Some years ago (maybe 5 to 10), I found myself ordering a dish of pad see ew (noodles, chicken, broccoli, egg) for lunch at the counter of a small Thai eatery. When I opened up my wallet to pay, I saw I only had $2.00. My heart sank. I had forgotten to go by the ATM again. Writing this now, in the age of digital cash, credit cards, debit cards, mobile phone payments, etc, it does sound sort of dated. However, at that time and that place, I don’t think credit cards were an option.
Although I wasn’t on my last dime, it felt a little like that. Over the years, occasionally I’ll end up with just a dollar or two in the wallet. Although I don’t do it on purpose, I have to admit that in a perverse way, I kind of like it. You don’t really think about the value of money and economic priorities when you have a wallet full of cash or a well stocked credit card. Handing over money can at times become almost meaningless. That picture changes dramatically when you only have a couple of dollars to spend. It brings me back to my college days and childhood, when every dollar seemed pretty important and you spent some time thinking about what you really really wanted to spend it on (or not spend it on, for that matter). It keeps me humble, and reminds me that a lot of people in this world ARE on their last dollar. Sort of a quick reality check, to remind you that the day’s sometimes petty problems are nothing compared to someone who doesn’t have enough to eat, a place to stay, can’t afford shoes, can’t afford medical care, etc.
So as I stood at the counter looking down at the two dollar bills in my wallet, I felt like a complete idiot. I was also pretty embarrassed that I had not checked the wallet before ordering, and had wasted the counter guy’s time. I looked slowly up at him, and told him that I was sorry, that I only had two dollars and would have to cancel the order. I half expected him to get mad at me and tell me what a fool I was. Instead, he merely smiled, and said that $2 was fine and I could pay him back in the future.
As I walked over to a table and sat down, I remember feeling grateful that he would do something like that. He didn’t know me from Adam, and he might never see that money again. A big corporation might not miss a dollar or two, but many of these small food shops are not rolling in the dough, and every dollar is important. Sort of like how I felt with my $2. So I took a blue paper menu with me as I left, and I vowed to myself that I would repay him some day.
Although I’m a little ashamed to admit it, that menu has been sitting in a pile of papers ever since. First it was a few months, then a few years. Once in awhile I’d come across it and say “Oh yeah, I should go back there.” Yet something else would always seems to come up. As the years passed, there were times I’d think about maybe just tossing it in the trash and forgetting about it, since it was so long ago. Yet I could never bring myself to throw it away. I’d see it and feel a little twinge in my conscience, reminding me of the generosity I’d been shown and the debt that was still unpaid. This past weekend, I just got the feeling it was time to set things right.
So last week, it worked out that I had some extra time to make a bit of a detour, and pop in for lunch. I drove up the street, not even sure the place was still there. I remember questioning myself as well, wondering if I was doing the right thing or being a complete idiot. Sort of felt like a scene from the movies where the main character is returning home to see someone again after 20 or 30 years and wondering if they’d be welcomed with open arms or anger or indifference. I have to admit I’d feel even worse if I found out they closed and I could do nothing more.
As luck would have it, they were still there, so I stopped and went in. They had re-arranged things a little but I still remembered it. I ordered one of the lunch specials, then gave the lady at the counter a $20 and told her to keep the change. I figured a $13 pay back for a $3 gift was fair. I handed her the worn and slightly tattered blue paper menu, and told her my story. She got a huge smile on her face, and told me that the menu was from about 7 years ago, and that the man behind the register at that time was her husband. Now I was the one with the huge smile on my face, and I was thrilled to be able to repay the good deed. It made me smile even more when I heard her telling the cook about it in Thai. Even though I couldn’t understand a word, I heard the excitement and happiness in her voice and saw the cook beaming in the kitchen area. It was music to my eyes and ears.
The one down note was that her husband was not at the restaurant today. I would have loved to meet him face to face, shake his hand and say a heartfelt “thank you”. As I left after lunch, I asked her to please tell her husband thanks from me.
Walking out the door of the restaurant, I had a smile on my face, a lightness in my step, and feeling of being at peace with the world. It felt wonderful to repay the gift of kindness.