Trying to buy a Red Bull and a stick of beef jerky at a convenience store, the pleasant but harried young woman had already run her debit card through the payment slot six times. Each time, the transaction ended the same way: with an ominous “Card Declined” message taunting her.
Clearly possessing no other means of payment — and with an obviously insatiable hunger for beef jerky — she geared up for her seventh attempt. The cashier was mesmerized; with nothing better to do, he seemed entertained, curious to see how this financial melodrama would play out.
As I waited patiently behind her in line, it became evident that I needed to stop this monetary madness. Not only was I growing impatient, but the quart of milk I was holding also was nearing its expiration date. Stepping forward with all the pomp and circumstance that should accompany a convenience-store purchase, I stated boldly, “Ma’am, allow me to get this.” The woman, caught off guard, hesitated momentarily, perhaps sensing that my selfless gesture was being offered with significant strings attached.
I repeated myself with increased insistence. I was trying to do something nice for a stranger. You read about things like this every day. A motorist paying the toll for the next car. A customer randomly picking up the tab for a fellow diner. A Boston driver not running someone over in a crosswalk.
I wanted to be that guy for once. That everyday Joe who steps up and performs an act of kindness with no thought of reward, other than perhaps having a town square named after him.
“Are you sure?” she asked, still somewhat reluctant to accept my assistance. “Absolutely. It would be my pleasure,” I replied, already trying to decide which town square might best fit my personality.
“Thank you so much, that’s very nice of you.” Her gratitude was genuine. Conversely, the cashier seemed disappointed that the momentary diversion was reaching its conclusion.
As the woman left the store, I turned back to the counter and asked the cashier how much I owed. With the beef jerky, Red Bull, and my quart of milk, I expected something in the seven- to eight-dollar range.
“OK, that’ll be . . . $45.07.”
Whoa. Didn’t see that coming.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “The acoustics in here must be a little off. I thought you said $45.07.”
“I did. Milk, Red Bull, beef jerky, and $35 of gas.”
A cold chill ran up my spine and settled in my wallet. Sensing that I might perhaps request an immediate hold on the entire transaction, the cashier explained further.
“When you said you would pay for that lady, I punched in the $35 of gas she asked me for. She’s pumping it right now.”
Sure enough, I looked out the window to see the recipient of my largesse feeding her thirsty vehicle. My options were few; more precisely, my options were nonexistent. I pulled out $45.07 in cash. The 7 cents didn’t hurt too much; the $45 stung like a rabid jellyfish.
Still, I had the satisfaction of helping out a fellow human being in need. Never mind that it was a fellow human being driving a $60,000 car whose biggest problem may be that she needs a new debit card. But it did feel good to finally be that guy. Even the cashier took note. “Dude, that was a nice thing you did,” he said. That compliment — along with being called “dude” — was worth at least $27.
In retrospect, I do wonder about the woman’s obligation to me as her benefactor. When I said I would pay her bill, she could have offered a bit more insight into her intended purchase. You know, something to the effect of “Thank you so much, but you should know that I’m also getting $35 worth of gas. You still want to be that guy?”
In all honesty, I still would have paid, because I had already made the offer. I suppose in the future, in a similar situation, I’ll ask for an itemized list of purchases, followed by a quick call to my accountant. Not quite as spontaneous or magnanimous, but a heck of a lot more fiscally firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.