Pay It Forward, Dude

The guy had cut line in front of me and several other people at 7-Eleven, the day they were giving out free Slurpees. I didn’t know about the free Slurpees, but I was headed in there for a fountain soda.

It was summer, it was hot, and I was about to go get my hair cut and colored. And for those two long hours in the chair, I knew I would need a pick-me-up. I needed my afternoon crutch, a Diet Coke. And as I was standing in the middle of a line, waiting for the cashier to scan a few dozen kids’ cups to track their free Slurpees, a guy came in from outside and cut sideways into the front of the line, saying to the cashier, “I just need a quick pack of smokes.”

He pulled several bucks out of his pocket, in a move so swift and deliberate that the cashier simply turned and started getting his cigarettes.

“What kind do you want?” she asked.

I stood there in disbelief. What nerve! Walking in the side door, and cutting a few little kids waiting for their Slurpees? Didn’t he see we were all standing patiently in line?

(I know; I might as well be in elementary school.)

My eyes must have bored holes in the back of his head, because a moment later, he turned and looked back at the line. And seeing us all, he then said, “Sorry, I just needed some quick smokes.”

The kids didn’t say anything. But he kept looking back, embarrassed. I couldn’t help myself. So I announced, holding up my Styrofoam cup of Big Gulp, which was starting to sweat on the outside, “Yeah, well, I just needed a quick soda.” And I lifted my eyebrows.

He smiled sheepishly, and started bumbling about. “Sorry, I’ll buy your soda. How much is it?”

“It doesn't matter,” I said, shaking my head. I wasn't going to have the guy pay for my soda now. I was thinking more about the line of little kids, and how obnoxious it was that he cut in front of them to buy cigarettes. What kind of example was that?

“Seriously, how much is it?” he said.

“I’m not the only one in line,” I said, pointing with my Big Gulp to the others. All I kept thinking was, “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?”

And he looked at the kid and teenager in front of me, and the several kids behind me, and he said, “I’ll buy all of your drinks. How much are they?”

“They’re FREE,” I wanted to say. “It’s free Slurpee day!” But I didn’t say anything. I just shook my head.

By then, the cashier was ringing up his Marlboro Lights. And he paid for his cigarettes, and threw three extra bucks down on the counter.

“Here, use this to pay for their drinks,” he said, nodding toward us, and he rushed out.

I wanted to call after him, “Dude, we don't need your money! My soda is $.69 and their Slurpees are FREE! Just pay it forward! Next time you're in a line, let three people in front of you!”

I've gotten in trouble before when I wanted to be first. In third grade, I remember lining up for recess one day, and I was in first in line. Maybe it was my job to be line leader for the day, or maybe I just bulldozed my way to the front—I don't remember. I generally don't like having to wait for slow people, so I like being near the front of a line. And as I walked outside that day, somehow I sliced my earlobe on the door’s lock mechanism. I remember saying, “OW” and heading down the hill, and after a minute or two, putting my hand up to my ear. When I pulled it back, it was covered in blood.

After walking around the playground aimlessly for about 10 minutes, not sure what to do, I found a teacher, they found my sister, and they called my mom, who took me to the doctor to have it stitched.

And whenever I look back on that moment, I always think, that probably wouldn't have happened if you weren't first in line.

So there I was, 35 years later. Leaving 7-Eleven with a free soda, and feeling bad. Feeling bad for saying anything at all. For caring about who was first and who was last. For not being gracious and just telling the guy to enjoy his smokes and not to worry about it. His cigarettes would probably kill him long before my Diet Coke would kill me. So does it really matter?

In the moment, it seemed important to make a point. But the kids got their Slurpees, they didn't really seem to care, and all was well.

And then I remembered that quote from Philo that I always recall in moments like this: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Who knows what battle had him rushing that day? Maybe he just needed a nicotine fix, or maybe it was something bigger. Mine was certainly ridiculously miniscule that free Slurpee day.

Either way, I promise to myself: Next time, I’ll be kinder.