The impossibly long line behind me was grumbling and peering impatiently around each other like drivers in gridlock traffic, trying to figure out what the hold up was. They needed their Starbucks and they needed it now and what in God’s name could possibly be taking him so long?
He’d been sifting through a huge stack of giftcards, patting his weathered coat pockets and digging in his frayed jeans for what was only about a minute, but what must have seemed like an eternity for him, for the barista, for the caffeine addicts in the line that wrapped around the food bar and back.
I’d already ordered my nonfat, unsweetened Earl Grey latte while I waited, next in line to pay for my drink. In fact, as he started Round Two of flipping through his rolodex of giftcards, the second barista had already made my tea and placed it on the pick-up counter.
“I’ve got it here somewhere, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, barely above a whisper. So quietly, in fact, that the barista had to ask him to repeat himself. During his search, I looked awkwardly everywhere around the cafe but at him, examining all of the contents of the pastry case. Twice. (And being doubly appalled by the number of calories in their selection. 400 big Cs in a scone the size of an ovary? I’ll pass.)
I have to admit, I wasn’t surprised when he had trouble paying. Further back in line, he’d taken a small toy bus out of a Ross bag filled with sundry oddities before dropping the bag on the floor and leaving it there, even when the line moved forward. When he remembered the bag, he bumped past me to retrieve it as if I weren’t even there. And while he was sorting through his cards at the register, I spotted a worn-out card wrapped in Scotch tape: it was one of those scripture name meaning cards, with the name printed across the top in a crappy font and the meaning below it. I remember I’d gotten one as a kid at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona and used it as a bookmark in A Wrinkle In Time each time I read and reread it. Mine said “Nicole, victory of the people.” His reads “Aliana, highest and surpassing.” Funny. He looks more like a Jeremy to me.
Finally, the barista tactfully tells him that she’s going to ring me up while he looks for his card, no rush. He scoots over, and as she enters my order, I feel terrible that it took me so long to say it. “Can you ring up his drink with mine, please?”
He starts to protest, and so does the barista. I try my best to smile winsomely at them both (but I probably just look gassy) as I dismiss their protests. “No, please, I’d love to treat you, sir. Can I buy your drink?”
All the grumbling in the line behind us stops. In fact, everything stops. If a record had been playing, it would have scratched. The barista’s eyes well up a little as she takes my credit card, smiling at me and murmuring about kindness. The woman behind me quietly explains the situation to her two small children, and they turn and beam at me. The elderly gentleman behind them actually tips his hat to me. (Yeah, I thought that only happened in Cary Grant movies, too.)
I smile back, uneasy with the eyes on me. I’m no wallflower, but the attention isn’t what I’m seeking right now. I don’t do it because I want a round of applause, or to hurry up the process and get on with my life. It’s just a small gesture to help a guy out and make someone’s life a little more pleasant. It’s not going to break the bank, and maybe, just maybe, someone will be inspired to do the same and spread some more happiness in this world that can be lonely or joyful depending on what we make of it.
One of my favorite songs of all time is “Make Someone Happy” by Jimmy Durante. He sings (if you can call that ol’ bag of bones’ vocal styling “singing”) that if you make others happy, even if it’s just one person, you’ll be happy too. I don’t know about you, but I actually get more out of helping others than they possibly could. It’s a natural high unlike anything else I’ve experienced, whether it’s giving someone on the street a couple bucks for a hot meal or dropping off my old clothes at a shelter. I don’t believe in God, or any specific higher power. But I believe in love. It connects us and binds us and heals us and it’s the only spiritual thing I have faith in. Yeah, I know: love’s such an old fashioned word. “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” Caring about ourselves. We’re all in this together, and if we all throw in and lift each other up, there’s no limit to how high we can go.
He tucks away his stack of cards in his pocket and extends his hand to shake mine. He squeezes it tightly, quietly whispering his thanks with a smile, and the gratitude in his young but dim eyes is worth a million bucks.
Best $2.50 I’ve ever spent.
Tune du Jour: Sugar Town by Zooey Deschanel