[Darwin guest posting for MrsDarwin.]
I had a tightly scheduled evening. I left work a little early, because the team that works for me was invited to come to the house for a team Christmas party at six. I needed to pick up a couple of quick things at the store (chips, ice, etc.) and then hurry home to cook some of the food and help with the final cleaning. With a dozen items in my cart, I scanned the checkout lines. Each had one person. I picked one of the "fifteen items or less" express checkout line and got in it.
Almost immediately it became clear I'd chosen poorly, at least in terms of getting out quickly. The lady in front of me was trying to pay on her Ohio food assistance card, but the system was saying that she still owed twelve dollars and change. Neither she nor the checker could figure out which of her items it was that was causing the trouble.
After having rushed around the store to pick things up, being stuck in line was the last thing I wanted. I knew that MrsDarwin and the kids were stuck with the frustrating last minute cleaning, and I wanted to get my food on the stove. I just got my bonus for the year. Twelve dollars was nothing to me. Minutes, on the other hand, mattered. I wanted to get out. I wanted to say, "Look, can I just pick up her tab?" Then we could both just go. I wouldn't mind the extra twelve bucks, and we could all go. But I'd read my share of articles over the last year about the humiliation of having to use "food stamp" cards at the store. I didn't want to embarrass her by offering to pay. So I waited and focused on looking cheerful.
"I'm really sorry," she said to me, looking upset and harassed. "I didn't put anything in the cart that I don't normally get. I don't know why it's taking so long. But this stuff is crazy."
"No problem," I said. "I don't mind."
We waited. The checker was going through the receipt one item at a time. Then she called over a manager, and the manager (an efficient looking woman probably ten years younger than both me and the checker) took the list and went to check it against some list of her own.
I got a text from MrsDarwin asking me to pick up cleaning spray. "Do you mind if I run get something?" I asked the checker. "I'll just be a minute."
"Oh sure," the said the checker.
"Take your time," said the woman ahead of me. "We're not going anywhere."
I grabbed the cleaning spray and came back. The woman was still there, worrying about her total, looking through the bags for what might have caused the problem (she'd clearly taken more than fifteen items through the express check) and looking embarrassed. I put my cleaning spray on the checkout counter.
"Look," I said. "It's Christmas. I'd really like to help out. Would you mind if I picked up your tab?"
She looked shocked. "Pay for my stuff?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's Christmas. I'd like to help out."
I could see the emotions working in her face, but it wasn't anger such as I had feared. It was a sort of startled gratitude. "Are you sure?" she asked. "This has never happened to me. No one has ever picked up my tab. Even when I had boyfriend they never paid for my stuff. Are you sure?"
The checker turned to me to double check. "Yeah, are you sure?" she asked.
"Yeah. It's not a problem. It's just twelve bucks. Here." I handed a twenty over to the checker and she started to make change.
"No one has ever done this for me," repeated the woman. "Thank you. I feel like I'm going to cry. This makes my week. Thank you. Bless you."
I knew that I just wanted to get out of line. I knew that this was barely even a sacrifice for me. I knew that the main reason I hadn't offered five minutes ago was that I was afraid of offending her.
"You're welcome. I'm glad to help. Really. It's no problem."
She kept telling me how grateful she was, and first she started to leave without her keys and wallet, then started to leave without her bags that were still on the checkout counter.
"I'm not thinking, you've just done that much to me," she said, loading her last bags into the cart. "Thank you so much."
She went off to the customer service counter to try to find out why her card hadn't covered it all.
The checker started running my items. "Thank you for helping her," she said. "I've never seen anyone do that."
I shrugged. "Glad to help out."
Seriously people, I just wanted to get through the line. But there was something unexpected happening here. I hadn't set out to make people grateful -- if anything I'd just been hoping to get out quickly without making them mad. From the discussions of food stamps that I'd read online this year, I was expecting to get yelled at for my presumption. But here I'd made someone's day. It's not a small thing to have someone telling you that you're the first one who's picked up her tab for her. What had started as a minor favor so I could get out had become something important because it was important to her.
Just as I was about to leave, the manager came back and said that she couldn't figure out why the system was trying to charge the woman twelve dollars. "Just charge it to the customer service cost center," she said.
"This guy picked up her tab for her," said the cashier.
"Wow. Okay, well, I guess it's fine then," said the manager, and rushed off to deal with the next thing.
I took my things and drove home. I was getting out, not as quickly as I'd hoped, but fast enough. However, what was in my mind was the way the woman had said that this had made her day, that no one had ever paid for her before. I don't know if that's true or not. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a game. But somehow what had seemed like a very minor thing to me had become a major part of someone else's day. That reaction had made it a part of mine.