Saturday, October 19, 2013

Paying it forward

In tomorrow's Sunday Review, an article about an epidemic of little acts of charity: people in drive-through restaurants paying for the people in the car behind them.

Whereas paying it forward in drive-throughs occurred maybe once or twice a year a decade ago, now fast-food operators said it might happen several times a day. 

And sometimes whole chains of forward-paying unfold, the recipients of one person's generosity paying in turn for the car behind them. These chains can get quite long.

Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav’nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.
Serial pay-it-forward incidents involving between 4 and 24 cars have been reported at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Del Taco, Taco Bell, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Maryland, Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, North Dakota, Michigan, North Carolina and Washington.
More typically, though, it’s one customer acting alone and perhaps routinely. “We have a lady who always pays it forward in the drive-through, every day,” said Aaron Quinton, co-owner of Old School Bagel Cafe, in Tulsa, Okla. “I point at the person behind and she just nods.” 

What a wonderful phenomenon! What to make of it? The writer and some of the folks she talks to think it might be a reaction to dysfunction in Washington, and I'm tempted to connect it to our evident inability as a society to take care of people we think should be taken care of (health care? a living wage? gun safety?), but that hardly explains the Tim Horton in Winnipeg. An interesting angle is the anonymity of it.

“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.” She said her kindness stemmed from feeling blessed and wanting to share her good fortune. But others have told drive-through cashiers they wanted to pay it forward in gratitude to drivers who waved their car ahead of them in line or after noticing in the rearview mirror a woman weeping into her steering wheel, and wanting to make her smile. Cancer survivors have done it in appreciation of life, and new parents have done it to celebrate their baby.
But more often there is an expressed desire to do something good at a time when so much else in the world seems so dishearteningly bad. It’s a stark contrast, and perhaps a backlash, to the seemingly unremitting reports of unkindness in the news — politicians shutting down the government, N.S.A. spying, teenage suicides resulting from cyber-bullying, vicious slayings at a mall in Kenya, gas attacks in Syria.
“It’s about giving, and letting people see not everybody is bad, and there are nice people out there and maybe we can turn it around,” said Connie Herring, an optical technician in St. Pauls, N.C., who pays it forward at drive-throughs at least once a week. 

It's a classic "random act of kindness" - not quite random (there seem to be regular seeders) but disconnected enough from the systems and relationships it softens or corrects to be powerful, and small enough to be accepted as a gift and perhaps passed on: a presentiment of a kinder world. I imagine the gesture of commensality and shared humanity makes the food taste better, too.

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