The middle aged man lingered at the counter, pondering his choices. His voice might be considered too loud for the harmonious murmur expected in coffee shops. His body moved around in the space by the counter, as if pivoting on a stool. As he vacillated between questions and chitchat, the line began to queue even longer.
Waiting, I pondered this man’s differences. He’s more talkative than I would ever be. He’s not bound by the self-consciousness that governs my behavior more than I care to admit. Yet, there is something in his demeanor that gives clues to hardship. When it came time to pay, his fingers fumbled over his cash. He seemed to need more time to process the payment. He closed his wallet.
“I would like to get a gift card, too. Do you think $10 is a good amount? No, make it $15. That’s a good amount right? Would someone feel good if they got that amount?”
He opened his wallet again, rapidly fluttering the bills as if he held a deck of cards, flipping over and over again until the preferred card revealed itself. He pulled out a $20 bill.
Eventually, my turn came, and I found an open table on the outside patio. I was carving out a small pocket of respite between leaving work and going to my evening college class. Peaceful solitude awaited me.
A few minutes later the same man stepped outside. He moved around the patio, lingering a bit as he surveyed his surroundings, looking for just the right person perhaps.
I went back to reading and savoring my small moment of quiet, although my periphery senses continued to tune into him.
“Hello,” he directed toward two young ladies walking into the coffee shop. “I would like to give you this gift card. Once a month, I do this when I get my paycheck. Someone helped me before, so, you know, pay it forward and all.”
They awkwardly giggled, said thanks, and quickly walked inside with the gift card in hand.
The man set his cup of coffee down on a table, but kept standing, fidgeting a little, looking at the table, looking out toward the lines of the sidewalk.
Walking over to him, I said, “I saw what you just did. That was so kind and touching.”
“Oh, I don’t do this for others to notice. I don’t need for you to tell me. Each month I give a gift to a random person to do something good for them. All it takes is one person to change a life.”
He proceeded to tell me more about himself, although throughout our conversation, he periodically apologized for talking to me, as I assured him that I was enjoying spending time with him.
“I was homeless once. A kind person paid for my hotel and helped me.” He began to speak eloquently about being motivated from the inside, not driven by external reward. His life philosophy was my aspirational one.
As prescribed societal boundaries continued to fade away, he told me about his difficult childhood, a father who was harsh. He paused to look off in the distance for a moment.
“My mom and I are close. She has always been there for me. I am walking over to visit her right now. Her new husband isn’t very nice to me though.” He showed me the cover of a card. “Of course, I won’t read it to you. She has cancer. I told her you aren’t going to die. You’ve got at least 10 more years to live.”
The lines of nervous laughter and sorrow intermingled across his face. Welled up eyes met mine. “Can I read you the card?”
While we stood amidst a crowded coffee shop patio, our unexpected intimacy continued to flow freely between us as he read his words of gratitude for his mother’s love. I placed my hand on his shoulder, as he cried. “That is beautiful,” I quietly offered.
In parting, he said, “I don’t have many friends, just a few people in my life, but you know, even just one person can change a life.” He paused and said with added emphasis, “Just one.”
I wished him well on his visit with his mother, telling him again how happy I was to meet him, and how moved I was by his kindness. We smiled at each other and said goodbye.
As I watched him walk away, I stared off into the distance pondering the meaning found in all the noise.