Paying it sideways

(Matt Rourke/AP Photo

(Matt Rourke/AP Photo

It happened in a very unlikely way from an even more unlikely source. But it made an impact on me and my coffee-addicted self that I’m still thinking about even now.

A few nights ago I was buying a cup of large coffee at a nearby Wawa, which is by the way the greatest convenience store in the world. The cost: $1.80. No king’s ransom, but enough that I usually dispense a large cup of Colombian, gulp a whole bunch down right away, and then dispense more to fill the cup again.

I’m classy that way.

As I got in line, I eyeballed the guy in line in front of me facing toward the cashier. He had so many tattoos it looked like he’d fallen asleep in the chair of a tattoo artist on crystal meth. He was wearing those large, round, black plug-style earrings that some younger guys wear these days that look like … well, the knobs on the Wawa coffee dispensers. He did not seem to me the kind of guy you bring home to your Jewish mother.

As the well-inscribed one purchased his beef jerky or whatever, he turned to his right side to look at me and turned back to the cashier and said:

“This is also for his coffee.”

What? What did he say? Have I forgotten to wash out my ears the last nine months?

“Thank you,” I stammered, “but why?”

“Pay it forward,” he said. He smiled and was gone.

“Or in this case, pay it sideways,” I remarked to the cashier.

She smiled and said, “This happens more than you’d think.”

Yeah, I wouldn’t think it would happen at all. Obviously I’m a pessimist. But what a nice way to brighten someone’s day!

The next day I found myself in another Wawa. Behind me in line was a young man, no tattoos or coffee-urn earrings, with a short, stylish haircut I would have laughed at when I was 20 but which I wish to God I had enough hair to muster today. Time for me to pay it sideways.

“This is for his coffee,” I said with a bright smile, turning to the young man.

“Why are you doing this?” he replied, a quizzical look across his face. “You coming on to me? I have to tell you, I’m not gay.”

“No, no! I’m not coming on to you!” I blurted out. “I’m paying it sideways!”

“Oh.” He was still suspicious. “Then I’ll let you pay it.”

“Thank you, because I only wanted to …”

“But don’t follow me out of here!” He scowled and was gone.

Notwithstanding this minor (and mostly true) debacle in my attempt to follow in the steps of my well-inked Wawa benefactor, I’m not daunted. I will yet succeed in my efforts to pay it sideways. Or next time, maybe even pay it forward.

But I’ve learned something: You never know where you will find kindness and class in this world. Sometimes it comes from the most unexpected sources.

And although, knowing me, I may forget that in days to come, it sure makes me feel a lot better right now.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.