I walked into IHOP for my second time in this year-long #52-in52 challenge. I had a plan — one that I’d wanted to execute all year but hadn’t had the opportunity. I was going to pick up someone’s tab without them ever knowing I was even there.
This is something I’ve done here and there throughout my life. The most memorable in recent years was election night 2016. I called the server at Hideaway over and asked her to bring me the check for a table of senior citizen veterans sitting across the bar area. I was high on democracy and the map had yet to begin turning that awful shade of red, so I was feeling extra generous. The men seemed stunned and confused that they had no bill to pay. It warmed my heart to bring them such a surprise on a night I was so excited for. I’m glad I was able to experience that feeling given the heartache that would overtake me just hours later.
In week 49 of 2017, just over a year since that fateful night at the pizza shop, I sat at a booth with a friend amidst the permeating sweet scent of maple syrup and flapjacks. We started looking for our mark.
There was a young family in the booth behind us. The grandmother was bickering with the mother over the behavior of the child. It was at times cute and sincere, at other times awkward and combative. A table over was a young woman with her adorable daughter and an older woman, perhaps a relative or friend. They were all so happy, giggling and playing. Smiling and singing.
In the other section was another young family with an infant. The mother and father sat quietly eating their breakfast and rarely exchanging even a single word. They seemed sad. Or maybe tired. It was difficult to tell. And yet another family of women with a young girl sat diagonal to them. And to the side of that family was a young couple on a morning date. They flirted, held hands across the table, and looked longingly into each others’ eyes in the full throes of unembarrassed love.
Who to choose?
My friend and I ate. And thought. And sat with our coffee and our grapefruit juice amongst the clangs and clatters of flatware and bowls and mugs and we wondered about the stories around us.
Then a new pair of characters entered the restaurant and sat in the booth adjacent to ours. There was an older caucasian woman with elegant silver hair combed back tight and neat. She was dressed sharp and had discerning glasses perched atop the bridge of her nose. Her colleague was a younger African-American man, also in neat business attire. We could barely overhear the conversation, but it seemed perhaps they were there for a work brunch together and meeting for the first time. There was a lot of get-to-know-you talk and formalities. This was the perfect mark. Imagine their surprise when they’d learn of their free meal!
I approached their server and asked for their check. She assured me she’d bring it to my table. A half an hour passed and it never came. Then. Suddenly. She walked up and placed it on their table!
I acted fast, spurred on by the vocal urgings of my own lunch date. I leapt up with both checks in-hand and rushed to the counter.
“I have a favor to ask.”
“I need to pay the check for that table over there,” I said, pointing. She wasn’t as enthusiastic about my mission as I was. But she agreed to make it happen and ran both checks separately.
And so it was. I would leave them wondering with a random act of kindness. Maybe they’d dwell on it the rest of the day. Maybe they wouldn’t give it a second thought. Maybe they’d pay it forward and grab the check for someone else.
Who knows. But I gave them a story to tell. And in doing so, they gave me one as well. A simple story, an open end, a question mark.