PAY IT FORWARD?

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background.2So I read today that a wonderful thing happened at a St. Petersburg, Florida Starbucks, where 457 consecutive customers paid for the drink order of the person behind them, thus creating a 10-hour “pay it forward” chain of good will and caffeine-filled creamy caramel macchiato happiness.  It’s a sappy, syrupy (literally), feel-good story if one ever existed.  Good for them.  That sort of thing has never happened to me, but were I to find myself in the middle of such a sudden outbreak of outrageous open-handedness, I would gladly accept the offer of generosity from stranger-in-front-of-me.  I mean, what kind of person turns down such a grand gesture?  The real question is, though, would I be willing to keep the ball rolling?  Would I dutifully fall in line to preserve the chain unbroken?

What fascinates me about the Starbucks story is the untold tale of Customer Number 458, who stopped that goodwill train faster than you can say Grande Caramel Flan Frappuccino.  All we know at present time is that she accepted the free offer, but politely declined to keep the magnanimous magic alive.  I’m speculating here, but I can imagine her being chased out of the parking lot by caffeine-fueled boos and hisses.  [“N-n-n-n-ever come b-b-b-b-back here again!,” the angry amped-up crowd shakily spewed and spurted.] I mean, what would possess someone to do such thing?  Who does she think she is?  Does she not understand that she murdered the hopes and dreams of lovers of overpriced coffee everywhere?  Those are fair questions, but I say “hold on just a minute, y’all.”  Is what she did really all that bad?  Might her actions be classified as…heroic?

After all, Customer Number 458 is the one who at long last dug in her heels, stood her ground, and said, “enough is enough!  Pay for your own darn coffee!”  She is the one who refused to be guilt-tripped into an impromptu act of charity.  I suspect she is also the one who refused to be extorted into performing the ubiquitous ice-bucket challenge…or else.  “I’ll raise awareness for ALS in my own sweet time and in my own way, thank you very much, and I’m not catching hypothermia in the process!”  Good for her – a true American hero.  Were it not for people like Customer Number 458 putting an end to such nonsense, we would probably be forced to raise awareness for rotator cuff injuries in a couple of years due to all those people awkwardly lifting big buckets of ice water over their heads without a proper warm-up.

Yes, I proclaim Customer Number 458 a hero.  In one fell swoop she effectively brought to an end the least-meaningful, lowest-risk pay-it-forward chain in the history of mankind.  I mean, everyone knows Starbucks coffee is way overpriced in the context of coffee drinks, but how much are you really risking at the Starbucks drive-thru by paying for the person behind you?  $5?  Maybe $10 at the most?  I will tell you this: if you want to see how “generous” people really are, try getting a pay-it-forward chain going at the Olive Garden.  Sure, you may get lucky and only have to pay for soup and salad, but woe unto you if you pick the table that ordered the Tour of Italy.  If you can handle that level of anonymous charitable giving of food to people who are there and ready and willing and have the financial means to pay, then hats off. You have truly done a noble deed.

You understand, of course, that I say all of the above in a spirit of good-natured jokiness, but I suppose there is a sliver of truth among the thinly-veiled satire. I do have a minor issue with the idea of being guilt-tripped into giving, whether it’s by means of an above-described pay-it-forward chain or through the cunning devices of a manipulative Sarah McLaughlin-soundtracked ASPCA commercial. If I want to pay for your coffee, I’ll do it. If I want to save a homeless cat, I’ll do it. Just don’t attempt to make me feel guilty if I choose not to give (or give in) to your particular cause. “Giving” is a Christian duty that I take seriously, but it’s also a personal duty that I would prefer to handle, well, personally, without outside goading or interference.

Customer Number 458 will probably be reviled by some, but do we really know her story? Maybe she gives in other ways. Maybe she’s more generous than the world will ever know. Maybe on that day she just didn’t have the extra cash. Maybe it’s none of our business. Maybe I’m too cynical about the motives of the guilt-trippers.  Maybe I’m too jaded. Maybe I’m over-analyzing the entire situation. Maybe we should just focus our attention on customers 1 through 457. With all the turmoil and conflict and mayhem going on in the world at present time, maybe what the world really needs is just another sappy, syrupy, feel-good story about a stranger who paid for another stranger’s cup of coffee.

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