The waiter at Olive Garden put his palms down on the table and leaned forward, speaking a little softer than usual.
“Hey guys,” he said. “That family at that table over there that just left? They paid for your meal. They didn’t want me to say anything until they were gone, but you guys are already taken care of.”
My wife and I looked at him for a second, stunned. We remarked how nice that was of them and thanked the waiter, but as he walked away one question remained. I actually had to keep from blurting it out when he told us they’d paid for our meal.
Did we look like we couldn’t pay for it? Did we look like we were having a bad day? Or, just possibly, did they simply want to do something nice for someone else?
I noticed the family of three when we got seated at our table: husband and wife, no older than we were, and a little girl of maybe three. Their table was perpendicular to ours, against the wall directly behind where my wife sat. At some point I heard the girl say something appropriately adorable for a three year old, although I can’t remember what it was.
As the family was wrapping up their meal the girl caught my eye; she was sitting on the end of the booth sideways, facing me. She had one of those famous Olive Garden breadsticks in her hand, holding it at the bottom and gnawing on it from the top. It reminded me of Bob Barker or Drew Carey with those long microphones on The Price is Right. Then I pictured Drew Carey eating his microphone and that made me smile. When the waiter went back to the family the last time I heard the woman tell him how awesome he was and thanked him for his service. It was the only time I heard either of the adults speak, and I didn’t notice when they left. A few minutes later the waiter came and told us what they had done.
The thought of randomly receiving a kind gesture from a stranger was not entirely foreign to me. Stories of people having their drive-thru orders paid by the car in front of them or their coffees being paid for by a random customer at Starbucks have been floating around for years. But to me, that’s all they were—stories. Not to say I didn’t believe them, but I’d never met anyone who’d had this happen, and it had certainly never happened to me. So when it did, I was dumbfounded.
Naturally, my first instinct was to make a joke. I looked at my wife and said, “In that case, forget the soup. I’m changing my order to the portobello ravioli.” (Although in all seriousness, the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks is a great deal.) My wife joked too, then after a couple minutes, the question came—what do we do now?
Do we pick someone else in the restaurant and pay for theirs? Do we plan it out in advance?
We ended up not picking anyone in the restaurant. Officially, we haven’t paid it forward yet. What we did do, however, was give the waiter a bigger-than-normal tip. And when we left Olive Garden to pick up our dog at the groomer we gave her a bigger tip as well. I’ll have to assume the waiter was pleased since we put his tip on the table when we left, but my wife did have the satisfaction of seeing a small flash of surprise on our dog groomer’s face when she saw a larger tip than she was accustomed to (from us, anyway).
What I came away with was how it put the rest of the day in a different light. Our soup lunches (with soft drinks, because we splurged) probably came to just under twenty dollars. Not a huge amount of money, though more than some people can spare. The point is it wasn’t really about the money; it was about a simple act of kindness being directed right at you for no discernible reason other than someone’s desire to be nice.
We weren’t having a bad day, by the way; it was just…a day. Dropped the dog off at the groomer; ran some errands; then stopped to grab some lunch before picking Maximus up to bring him home. But what those people did brightened our day considerably, and knowing how that simple gesture made us feel makes me anxious to do it for someone else.
So give it a try. It doesn’t have to be $20; it doesn’t have to be of any monetary value at all. Just try doing something nice for someone randomly, out of the blue—stranger or not—and see if it doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzies.