I was waiting in line at a coffee shop when I noticed a dollar bill on the ground. It was not my dollar. The woman in front of me had been discussing her coffee order with the barista for some time (as people often do in Los Angeles) and it occurred to me that the dollar might be hers. I waited for a pause in their conversation, which was easier said than done–the natural rhythm of an LA coffee-counter conversation is tedious in form but the overall amount of words to be said about coffee is voluminous. When I had grown tired of awkwardly standing there and clutching a rogue dollar, I finally said, “Excuse me, is this your dollar?” By that point it is fair to say that I should have just pocketed it. But I had already committed to asking, and I really hate engaging with strangers, so I couldn’t just interrupt my momentum.
The woman looked down at my hand, verifying that it was indeed just one dollar, and said, “Nope. Looks like you just made a dollar!”
But as soon as I heard “No” I was already making a b-line for the tip jar, stuffing the dollar in tightly with the other random bills. I watched the woman’s face fall as she instantly regretted suggesting I keep it.
“Oh,” she said. “That was really nice of you.”
The voice in my head said, Yeah. I know. And it said that because this is not a story about how good I am, but rather, one about how I sometimes feel compelled to perform goodness in order to feel better about myself.
But the voice that came out of my mouth said, “Aw, it’s nothing!” as though I don’t spend most of my time dreaming of money falling from the sky.
The woman turned back to the barista (because she STILL HAD NOT PLACED HER ORDER) and another, uglier thought crossed my mind. Today is the day the stranger in front of me buys my coffee. Today is the day it gets “paid forward.” And I thought this because there is a pervasive rumor circling the internet that people are just buying coffees for each other willy-nilly, that patrons approach a counter or a drive-thru microphone and a chipper barista announces, “Actually, ma’am, the customer in front of you picked up your coffee today!” I don’t believe that this happens to anybody. I don’t believe that people wander the streets looking for ways to treat each other to free cupcakes and lattes. I have even seen several accounts of this on social media posted by people I know IRL, but I still don’t buy it. And yet, I stood there feeling absolutely certain that the woman in front of me would buy my coffee because she was so impressed with my selflessness, with my ability to part ways with one free dollar.
After the woman eventually decided on half-cafs and double-pumps and extra-foams and had feigned concern over (but happily accepted) a plastic straw, she left without paying me any mind. Which is her prerogative, by the way–to reiterate, I don’t talk to strangers either. I only bother them when I think they dropped a dollar/I want them to see that I am willing to part ways with a free dollar. When it was my turn at the counter, I ordered the Katie Markovich Special (the smallest drip coffee on the menu, no modifications, thank you very much!). The barista peered at me through her Warby Parkers and said, with the confident ennui that comes only with being a barista who works at a Larchmont coffee shop, “That will be three fifty.” Which, fine, sure, yes, take my money. Except I didn’t have any money, not cash money anyway, because I haven’t carried cash in years. It drives my husband crazy but the joke’s on him when he’s always stuck paying for parking.
I charged my coffee. As I waited for the chip reader to decide if I had three dollars in my bank account or not, it occurred to me that I had already tipped with the free dollar. What luck! Only this barista hadn’t witnessed it. Instead of writing “CASH” on the tip line of my receipt, like a sane person, I decided I would tell her that I had tipped her. Because I really needed someone to care that I hadn’t kept the dollar. I tapped the tip jar with my finger.
“I put a dollar in here,” I said, like a child presenting a scribbled drawing to a tired parent. “That one on top, that’s mine.”
“Okay,” she said. “Wait, what did you want again?”
“Just a coffee. Like, the smallest coffee.”
“Oh. That’s all you want?”
“Yep. That’s it. And I already–” I tapped the jar again.
“Tipped, I know.” The barista slid the coffee to me then returned to stocking pastries.
I went outside to the patio and found a seat. I saw a customer let the door slam on a woman who was holding a tray of food, soup splattering all over her floral-print dress. I saw another customer from inside follow out a very old woman, asking which table was hers so she could set down her tray of scones and coffee. I saw a customer agree to watch a woman’s purse while she took a phone call. I saw a homeless teenager not be bothered by staff while he ate his collage of collected food, random pieces of yesterday’s meals stored in Ziploc baggies. I saw an old man conduct a conference call from his cell phone while his elderly wife with a hunched spine served him water and made sure his lunch was perfect. He never said thank you.
I don’t blame the barista for being unaffected by my base-level of human decency. I don’t blame the woman from the line for suggesting I keep a dollar, and then not being very impressed when I parted with it. And I don’t blame myself for thinking a returned dollar would atone for not giving my lunch leftovers to a homeless man I’d seen on the way to the coffee shop. Because sometimes a good deed is only relative to the cacophony of shit that surrounds it, and that’s okay too.