When I was in kindergarten we lived in a modest apartment in Bakersfield California. The couple who resided above us were older and the husband was retired from an unusual job, he had owned and maintained a variety of vending machines which included those small glass encased ones at the entrances and exits of stores designed to entice kids into begging money from their parents for cheap trinkets and bits of candy or, of course, gumballs. Pennies were easy to talk my parents out of, but silver coinage was another matter, so when I did manage to get my hands on larger denominations, my excitement rose considerably. Nothing I managed to buy was all that thrilling, but it was the anticipation of the unknown which made my eyes go wide at the sight of colorful and usually pointless baubles.
One night there came a knock.
“Good evening, I’m the gentleman who lives upstairs.”
My mother let the man in while I bounded towards the visitor with enthusiasm. My fear of strangers at that age was limited to one-on-one encounters, meaning while in the presence of my parents any such apprehension would never have manifested. As he stood there with his hands behind his back, he looked at me and smiled.
“I have a gift for your son” and with that he produced a good sized plastic bag stuffed with dozens of gumball machine prizes. I was stunned that an almost total stranger would go out of his way to randomly give me something without really knowing who I was. All my previous gifts up until then had some sort of expectation attached to them. My relatives and parents gave me all sorts of things, but they were always because an occasion such as my birthday or Christmas had arrived. This was the first instance of random generosity I had encountered. He went on to explain where he had acquired his stash of miniature toys and thought I’d be happy to have them.
None of the individual items were all that impressive, but the event itself has become one of my favorite memories. As a result of this incident, I too was eventually inspired to periodically give without expectation of repayment, especially to strangers. Every once in a while when the mood strikes me I’ll take notice of the abundance in my life and the urge to share will strike. If the person does know I’ve done something, and they say they would like to eventually repay me, I always say, “just pay it forward.” I’ve occasionally purchased items when the person in front of me realizes they can’t afford everything they’ve picked out. Sometimes I’ll buy the order behind me in line at the drive through. I’ve also bought scratch tickets for whoever’s next in line, whispering to the cashier to tell them it’s a gift.
Other times I’ll be a total nutcase about it and I WILL ask for something in return, but this is rare.
A few years ago I was walking into a 7-11 and a young woman approached me asking for a dollar. One dollar, nothing more. I told her to wait. As finished my transaction and stepped out I said, “I’ll give you the dollar, but first you have to do this.” and I started doing the “old prospector dance”. After a few steps I stopped and went Ta-Dum! With a dumbfounded expression she informed me she wasn’t going to do that, and I said with a goofy voice and an overanimated gesture, “Then you can’t have it.” She looked annoyed so I made a compromise, “I’ll tell you what… I’ll do it with you.” She sighed and we both started dancing in front of the store. My goal was to get her to at least smile, which she eventually did when we stopped. I then handed her the bill. “Here you go, not only did you get your dollar, but now you feel better too.” Honestly, I think being a dork is in my genes.
To this day if I have change (or I can bum it off my wife) and I pass by those machines full of juvenile surprises, I’ll buy a bunch and leave them on top for the next kid to unexpectedly find so they too can share in a tiny bit of the joy I felt as a boy. Maybe someone years from now will remember their random discovery and they too will be inspired to pay it forward.
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With Love and Compassion, Daniel Andrew Lockwood