She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes did the pleading.
In her arms she carried a jug of milk and a few other items, oversights that had prompted her to place the rest of her purchases on the convenience store counter and step out of line.
While she had been gone, the line had advanced until I was next. Just then, she appeared, hoping to squeeze in and not have to wait and pay the price of forgetting a gallon for the next day’s breakfast.
Our eyes met. Without thinking I stepped back and motioned her forward. She smiled in gratitude and perhaps a little embarrassment, whispered a thank you and cut in front of me.
Then it was my turn. I plunked down my coffee, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
In the media business, it’s all too easy to become cynical. We daily report on the worst sides of humanity — the callousness, greed, venality, prejudice, ignorance, corruption, hate and violence that pollute the world here and abroad.
Because it’s our job. We give you petty politics, legal wranglings and a Whitman’s Sampler of vitriol, assault and abuse. On any given day, we share the misfortunes of stupid men and women doing stupid things and keeping the police busy.
Reporters can fall into the trap of echoing the words of the man in the classic William Steig cartoon, curled up in a box and muttering, “People are no damn good.”
Like any experienced journalist, I’ve shaken my head often, but then something comes along and the feeling passes. Maybe because of my nature, maybe because I’ve been lucky in my career to meet and write about scores of amazing and inspirational people, I’ve never succumbed to despair about our basic decency.
But it never hurts to be reminded.
Barely had I looked up when the young clerk announced, “It’s on the house.”
I was confused. He hadn’t scanned my rewards card so that couldn’t have been it. Was I a random beneficiary, customer No. 1,000 of the day?
Not wanting the pause to grow awkward, I thanked him, started to leave but hesitated.
I had to know.
“Because of the nice thing you did for that lady,” the clerk said, a little rushed, as though asking me not to drag this out, make a big deal out of it and attract his supervisor’s attention.
Walking back to my car, warm cup in hand, I pondered his gesture.
Allowing the harried woman to resume her place in line felt automatic, hardly worth rewarding. What was I going to do, hip check her aside so I could sip my coffee a few minutes sooner? It’s not like she came up short at the register, two small children in tow, and I stepped forward with a $10 bill.
Then I thought about it from the clerk’s perspective.
He witnessed a small act of kindness and, in all likelihood, recognized a chance to perform one of his own. Maybe my generosity, however trivial, inspired him spontaneously to tap into his, and to go home feeling happier for it after hours of dour faces and curt exchanges.
In any case, he gave me more than a freebie. His true gift was a small blessing, a reaffirmation out of the blue from a stranger that we, despite our grave flaws and the evidence of them around us, aren’t lost causes.
For once, I didn’t get a name. It didn’t seem like the right time or place. So I’ll just have to say, in advance of Thanksgiving, thank you Mr. Clerk for a valuable lesson. It’s not always the grand philanthropy and the selfless charity often seen during the holiday season that reveal our fundamental selves.
We may not always be good.
But we have our moments.