This is a true story from my otherwise uneventful Monday night.
I was driving my 4 year old daughter home from swim lessons and planned to stop at Taco Bell, her current favorite, for dinner afterwards.
After I parked, I realized I forgot my wallet at home but luckily I did have my cell phone. No problem, I thought. I have “apple pay” on my phone and could use that to pay for dinner as my credit card was uploaded.
My daughter and I waited in line as a large family in front of us completed their order. The cashier was patiently compiling their customized order with a soft smile. I noticed multiple tattoos on her arms as she was working the register, and wondered about the stories behind them. When it was our turn, I asked the cashier if they accepted apple pay as I didn’t have my wallet with me. She wasn’t sure, but thought she had seen someone use it before and suggested we try. So, after giving the order for myself and my daughter, we tried to pay.
However, it didn’t work.
Immediately, I felt very awkward and now had no way to pay for our dinner. In my pockets I had about a dollar’s worth of change I found in the car. The cashier noticed me checking my pockets.
Not a big deal, we would just go home to eat dinner.
I told my daughter, “sorry, we’ll have to come back another time”. Immediately, the cashier jumped in and said she couldn’t let us leave without our dinner.
“I’ll pay for it”, she told me.
“No, no, absolutely not” I replied. Then my 4 year old piped in with “what’s going on Mommy, I want to eat here”. Before I could say anything else or leave the restaurant, the cashier was literally running to get her wallet and paid for our dinner with her credit card as she would not take “no” for an answer.
“I’ve been there too” she replied. “You know, left my wallet at home”.
However, I am quite certain that’s not what she meant. I thanked her profusely and felt strangely awful for accepting her money yet also completely humbled at her generosity. I told her I would return to pay her back, but she just asked me to pay it forward. At this point I didn’t know what to say to a woman who doesn’t know me or my situation, but just sees a mother and a daughter and wants to help.
I asked for her name- it is Christie- and she wrote it on the receipt for me. My bill was $9.29. As we sat quietly eating dinner, I was lost in thought. I wondered how much minimum wage was. I was also embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t know. (I looked it up- ironically, it’s $9.25).
I thought about how quickly and selflessly the cashier paid for our dinner despite the fact it very well may have cost her an hour’s worth of work.
Her act of kindness stayed with me all night. I couldn’t shake how profoundly this was affecting me. I kept thinking how it must feel for mothers who truly don’t have the money to pay for a meal must feel. Helpless?
I thought about victims of domestic violence. I have actually had discussions with patients and talked with them about developing a plan to leave an abusive partner. They are often afraid to leave an abusive situation out of fear for how they will care for their families on their own. In my ob-gyn practice, it was a standard question for new patients at their annual exam, “do you feel safe at home”? Unfortunately, pregnant women are at an increased risk for domestic abuse and I have seen this with more than one of my patients.
In the past, I have discussed with patients some practical measures such as hiding away a small amount of money so that they would have a way to care for themselves and children when first escaping the situation. Often, these women have zero resources of their own. I was wondering if this caring cashier thought perhaps I may have been in a similar situation.
The truth of the matter is that I have never been in this terrible situation, and can’t possibly understand what it is like for these women.
That night, I was wearing pretty typical clothes for a Monday night swim lesson- nice pair of jeans and a t shirt. My daughter was in a cute matching Minnie mouse outfit. Definitely not the definition of needy but also not clearly one of wealth.
This cashier didn’t stop to question or judge our situation.
My plan is to go back next Monday night after swim lessons. I have an envelope with Christie’s name on it that will pay her back many times over. I also plan to talk with her manager about the kind of person they are lucky to have working the cashier. Most importantly, I want to tell Christie that her small gesture impacted me profoundly. With stories of hate, mass shootings, and natural disasters filling our news lately, her kindness showed me that love and compassion for strangers is still present.
And, needless to say, I will also “just pay it forward” as she requested.