.
Little children were particularly drawn by the golden bell, compelled to follow their ears to this thing making more noise than they're usually allowed to. My interest in them was even less than in the high schoolers, given their minimal disposable income, but they tended to be attached to parents a little more cash-rich.
Standing outdoors seems an anomaly these days, when so much of the traffic has gone indoors -- especially the target market of holiday shoppers who have fled to covered malls and away from the downtown streets. The Salvation Army is in many of the malls -- White Marsh and Golden Ring among them -- but not in others, like the upscale Towson Town Center.