The passengers on the gray, hulking buses operated by the Sheriff’s Department didn’t waste time disembarking.
One after another they stepped into the 7 a.m. air, some of them catching fleeting glimpses of their breath as it wafted through the frigid air in bursts of steam.
They were greeted by cops. Dozens and dozens of men and women with badges, guns and handcuffs.
The passengers on this particular December morning were students participating in the annual Shop with a Cop shopping spree, a program that pairs law enforcement officers with kids whose families are having a little trouble scaring up money for Christmas gifts.
For some, the initial meeting was awkward. It’s not often police go out of their way to see eye-to-eye — whether it’s by bending at the waist or squatting down — with someone who has ridden on the bus that takes people to jail. As for the kids, in all likelihood they’ve only seen police on television and in the movies.
The morning started with the cops and kids grabbing breakfast and a show at SeaWorld San Diego. Conversations were short, stilted and often one-sided as police tried to coax information from their little partners.
But as the morning wore on and stomachs filled with breakfast burritos and hot cocoa, most everyone relaxed. By the time they finished their ride to Target in squad cards and SUVs with lights flashing and sirens blaring, dignity and self-consciousness had given way to giddy chortles, smiles and excited chattering.
The kids were happy too.
The store was overrun with kids who were allowed to spend their gift cards however they wanted. Needless to say the toy section was teeming with boys and girls and men and women trying to find the perfect gift for themselves or someone at home.
But there were others who perused items in linens and household appliances. One girl wanted to buy towels for her mom but she didn’t know what size she wore.
Smiles and happiness can sometimes be cheap and manufactured this time of year. There are holiday carols and movies that strongly suggest we’re supposed to be happy because it’s Christmas. Retailers remind us that it’s just as great to give as it is to receive, so shop some more and be happy.
And while Shop with a Cop does focus on shopping, the happiness comes not from the baskets and bags filled with games and balls and clothes, but from the fact that a lot of these kids are given the chance to be like their classmates and friends. It’s an opportunity to be like everyone else.
When you’re a kid, that’s not a bad gift to receive any time of year.