by Burt Kempner
That was a new one. When you reach a certain age, pick-up lines mutate from, “Sail my way, Dreamboat,” to “Hey, you don’t smell like Ben-Gay!”
I stared at the round-faced, pleasant-looking young man ahead of me on line in the supermarket, determined to come up with a witty riposte. “Pardon?” (That wasn’t it.)
“I noticed you while you were walking down the aisles. You seem like a very happy man.”
Stop goggling, you nimrod! Say something. “I do my best.”
The young man nodded, as if digesting a particularly tasty morsel of wisdom. “I know. I hope you don’t think I’m being weird or something, but I’d like to buy your groceries today.”
“You . . . what?”
“Your groceries. I’d like to pay for them.”
Check for hidden camera. None in sight.
“But . . . why?”
“It’s something I do.”
“But . . . why?”
We shook hands. The man introduced himself as Jamie.
“Are you a vet?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“I served in the first Iraq War; then in Afghanistan.” Everything about Jamie was youthful but his eyes.
“I should be picking up your bill.”
Jamie’s smile was the first sign of shyness I’d seen in him. “I don’t go out very much. I go to the supermarket about once a month but, when I do, I always pay for the person just ahead or behind me on line.”
A cleverer man might have asked why. I was too preoccupied conjuring up visions of nightmares and PTSD. The check-out clerk interrupted my dark reverie.
“Look, Jamie, this is really nice of you, but $180 is a nice chunk of change and I can well afford it.”
“Please, I insist.”
A frozen tableau right off the frozen food aisle: Jamie, holding out his credit card, the open-jawed clerk and Yours Truly glancing down as if my package of sun-dried tomatoes contained the answer.
A few seconds went by. Perhaps more. I don’t remember.
“That’s amazingly kind of you, Jamie. Thank you. I accept.”
The entire check-out line seemed to go back to the business of breathing again. The clerk swiped Jamie’s card. It cleared. We shook hands again and he left.
The clerk began loading my cart. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he muttered.
I know. I know. Jamie could have given the money to someone who really needed it, not shoppers at a semi-affluent food emporium. But when angels descend, is it up to us mortals to give them landing instructions?
As it turned out, the next morning I sent a check for $181 to a local homeless/disabled vet center. I hope I did right by you, Jamie, my benefactor, my teacher.