I read something a few days after the shooting in Tucson. It was an article talking about how to explain the events to children. The psychologist who was being interviewed suggested that parents emphasize that though there are bad people in the world, there are good people, too. More good people, in fact. And because it seemed like a good thing to say, I told this to my children. Did I believe it myself? Sort of. Not really. Maybe?
Then a few weeks after the shooting, I was in a Safeway (not the Safeway) but one only a few miles from there, and I was with my son. We were buying only a few things, but very obviously for a birthday party, and the elderly man in front of me in line started asking me and my son questions. When was his birthday? How old was he? My son, well-versed in not talking to strangers, looked at me but didn’t answer, but the man seemed friendly enough, so I did. We started talking, and I learned that his birthday, as well as the birthdays of his numerous brothers and sisters were all the same week as my son’s.
As we were talking, the cashier was ringing up the man’s order, and just as he was about to pay, the man turned to the cashier and asked him to ring up my order and add it on to his bill. I protested, but he insisted, and the cashier listened. Before I really knew what happened, the elderly man, a perfect stranger, had paid for my things. “You’re all set,” the cashier said to me, motioning me to get out line so he could ring up the woman behind me. The elderly man waved to us, wished my son a happy birthday, told me to take care, and walked out of the store.
“What just happened?” My son asked, confused.
“That man paid for your balloons,” I told him
“Why?” he asked.
“Because he wanted to do something nice, I guess,” I said.
“Isn’t that weird?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. Because honestly, my first inclination was to feel, well, weird about it. Leaving the store, without a receipt, my things paid for by a stranger, I almost felt like I was doing something wrong. But then I wondered, was the thing that was weird was that I was so flabbergasted by kindness?
A few weeks later, Valentine’s Day, I was in Target. I knew it was the last day The Transformation of Things would be on the shelves there, so impulsively, I threw the last two copies in my cart. As the cashier rang up my things we started talking, and she examined the book as she rang it up. “Do you like to read?” I asked.
“I LOVE to read,” she exclaimed. “I’m always reading.”
After she rang up my book, I handed it back to her. “Here you go,” I said, explaining to her what the book was and that I had written it. (Nevermind that I have a bunch of free copies at home or that I didn’t even know her. I’d just bought her book!) She was beyond thrilled and asked me to sign it – I did. And then I gave the other copy to the other cashier, who, it also turned out, loved to read, and was thrilled.
Did they find it as strange as I did when that man paid for my things? Maybe. But I felt pretty good about it as I walked out of the store. Maybe we should all buy things for strangers once in a while.