The only thing the girl at the checkout had left to do was pay. She was about my height, maybe a little shorter. She wore some flip flops and a pair of loose-fitting shorts, like she hadn’t quite grown into them yet. It was humid out, just a few days after Memorial Day. Like everyone else, she was probably headed to the beach.
The checkout guy looked at her ID. “I just turned twenty-one yesterday,” the girl said.
”I can see that,” he said, rolling his eyes. His friends were probably at the beach, and even though he needed the money, he really didn’t want to be at work. “There’s not enough on here,” he said, flinging her pre-paid card back at her.
She had a case of PBR and a pack of Newports at the end of the checkout, just strewn about, not a care in the world. Her total was fourteen something.
”I guess,” she said, patting herself down. The look on her face was kind of like the world was ending, like she could see her plans unraveling. She had to make a decision. “You can put the beer back.”
The guy punched in some numbers on the register just a little louder than before, in quick, truncated bursts, like maybe he’d negotiated one too many expired coupons that day. He could snap at any moment— these things had the tendency to come out of nowhere.
”I’ll take care of it,” I said.
Turning twenty-one was a rite of passage, something to which we could all relate. One of the last hurdles into adulthood, when you realized you still had some things left to learn.
”Are you sure?” she said.
I’d seen something like this happen once before at a coffee shop where I used to work when I was younger. During a morning rush, the guy at the head of the drive-thru would pay for his own drink and for the car behind him. That car would pay for the car behind him, and so on. At one point, the random act of kindness went on for about eight cars.
Working at a coffee shop, you met all kinds of people. It wasn’t like a high-end nail salon or a bait & tackle where you’d get a specific kind of clientele— everybody wanted coffee. It was humbling, in a way; you learned a little bit about the nature of people.
”We’ve all been there before,” I said.
As I carried my things out to the car, I didn’t think about why I did it. I didn’t think about the time this young guy walked up to me and said out of nowhere, “So, how many people guess your ethnicity wrong?” I didn’t think about this teenager who yelled at me for accidentally cutting in front of her in line. She said, “Go back to your country,” after I apologized. I didn’t even think about the time I walked home from a bar alone after having just turned twenty-one, or about the girl who crossed the street when she saw me coming, only to cross back again after we’d passed. I didn’t think of this.
Instead, I thought about the girl at the checkout. I thought about the conversations she would have with her friends when she got home about some guy who had just given her eight dollars for no reason. It wasn’t some big chivalrous act, and I wasn’t trying to get into her shorts either. I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know me. It might not have been anything— maybe she didn’t care about the color of my skin, and maybe she’d never see me or anyone who looked like me again. But if she did, maybe when she left a bar late at night, she wouldn’t cross the street when she saw someone coming. You never know when these things will happen. She’d only just turn twenty-one.