Today I Finally Got To Pay It Forward

When I first moved out of my parents' house, I went grocery shopping. I grabbed all the stuff I thought I'd need (which mostly included frozen pizzas, sodas and chips) and headed to the register. When I went to pay, I realized I didn't bring any cash. I went to pay with my debit card, but it was declined. I was mortified.

Kindly, a gentleman behind me offered to pay for my groceries. "I've been there before, I know what it's like. Let me help you."

It took a LOT for me to finally say yes, but I did, and he saved my day. That night, I was able to eat a frozen pizza while drinking a soda and snacking on chips. That guy was my hero. He refused to take my number so I could contact him to pay him back, or give me his address to mail a check.

"Pay it forward," he told me.

...What the fuck does that mean? I thought. I had never heard that phrase before in my life. It would be a few years before a movie titled that came out and it became a huge part of our lexicon. He explained that I was not to "pay him back," I was to "pay the favor forward. Help someone else if they need it."

So I let the whole event swim in my head a bit and eventually forgot about it. Last night, it suddenly came back to me.

I had just finished buying my groceries and was packing the cart with my bags when a mother and her son rolled up. I didn't mean to size them up -- I just do that. It's a habit. The kid was wearing clothes a bit too tight for him; perhaps last year's school clothes. She was wearing a t-shirt from a running event a few years old. Both had older shoes which showed signs of at least a year's worth of wear.

"We have to put this stuff back," she told the clerk. "I don't have enough cash to cover it, and the stamps (food, I assumed) won't cover these items."

I was rolling my cart away from the register when I heard that bit. Inside me a struggle began -- not to decide if I wanted to help these folks out, but how best to do it. I didn't want to stride up and be some sort of grandiose hero, and I didn't want to seem snide. Then the memory of how the man helped me out 16 years ago popped in my head.

I rolled my cart around to the front of the lane and got behind them. As they were finalizing the purchase of the things they could afford, I offered to help them out. "I've been there before. I know how it feels. Let me help you out."

The looks on both the mom's and the son's faces was one of shock. They reluctantly agreed.

I bought the remainder of their groceries, about $35 dollars worth. They were extremely thankful. "Normally I couldn't possibly accept this," the mom said. "But we're out of everything..."

"I can totally relate," I replied. In fact, it didn't take a 16 year old memory to conjure that feeling. I was that way just three weeks ago. If not for a very timely eBay sale, I'd have been screwed.

It felt good. I didn't do it because it felt good; I did it because someone needed help and I was able to help them. But that doesn't change the fact that it felt good. With all that has happened to me in the past year, it was extremely valuable to have perspective that no matter what pain I was feeling or what hell I going through, other people are going through their own.

To be able, just for a moment, to be a buoy to someone's leaky raft reminded me of all the buoys that have kept me afloat. And for the record, it's not like I've been waiting 16 years to finally do something nice for someone. I do try to be kind and help folks when I can. I'm not ALWAYS a jerk.

As I was exiting, the kid came running up to me. He tried to hand me a few one dollar bills, and asked for my phone number so they could pay me back.

"What if you run out of gas on the way home?" I said. "You'll need that. Just remember this in 16 years, ok?"

He looked confused. That's okay. It's all confusing at the time. It's only when we look back that we get the luxury of making things make sense.