About a year ago I decided to treat myself to lunch at Naidre's--a fabulous coffee shop that is not in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I'd been there a handful of times over the past couple of years since it's not far from my kids' school, but not enough to be known by the people working there. I was just another stranger heading in for a bite.
It was one of the first great springy days of the year and so I'd grabbed a lighter jacket than the wintry one I'd been slogging around in for months. Switching coats, bags, or tampering with anything for that matter is a dangerous thing for me and even though I'm forty-one, I refuse to remember how forgetful I am. I stuff money in coat pockets, or maybe a credit card'll end up there if I've pumped gas recently and have had to separate one out from my wallet for a period of time longer than just a regular swipe. And then of course I do something silly like wear a raincoat, or no coat, or decide at the last minute to carry a different bag than my regular one...and I have that terrible moment where I realize I have no money too late.
That's what happened at Naidre's that day. I ordered a big cup of Rosy Earl Grey tea with milk, and some exciting sandwich. And as they passed the goods to me I dug around in my pockets and soon realized I was completely penniless. I was flooded with the familiar feeling of having failed at being a grownup, yet again. **The familiar feeling of failure is my new favorite concept, poached from the new novel Four Wives, by Wendy Walker where it's mentioned in a lovely passage about a woman who nurses her fussy child in the middle of the night, simultaneously calming him down AND destroying all of her sleep-training efforts. I've found this ffof applies to many aspects of my life.
'I have no money,' I announced, with startled unhappy eyes. There was half of an uncomfortable moment, and then I ventured 'could I bring you the money later today?'
While I don't try this kind of thing often, I'm always surprised when perfect strangers trust me. I have this wide open honest midwestern face that seems to invite conversation from all kinds of people in all kinds of places, but I also tend to dress wayyy down and often feel like retailers think I'm going to shoplift. This paranoia, no doubt, stems from my early days in high-end retail. On days off (which were never weekend days) I'd refuse to put any effort into my appearance and I'd do my own shopping. I always thought it ironic that nervous eyes that would flicker at me as I'd pad around a store in my oversized sweater and birkenstocks with socks, since only the day before I was the fanciest girl in the world personal shopping with people like Phyllis George and the Sultan of Brunei. So used to being considered a shoplifter am I that these little moments of trust--this counter girl in one of the biggest cities in the world trusts that I'll bring her the $7 I owe her!--shock me. Still, I threw it out there as a possibility. Hoping that open honest face would trump slovenly con-lady appearance.
Sure enough the woman shrugged and said 'yeah okay, that'd be fine.'
'Really?' I nearly ruined the moment, starting to feel even more like a loser. Of course I was good for it, I'd bring the money later, I'd make a special trip from home to do it, etc. But this just seemed so much to ask.
'Sure, no problem' she said, pushing my food towards me. 'Enjoy.'
And enjoy I did. Nothing like a bit of reading material, some hot tea, and a good sandwich. I took my time, soaking up the experience. An hour later I pushed away from the table, bussed my own stuff, and went to leave.
'Thanks,' I said, approaching the counter on my way out. 'I'll be back later, what time do you close?'
'Oh!' she said, looking confused. 'Didn't anyone tell you? The lady behind you in line paid for you.'
'Someone paid for me?' I asked, searching the room, trying to place which 'lady' might have done this.
'Yeah, she heard you saying you didn't have your money and she told me she wanted to pay for you, said she tried to do a good deed every day. But she left already.'
'She...' I started, craning my neck to the sidewalk in front, still thinking I could find her somewhere. This wasn't computing. Try as I might I couldn't even remember anyone being in line after me. I settled on a simple 'wow.'
The counter lady winked at me, appreciating my befuddlement. 'Pay it forward,' she suggested, smiling.
I left Naidre's feeling light as air. Smiling giddily at the next thousand strangers I saw might not have been the right way to pay it forward but I couldn't help myself. The glow of this stranger's good deed stayed with me all afternoon, all week, and can still rise up and make me happy whenever I remember to remember it.
Later that day I tried to tell the story to my husband, but found that no actual telling could recapture the shiny specialness of the feeling of finding out that someone who didn't know me had decided to make my day (and it didn't help that there was a bit of 'you forgot your money?' incredulousness from him which kind of ruins all the good feeling of the story). Of all the choices that woman had to make in that moment--judge me, hate me, ignore me, she chose to settle my tab for me. Anonymously. Ignoring me would have been anonymous too.
Another small town story from big city Brooklyn. Of course a story like this could happen anywhere. `But the fact that things like this do happen here is something I love. I love this place.
7 years ago