I’m at the supermarket, loading my groceries onto the tabloids-and-batteries end of the conveyor belt. At the other end, a 40-ish woman is ringing up her order. It’s a small order, which is why I chose this check-out line. I’m not really paying attention to her. I’m reading a headline about Camilla Bowles’ drinking problem (who knew?) and I’m carefully arranging my purchases—the wild-caught salmon beside the milk, the skin cream with the razor blades and antiseptic lotion, the fresh veggies together, the fancy whole bean coffee near the parchment paper—when I realize that something irregular is happening at the register.
The woman is asking to have her total repeated. I’m pretty sure I hear the cashier say, “Seven eighty.” And then I see the woman reaching into one of her bags and handing the cashier two cartons of eggs. Neither the shopper nor the cashier makes a big deal of it. The shopper doesn’t act especially upset, and the cashier doesn’t seem particularly surprised. He just sets the eggs aside and punches in some numbers.
Then he holds up a coupon and announces, “This is expired.”
This time, the woman visibly sighs. “Okay,” she says. “Better put this back, too.” And she hands the cashier a small tub of cream cheese.
By now, it begins to occur to me that I could do something for this woman. I could pay for her eggs and her cream cheese. And maybe I should. But how? Do I give her the money? Do I give it to the cashier? I don’t want to embarrass her, I tell myself. No one has so much as looked in my direction, so I would have to intrude on their transaction. Admit that I’ve been listening. What should I say? And how much does she need? My money is snapped inside my wallet, and my wallet is zipped inside my purse.
While I’m standing there, trying to figure out what to do, the woman takes her remaining groceries and leaves.
I step up to the cashier and he rings me up. My order comes to almost exactly ten times what the woman ahead of me spent. I swipe my credit card, hit “yes,” sign, and leave with my bags. As I drive up Warwick Avenue, I see the woman waiting at the bus stop.
Did I mention that all this takes place on the fifth night of Passover? Four nights earlier, I presided over my family’s seder. We raised the matzo and recited, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When I was picking readings from various haggadahs, I’d made sure to include one that interpreted the Festival of Freedom as encompassing freedom from want, and another that reminded us that it’s our duty to help make others free.
As I drive home from the supermarket and put away my purchases, the irony weighs more and more heavily on my mind. I keep replaying the scene in the check-out aisle, trying to picture myself putting my money where my mouth is. But even in my imagination, I fall short. The problem, I tell myself, is that I don’t know the right words to say.
So I ask Facebook.
It turns out a lot of my friends have been in this situation – on both the giving and the receiving end. Some found it embarrassing, and some still feel bad about failing to act, like me. But lots of folks seem to find it pretty easy to help a needy stranger. The key, they all agree, is to keep it light. Talk about “paying it forward,” they advise. They suggest I claim that someone else once did the same thing for me—whether or not this is true. Or I could say nothing at all. Just give the woman a smile, and the cashier the money.
These are all great ideas. But will I use them? I don’t know.
I’m great at being charitable in the abstract. Write a check or fill in a form on a website, and I’m done. And if the woman at the supermarket had turned to me for help, I’m pretty sure I would have been glad to give her what she needed. But step forward, uninvited?
I told myself I was concerned about causing her embarrassment. And I was. But I’m pretty sure that I was also worried about the embarrassment to myself. The embarrassment of admitting to someone who doesn’t have enough that I have more than enough. And the more general embarrassment of crossing the invisible barrier that makes us strangers. Of not minding my own business.
If this situation arises again, at least I’ll have a script. I hope I’ll have the nerve to use it. And if I balk, I hope I’ll remember that as difficult as doing the right thing might seem to me at the time, it’s a lot harder to deal with the regret.