What Would You Do?
My wife and I were barely 20 minutes into our first vacation since the good old “pre-corona” days. The morning was cool. Our spirits were high. We were headed to Branson, Mo. to enjoy a week of vacation that had originally been scheduled for May of 2020. That week was cancelled when I received an email from the hotel suggesting we not come due to the uncertainties, closures, and untested restrictions that had been implemented in response to the then newly declared pandemic.
So – this was not to be a “blazing new trails” trip. It was an “ease your toe back into the water” trip visiting long-familiar places in and on the way to Branson, Mo. Having grown up only 40 miles from there, my wife and I had been enjoying Branson since our parents had taken us there to enjoy the Christmas parade when we were just kids.
Our first stop was to join a moderately long line at a Scooters Drive-thru in Jefferson City for a burst of caffeine. I rarely sleep well the night before we leave on vacation. This vacation was no exception. Rarely, also, do I face a question more difficult than “room for cream? (NO!) when I order my usual large, dark roast coffee.
Today would be different.
We advanced slowly toward our goal of two dark roast coffees, large for me, medium for my wife, no sugar, no cream. Just delicious, tasty, dark roast non-prescription caffeine to clear our heads and invigorate our souls.
As we waited, I observed the car behind us from my side mirror. An older guy was behind the wheel, unsmiling, with a short, gray-haired lady in the passenger seat. Maybe they were married. Maybe it was an older son caring for his octogenarian mom. He seemed stressed.
As I pulled up to the drive-up window expecting “That will be $5.67” and adding a buck in the tip jar, the cashier said something unexpected.
“I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?” I asked.
“The car in front of you paid for your coffee. You don’t owe anything”.
That had happened to me once before when I got in line behind an old man in an old pickup truck with a dog of undetermined age by his side. It had seemed to take forever for him to get thru the line. When he finally pulled away, I pulled up to the cashier, ready to pay and glad to be on my way.
“That guy just paid for your coffee,” said the cashier. That pleasant surprise was diminished by the embarrassment I felt from the realization that only moments before I was wishing he would just hurry up and get on his way. The cashier said they were at fifty-something people in a row who had “paid it forward”. I did the same to add 1 to their record.
Back to the present.
I know the thing to do when someone pays $5.67 for your coffee is to then pay for the coffee of the person behind you.
“How much do the people behind me owe” I asked, holding a ten-dollar bill and ready to happily pay it forward.
“Their bill is $16.71” the cashier replied.
$16.71? My eagerness to pay it forward suddenly evaporated. I am a man of simple tastes, a man satisfied with a good dark roast coffee, no cream, unaccustomed to paying for designer lattes. No wonder the guy was stressed., I thought to myself. At $15 a day he was shelling out $450 a month to Scooters.
I wish I had had the opportunity to drink my large cup of Scooters coffee while I pondered this dilemma. My usual decision-making rationale of “I’ll sleep on it!” seemed inappropriate. Drivers behind me were beginning to get restless. In fact, drivers in a drive-thru coffee line are restless when they enter the line. I have long advocated for an express lane for customers at a coffee drive-thru whose order involves two ingredients or less.
“Uh”, I think I will pass” I said as the cashier waited patiently to see if I would continue to “pay it forward”. I had fully intended to pay it forward if I had not been stricken with sticker shock. And in retrospect, I wish I had.
Large coffee in hand I drove away with a full day ahead of me to second guess my decision. Forking over $16.71 (plus tip) is better than the “cheapskate” guilt I experienced in response to my refusal to let a stop to purchase two cups of coffee set me back the better part of twenty dollars less than twenty minutes into our vacation.
From now on, the cashier will receive no blank stare from me when informing me the car in front of me has paid for my coffee. I have already charted my course of action should this situation reoccur.
I plan to pay it forward up to a $20.00 maximum, including tip.
And if the tab for the car behind me exceeds that amount, I will resolve the situation with one simple question: “How much for the car behind the car behind me?”
We had been on the road for about 30 minutes and our vacation was already off to a memorable start.