July 21, 2009

The line of false hope

(John Vigor posts a new column here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

AS OF FRIDAY JULY 17, more than 1,450 customers of the Steamin’ Bean coffee shop drive-through in Kansas City, Mo., had paid the bill for the person in line behind them. The faulty thinking behind this lemming-like fad is that it’s an act of kindness that fills you with touchy-feely goodness. It’s nothing of the kind, of course. When everybody pays everybody else’s bill, nobody benefits, except possibly the coffee shop when the customer behind you buys a smaller cup of coffee than the one you left money for.

I know this because I was in the line at West Marine the other day. I had bought a roll of that blue masking tape that is supposed to last a week in the sun but never does. It cost about three bucks, I guess, but the clerk greeted me with a big smile and said: "There’s no charge. The man in front of you paid your bill.”

I summed up the opportunity with my customary lightning alacrity.

“Hang on,” I said, “let me figure this out. I haven’t finished shopping yet. I need one of those fancy new fish-finder-depthsounder-GPS/radar thingummies and a 9-foot Avon inflatable dinghy. How much is left over?”

“Um, well, actually he only paid enough for the roll of tape he could see in your hand.”

I was shocked. “This a great disappointment,” I said loudly so everybody in the line could hear. “Here I am, expecting a wonderful act of kindness, a magnificent surprise that would open my heart to the fundamental goodness of the human race, and what do I get? A kick in the teeth, that’s what.”

“But he paid for your tape,” the clerk said weakly.

“Yeah,” I said, “and now in return I’m supposed to pay for the guy behind me. Can you see what he’s carrying? That box with Garmin written all over it? Do you know how much a top-notch color chart plotter costs?”

The clerk opened and shut his mouth like a goldfish in a bowl.

“This is a crock,” I said. “I am deeply saddened. You should never have accepted his money. It’s a cruel joke, a gesture that brings me to the brink of despair. I feel like howling with dismay or even jumping off a bridge. What a rotten reflection on the baseness of human nature and …”

“Sir,” said the clerk desperately, “why don’t you just take the tape and go? You don’t need to bother about the customer behind you.”

“Thank you,” I said promptly, recalling how infrequently it is that you get something for nothing at West Marine. “I think I might just do that.”

Pity I didn’t pick up the expensive green tape though. The cheap blue stuff honestly never lasts more than two days in the sun.

Today’s Thought
Pessimists are usually kind. The gay, bubbling over, have no time for the pitiful.
—Seān O’Faolāin, The Heat of the Sun

From a book catalog:
“First edition, profusely illustrated — ‘Unconventional Sex Practices’ — spine cracked, appendix torn. $75.”

No comments: