On a cold Tuesday morning in January, customers in their winter coats jostled to get in line in Cumberland Farms in Naugatuck, Connecticut. They clutched steaming cups of coffee, packaged muffins, bagels, and the other idiosyncratic snacks that make up people’s breakfast. Like most of the other customers, I was in a rush to get to work, just hoping to make a quick purchase and get on the road. No one was making conversation, simply trying to get their cups of Joe and rush off to work. Outside, icy gusts of wind tore at the leafless tree branches, under a leaden gray sky.
The store is located at North Main Street, right off the highway, and many of us were commuters, bracing ourselves to battle the notorious rush hour traffic on Connecticut’s congested roadways. The mood was edgy; the silence a bit agitated.
Then something unexpected and extraordinary happened. An extremely elderly woman shuffled up to the counter to buy a box of Dots Gum Drops candy, which I used to buy at a corner store when I was kid, and hadn’t thought about in years. The cashier told the woman the cost, which was around $2.
The woman, who was holding a dollar, seemed taken aback, and then fumbled in vain through her wallet, searching for another bill. Her wallet was empty. Then she riffled through her purse, looking for change, but only produced a few nickels and pennies, nowhere near enough to pay for the candy.
The scene was sadly riveting and no one seemed to move for a second, as if time had suddenly slowed down.
Finally, the woman snapped her purse shut. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the money,” she sighed. “I didn’t think it would cost so much.” Perhaps she was still remembering what the old-fashioned, brightly colored candy cost when she was younger. It occurred to me that maybe the candy was part of a childhood memory she was trying to resurrect. Then she slowly began to depart, head lowered, leaving the candy on the counter.
There was a sense of tension and discomfort in the store. Some seemed to avert their eyes, so reflective of today’s hard economic times, especially for the elderly on fixed incomes. I wondered if I should give the woman the money, or if this would only embarrass her further? I wasn’t sure what to do, and this seemed to be the plight of the other customers as well, so we did nothing.
But the cashier, a young woman in her 20’s, took action. She told the woman to wait. As she turned in surprise, the cashier took some money out of her own wallet and paid for the candy herself. Then she handed it to her. “Thank you,” the elderly woman told the cashier. You are very kind.”
Then she smiled, and walked off happily into a day made brighter by a simple act that perhaps should have been obvious, but wasn’t.
The mood inside the store shifted, made lighter by the small act of kindness --- that packed a powerful impact. Customers seemed to acknowledge each other, making eye contact, and some thanked the cashier for her compassion. She was so moved that she started to cry, as did a few others in the store.
As I drove to work that day, I felt uplifted by the tiny, yet unforgettable act, which affirmed the presence of kindness in a sometimes difficult world. I felt the urge to do something in return for the young cashier. Or, perhaps better yet, I now know what to do when a situation like this arises again, and I plan to follow her example. I am smiling because I saw how kindness is a force of hope, like a ripple that creates an ocean wave.