Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pay It Backward

I’ve always been amazed by random acts of kindness. I don’t know what has to happen in a person’s childhood for them to believe that the world is an inherently good place. Maybe they were raised on a farm or in a TV show, but I’m pretty sure if you rear a kid the right way (and they aren’t autistic) they are going to come to the same conclusion as everyone else: that people are robots programmed for evil.

So if take for granted that civilization is a festering hole of iniquity, how do you reconcile that with some people’s random acts of kindness? I remember a particularly introspective episode of “Friends” in which Joey claims that all good deeds are selfish, and Phoebe tries her hardest to prove him wrong. Joey’s logic was that people do good deeds so that they will feel good about themselves, thereby making the causal justification inherently self-seeking as opposed to its projected altruistic façade. (I think Hume made the same argument, albeit to a much uglier group of friends.)

But I’m not so sure I buy that. Like when I’m at an event with an open bar, yet there’s still a tip jar sitting out. I guess tipping for the service is the “kind” thing to do, but seeing as how I’m now paying for my supposedly free drink, a free drink which is the last bastion of happiness in a superficial world, I don’t feel so good about doing it. So who’s right: me or Joey? (God, I hope it’s me.)

Then this happened: Last week, I was driving home from a wedding in Maryland. As I pulled up to one of the thousand toll booths between here and there, I rolled down my window and held out the fare, which was $5.00. The woman in the booth looked at me and said, “You’ve been paid for.” The gate went up in front of me, freeing me to pass. I was so surprised I didn’t even ask her to clarify. I just drove through with a suspicious look on my face, like I was rolling through a trap, and a trap of the worst ilk – a kindness trap, where on the other side I would be met with a punishment worse than the fierce grip of the law: I would be expected to be a better person.

As I sped away, I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. Obviously, the person in front of me had paid for me. But why? The last good deed I did that deserved any sort of repayment was when I nursed a bird back to life after it fell out of a tree in my backyard. I was nine, and I doubt very much that that bird grew up to be the first bird ever to drive a car, so I know it wasn’t him.

And it’s not like I was a homeless man begging on the street. I was driving a late-model, environmentally unconscious SUV on a toll highway. I knew what I was going into. Obviously I had the five bucks. So why? The only conclusion I could come to was that whoever was driving that car was a genuinely good person who enjoyed doing nice things. Either that, or they were so ridiculously rich that they refused to carry bills smaller than $20’s and didn’t want to the change. Part of me wanted to believe that he paid for me because I was such a pleasure to be on the road with, but then I remembered an incident where I called a woman “a dirty asshole” because she changed lanes without using her blinker. I doubt that was the reason either.

Since then I have obviously settled into the fact that sometimes good things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. But then today I witnessed something else that made me question my faithlessness in humanity.

Every so often, for a long time now, when I finish washing my hands in the bathroom I will approach the paper towel dispenser and notice that a perfectly portioned sheet is already hanging out of the dispenser waiting for me. I don’t know why, and I don’t trust things I don’t understand, so I rip it off, throw it away and get my own towel. (Writing that out makes it seem a lot more assholish than I intend it to be. I’m just worried it’s another cruel trap, but instead of the punch line being kindness, it’s “someone peed on the towel and let it dry.” Come on people, it’s a bathroom. You don’t trust anything in a bathroom.)

But today, as I was finishing up in the bathroom, there was an older, well-dressed man washing his hands next to me. I didn’t make eye contact with him for obvious reasons (we’re in a bathroom) but I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he cranked out a towel at the dispenser. When he was finished getting himself a sheet, he proceeded to dry his hands and then, using his sheet as an ill-fitting glove, crank out another portion of towel, which he let hang there, unused. After he left, I looked long and hard at the sheet hanging there flapping in the dirty breeze. It was an intense, profound gaze, the way a person might look at a horizon in an Indie film. The reason these cloths have been hanging here, these cloths I had so precautiously discarded all these years, was because of this man, this kind, germaphobic soul, was so thoroughly offended by the idea of touching the handle on the towel dispenser that he took it upon himself to spare whoever happened to follow him the awfulness of its terrible plastic form.

So for the first time I took that towel, and I used it. then I fixed my hair in the mirror a little, because I need a haircut and it’s all over the place, and when I was done I absent-mindedly threw the towel in the trash. I had intended to “pay it forward,” to carry on the old man’s tradition of cleanliness, but now I would have to touch the handle in order to get another towel, then wash my hands again, then use that towel to dispense another towel. And it all seemed like a lot of work for nothing, so I just left, content to let other people fell good about themselves at my expense.

