The woman was probably about my age, late forties, early fifties and the man I guessed probably in his sixties. They both appeared weathered and rough around the edges as they stood smoking outside of a McDonald’s that I was headed into around lunch time to get a cup of coffee. My brain dug down deep into the filing cabinet of its synapses and pulled out the file of poorly thought out, judgmental perceptions about people’s appearances, education levels, lifestyles.
As I walked towards the building, the women spoke to me.
“How are you doing today sir?”
For some reason, rather than just answering the question with some vague, small-talk answer and moving on, I turned to the right a bit and approached them.
“I’m doing fine” I answered as I walked up and joined them on the sidewalk where they were standing. “How are you?”
She said something about the weather and how pleasant it was outside.
I could tell they were both employees from the uniforms they were wearing. The man was missing most of the top front row of his teeth and they both continued smoking as we talked. The woman went on about the weather and the three of us stood there and chatted about how nice it was to finally have a few warmer days, and how so much of the snow had melted and whether Spring was really here or if this last few days of 45-50 degree temperatures was just an anomaly in the middle of March in Michigan.
The man mentioned that it was still cold compared to where he was originally from.
“Where’s that?” I asked as the woman excused herself and went back inside.
It turned out to be Brooklyn and although I didn’t second-guess him, I thought about how it probably wasn’t very warm there this year. I asked him if he knew where Smithtown was on Long Island, where I grew up and he did. He told me he still had three daughters living in Brooklyn and that he had been relocated to manage this McDonald’s eleven years ago, but after getting tired of “babysitting the business” he had chosen instead to just be the maintenance manager. I told him I had run a small business before and knew where he was coming from. He seemed to be happy to have someone to talk to for a little while other than his colleagues inside.
It was one of those seemingly inconsequential, yet impactful conversations with a complete stranger that make me feel a little more connected to the world.
Then we went our separate ways, him back to work and me inside to buy a coffee.
“Will this be for here or to go?” the cashier asked as I approached the counter, no one else in line.
“Here… actually I’d just like a large coffee with two creams, please.”
She punched a few buttons on the screen.
“$1.69” she said.
I pulled out my wallet and fumbled around for my credit card before grabbing the two loose dollar bills that were folded in half in one of the inside pockets. I handed the money to the cashier and she handed me back the $0.31 in change which I stuffed down into my pants pocket.
A moment later the woman from outside, with a big smile on her face, handed me the cup of coffee.
I said “thanks”, walked to a table and sat down. I looked around and felt like I was in Anywhere, USA. These restaurants all kind of look the same, even when they don’t. They smell the same even when they don’t and they’re all filled with the same people even when they’re not. I pulled off the top to the coffee cup and watched the hot steam evaporate into the air, then picked up my phone and started reading e-mails.
“Sir do you………………..” someone mumbled.
I looked up to see a young African-American kid standing next to my table.
“Excuse me?” I asked
“Do you have a…………………” he mumbled again and I still couldn’t get the whole sentence although I assumed he was asking for money. He seemed a little nervous and my brain starting frantically pawing through the same file of poorly thought out, judgmental perceptions of people and although it’s been awhile, I immediately put up the walls built from many years of being a suburban kid, living near big cities where pan handlers would ask for money as you walked down a sidewalk.
I felt the instinctual word “no” coming out of my mouth, then I paused and looked at this kid again. He wasn’t a panhandler and he didn’t appear to be poor or a street person. He was just a kid, probably in middle school or early high school, likely my son’s age.
Just a kid.
I politely asked him to repeat the question.
This time he elaborated and spoke more clearly.
“Do you have a quarter so I can get something to eat? I have a dollar but I don’t have the money to pay the tax.”
The walls faded away.
“What are you going to get?” I asked.
“Probably a hamburger or a cheeseburger” he answered. They’re $0.99 but I don’t have the money to pay the tax.”
It crossed my mind that if this kid was brave enough to approach me and ask for nothing but a quarter and specifically state that it was for the sales tax, that maybe he’d become a good salesperson someday and I should offer to buy him a Quarter Pounder meal or a Chocolate Shake. But instead, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the change that the cashier had just given me, a quarter, a nickel and a shiny new penny. I grabbed the quarter and held it up.
“I’ll tell you what” I said. “I’ll give you this quarter but you have to do something nice for someone today.” I handed him the coin.
He said okay and took the quarter, thanked me and walked away.
I went back to my phone, reading and typing and answering customer questions. About ten minutes later I had covered what I needed to cover so I got up and started walking towards the exit. I saw the kid sitting in a booth with a friend, talking and eating a hamburger.
This evening as I write this story, I wonder if that kid did something nice for someone today. Maybe for his Mom or a neighbor or a stranger he met and had a seemingly inconsequential, yet impactful conversation with. Or maybe not, I think to myself. After all, it was just a quarter and he was just a kid and we were just in a McDonald’s in Anywhere, USA.
But I hope he did.