Basically, it’s about one supermarket shopper at a time.
Here’s how it works.
Depending on what our discretionary income is in any given week, I’ve started to buy groceries for whomever is standing beside me in the cashier’s line. Since I get to choose, I don’t pay the bill for someone whose basket boasts bottles of vodka; a gaggle of gift cards, or pretty plastic bottles of the priciest hair care products.
But when I see a shopper placing a handful of necessities on the conveyer belt, who then starts fumbling for change, my wallet comes out.
Of course, what may seem a need to me might not be one to you.
For instance, a gangly 20something was ahead of me one afternoon.
His shirt and pants were definitely not new, and under his arm was what I suspect was his only mode of transportation, a well-used skateboard. He was also buying just one item: a sketchpad. As someone who has personally experienced the healing power of art—both as participant and spectator—I didn’t think twice about gifting those waiting-to-be-drawn-on blank pages to him.
Told that I was doing so from the cashier, he looked shocked. I got the impression that no one had ever bought him what many might consider an unnecessary purchase, which, after all, only set me back $3.50. As the cashier handed him his new sketch pad, he looked right into my eyes.
“God bless you,” he said.
Then, just this morning, one town over at another market, a young girl and her mother were in line behind me. Between them, they carried two bottles of water, plus two very heavy packages of crushed ice. As I was paying my bill, the cashier made a comment about the amount of ice they were buying. “Well, we have to keep things cold for our food, because we’re camping,” said the mom.
Glancing at their clothes and shoes, it was obvious to both the cashier, and me, that “camping” was another word for “this is how our family is living now.”
I tore up my first check and paid my bill and theirs.
Like the skateboarder, the woman was surprised.
“You really don’t have to do that for us,” she said.
“Oh, I know, but I want to,” I replied. “You know, just pay it forward.”
I swear that the two of them left with tears in their eyes.
I’m choosing to extend myself this way for a couple of reasons.
One, I’ve worn their hats. I’ve received food stamps twice in my life, once as a college student, and again, when I was living in New York City and had been out of work for a while. And, I still remember, early into our marriage, when our dream home was foreclosed, and we were given one hour to vacate by the sheriff. I recall the embarrassment of needing to accept the free lunch offer from our daughter’s school principal because, “You’re homeless now, and we give migrants vouchers.”
There was also the time shortly after my partner had suddenly died.
I was alone, in impossible grief, and a true single mother to a toddler. A near-stranger handed me a $100 bill to pay for a plumbing emergency.
“I don't really know you,” I said, weeping loudly. "I can't accept this."
“Oh, I do,” she replied. “Please, just take it.”
So in my own way, I’m passing it on.
Two, and this is harder to explain, but particularly now, it’s the right thing to do. Although I think current policies in Washington aggressively encourage and support a mean-spirited, “I’ve got mine, so I’m not going to take care of you” attitude, I believe that this is not the America I grew up in.
I also choose to believe that it’s not the country I live in now.
But what if you’re too uncomfortable or shy to help someone in front of you? Or, what if you want to offer assistance, but don’t see anyone who can use a happy surprise?
Well, there’s another way to do the same thing.
That’s by giving money to the cashier who is ringing up your groceries.
He or she has regular customers, and is often familiar with those who can use a helping hand, especially at the end of the month. (Plus, this gives them some skin in the game, since they’re partnering with you.)
I took this route last month, when I gave a $20 bill to a favorite supermarket checker. She promised she would find
the right recipient, and she did. Spotting me a few days later, she came up to me to say that she had helped an elderly customer who is so on the edge that this person routinely picks through the store trash cans outside to collect bottles
Sadly, with many paychecks no longer providing a living wage, more Americans can use our help.
In fact, according to federal statistics, an astounding 43 million of us are living at poverty level. Even more upsetting—and shameful—is that four in 10 children are part of this statistic, which cuts a wide swath across every state and with every ethnicity. In addition, there’s rampant food insecurity, which is defined as being in a place—physically, economically or both—without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food every day. The numbers here are also unsettling: an astounding one in every eight Americans is food insecure, including 13 million children.
I’m certainly a very long way from perfect. But what I do try to do is pass along kindness, and at the same time, do my best to share what I can.
Especially these days. Because besides these actions bolstering both spirit and soul, it all counts.
Every single time.
How do you manifest kindness? I look forward to your stories and comments!
P.S. To learn more about we-can’t-always-see-it hunger in America, watch the 2012 film
A Place at the Table. Here’s the trailer, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnuawGkTRzo.