Dear Sean Paul,
On Tuesday, I was standing in a checkout aisle scrolling through emails when I suddenly had this vague realization that I had become tuned out to my world, and I really didn’t want that.
“These people that surround you right now, you were meant to be here with these people. Pay attention to them.”
I reluctantly put my phone away, deciding to get away from the work, and just try to enjoy the moment of standing in a checkout aisle. I decided I didn’t have to actively engage with people (I am a little awkward and shy), but at least I would be open to them. At least I wouldn’t tune them, or this moment, out on a phone.
Naturally, my mind went to other things. I scanned the aisle and convinced myself a few times that I didn’t need to buy any of the things on display. Those impulse items. Regardless, it did take me a while (let’s just say I can find ways to tune out things without a device) to finally realize the struggle with the lady in front of me at the register.
She looked to be an older lady, yet it seemed that aging had come on a little more quickly than what’s typical (as if there’s really a “typical” way to age). She had a watermelon in her cart, but that was the only thing I could see in there besides her purse. The total on the register came in at $7.33. I don’t know much about watermelons, but I’m pretty sure the standard, run of the mill watermelon is not $7.33. Perhaps there were cigarettes in her purse.
The way she punched in numbers on the keypad seemed so forced. I remember noting that she had to take a pen to punch in the number keys, which made it even more difficult than simply punching them with her finger. She struggled with sliding the card and scanning it into the system-she clearly didn’t do this often.. The cashier, a patient girl who didn’t look a day older than 18, continued to smile and then agreed to punch in the card number herself. The lady would then go through the process of punching numbers in on her side, signing her name, and then what should have been a full itemized receipt approximately 4 inches in length should have come out. Instead, one that was maybe an inch long would spit out, in a most unfriendly manner: Declined.
They tried over, and over. The patient cashier type in the card number, the women would sloppily punch in her numbers, and it would be to no avail. I don’t remember exactly when it was when I thought to myself, “Maybe I should offer to pay for this woman’s things.”
In college, this was always a subject for debate in several of my classes: what do you do when it comes to giving people a free handout? We’d wax on philosophically about how maybe we aren’t really helping them by giving them money or food, or we’d talk about how callous and insensitive people were for passing judgment on these people by without knowing their story or context. People would assert their views, state their claim, and own it, like it was the absolute right thing to do, and that they’d honor it in every situation they came across.
I stared at the lady as she continued to punch in numbers on that keypad. It’s one thing to debate on this with people that generally, had many more opportunities to succeed than the people we discussed. It’s an entirely different matter when the moment in which you have to act is staring you in the face. I wondered how many times this had happened to this lady before. A part of me even questioned if this wasn’t the bigger part of an elaborate ruse to get a free handout from some person desperate to get out of the checkout aisle. I pondered how one can ever truly know a person before you decide if they’re deemed, “legitimate,” or deserving, of the help. In the end, I decided I didn’t care where she was coming from and that I wanted to pay, but I also didn’t want to just interrupt the lady and damage her pride by offering.
Then, it sort of just fell into place. After what seemed like the 100th time the card didn’t go through, she just turned and looked at me. A look of embarrassment, exasperation.
“You can put those things on my charge if you would like, ma’am.”
She said nothing to me, and turned back to the register. The cashier tried another time or two, and asked as discreetly as possible (still smiling, still patient), “Would you like me to call a manager to help you?”
The lady gestured at me. “She said she could use her charge.”
The cashier looked at me with a smile of disbelief.
“Sure,” I said, “If that’s okay.”
She took her bag with her mysteriously expensive watermelon, and left the store. The cashier scanned my items in, and at one point I caught her just looking at me, smiling, but also trying to figure me out. It was like she questioned me: Why did I do that? I don’t exactly look very old or established, so it was hard to imagine that I truly had a lot of money to give. When I swiped my card, I jokingly pointed out, “Let’s hope mine goes through!”
It did. As I grabbed my things, a man farther back in line came up to me. “How much was her stuff?” He asked.
“It was only like 7 bucks. I’m okay.” I replied.
“Here, take this 5 to help pay for it.”
And just like that, I was out the door with my belongings and a $5 bill in my purse. Thoughts swarmed me as I moved out into the heat.
We hear so often that what we give and do unto others, we get in return. I believe that, and I believe that I create my reality thus when I give of my own money (as if I have an abundance of money), I will become abundant. That being said, it rarely turns over so quickly. I can’t name too many other times in which I gave away something of mine with no strings attached, and it was almost fully returned within moments. A part of me did not want to accept the man’s charity, like it would cheapen what I had done for that lady, but then I realized that really, it was amazing that there were so many people willing to give in one checkout queue. Once I saw the man’s gift as a repayment from that benevolent creator/Universe, I realized that it made sense for me to accept the money.
I wondered what that lady went home to. I wondered why that watermelon was so expensive. I wondered how people say that we are only kind to others because we want to feel good about ourselves, when that was literally the farthest thing from my mind. I wondered what the people who witnessed the event thought about afterward. There was a little boy behind me with his mother-I wonder what he thought when he saw that, especially when the man gave his own money. I wondered at how amazing it was that I seemed to be in the right place at the right time for that lady. I wondered why that man felt the need to split the cost with me. I wondered if the cashier would come to understand that when it comes to giving, I have infinite resources.
And mostly, I wondered if things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t make the conscious decision to put my phone back into my purse, and just be in the moment with the people there.