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Fri, Feb. 28

One Man’s Rant: A gift from a stranger

I’d never heard of a 2000 Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt movie entitled “Pay it Forward,” until recently. Spacey plays an emotionally and physically scarred social studies teacher who challenges his elementary students to make a difference by helping others. One of his seventh-grade students conceives a strategy that involves doing favors for strangers in advance.

This “pay-it-forward” idea came to my attention when a friend called to say that a stranger standing behind her in the Chino Valley Safeway checkout line this week had paid her entire grocery tab. Without fanfare. When my friend asked her why, the woman said it was a pay-it-forward gesture, then left the store before further conversation could occur.

A couple of months ago, my wife and I were breakfasting at Skillets Café. When we attempted to pay the bill, we were informed that it had already been settled. We’ve since repaid the courtesy and made a new friend but it was a warming experience to receive an unexpected gift from a stranger.

I’ve often fantasized about dropping a couple of hundred dollars onto an unsuspecting person just to see their reaction. But I seldom have had a spare $200 floating around in my billfold and secondly, I could never tell in advance who might be “unsuspecting!”

Just last night my wife and I watched a documentary on Walt Whitman. Since I majored in business instead of liberal arts and literature in college, I was aware that Whitman published his seminal collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, but I knew little else about him.

It turns out that during the Civil War, he spent hundreds of hours in Union hospitals tending the mortally wounded. Though he had no formal medical training, he provided support to patients, often sitting with them through the night when they had no one else with whom to share their final hours.

As my wife and I discussed, I don’t know that I’m a fan of his poetry, but I have an immense respect for Whitman who gave of himself to comfort those who made the supreme sacrifice. Walt Whitman was driven by his own humanity to offer what comfort he could to the dying. Although pay it forward certainly wasn’t part of his motivation, I have to think that his insatiable desire to reach out and today’s hopefully growing inclination to help strangers must spring from a common compassion within all of us.

Just a few weeks ago, my wife had a birthday. We invited a number of friends to the Granite Mountain Winery to help us celebrate. A stranger standing waiting in line at the catering truck bought my wife’s lunch! If I’d been there at the time, I’d made a huge deal about my own birthday coming up in May. But it probably wouldn’t have done any good.

I’ve written columns in the past about the amazing level of volunteerism here in Chino Valley. It warms the heart to know that people care about those around them even if they aren’t acquainted.

On a couple of occasions over the years, I’ve purchased lunch for young veterans in uniform, but that motivation was raw patriotism. I love the thought of surprising someone in a significant way…for no reason at all.

Just for the record, I love black convertibles with five-speed manual transmissions if anyone’s paying attention out there. In fact, I think I’ll spend the afternoon walking back and forth in front of the Safeway grocery store with a genuine unsuspecting look on my face. The rest is up to you.

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