31 Comments:

Blogger Leezer said...

pThe man in the suit with the paper towel as an ill-fitting glove was God. God hates germs.

August 7, 2007 at 4:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Denise said...

I also feel that all human beings are evil... that's why I love my dogs, my bird and my turtle (yes, I live in an apartment)!
This man is just a crazy guy who hates people and hopes everybody dies so that he can be the only person who uses the bathroom. And the towels, of course.

August 7, 2007 at 4:43:00 PM EDT  
Blogger sadielady said...

The person who paid your toll probably thought you looked cute in the view from the rearview mirror and got a personal thrill out of doing something that was sort of like flirting, even though she (or he? are you sure it was a man? either way, though...) couldn't actually flirt because the two of you were barrelling down the interstate in two separate vehicles. It was totally an "I think you're cute" thing. Of course, there's a 50-50 shot as to whether it was an "I think you're cute and this is fun for me to pay your toll and watch your reaction from the rearview and know you know I paid it" thing or an "I think you're cute and I'm totally going to follow you home and find out where you live and stalk you everywhere you go until I can make you my boyfriend" thing. Either way I think it's pretty harmless.

August 7, 2007 at 5:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger sid said...

They not only do it to make themselves feel better about themselves but there are some of them that believe if you do good deeds you will go to heaven. This too proves that they are in no way altruistic but selfish bastards.

August 8, 2007 at 5:09:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

did it ever occur to you that maybe the woman in the toll booth was trying to flirt with you?

August 8, 2007 at 5:44:00 AM EDT  
Blogger mindy said...

I grew up on a farm, and I wouldn't hesitate to use that pre-dispensed towel, so I think your theory is spot on. Also, I think your children have no hope of being good people unless you move to a farm. Now.

August 8, 2007 at 9:42:00 AM EDT  
Blogger anandamide said...

this reminds me of this time i was behind a guy in an automated toll booth. he clearly didn't have any change, so to free my car from the logjam, i got out and threw his fare in. all good - i'm a great (but self-serving) guy.

next toll booth, he's behind me and starts honking at me, waving 50 cents in the air (clearly wanting to pay for me in return). pumped up with the milk of human kindness, i waved him off. just once in my life i could do something without being paid back. i paid and went through.

dude passed me on the highway and shot me a dirty look. my wife said "i think you insulted him".

so no more good deeds for me. wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.....

August 8, 2007 at 10:24:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous You can call me, 'Sir' said...

Dan, you make my neuroses seem laughable. You're better than therapy. And cheaper.

Also, get a haircut. Friekin' hippy.

August 8, 2007 at 10:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Irina said...

Maybe someone in front of you in the car forgot that they had an EZ Pass and paid with cash. The double payment was more than the toll booth attendant could handle, so she just let you go.

I'm just saying...Joey was right.

August 8, 2007 at 11:30:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Mortarbored said...

I'm assuming this post is part of your plan.

*yawn*

August 8, 2007 at 12:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger [mother] said...

I'm encouraged that maybe you will take up the practice of selflessness and try to make the world a better place.

Dear God - what was I thinking!

August 8, 2007 at 1:13:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do NOT need a haircut. Please leave your hair alone. Please.

August 8, 2007 at 2:25:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous hetherjw said...

I bet whoever was in front of you paid with a 10 and then sped off without getting change because they had a body in the trunk and needed to get somewhere quick to bury it. Then the toll booth woman used it as your toll because if she kept it she would be fired and the only other alternative was to take the $5, walk across 37 lanes of traffic and fill out some sort of incident report.

we all know that is way more likely than someone "being nice."

August 8, 2007 at 3:05:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guarantee you this was a selfish act and I agree with sadielady. The other person thought you were cute and paid for you, it's like when you're in a bar there is no way in hell you're going to pay for the ugly person drinking, you pay for the good looking guy. There is no such thing as a good deed, we are all in it for ourselves. We look out for number one and how we will benefit from it.

August 8, 2007 at 3:29:00 PM EDT  
Blogger SAILOR MOON said...

I thought it was just a Miami way of life to think that way. I know when I went further north of FLorida - southern kindness was suspicious. Guess we're not alone thank god...

August 8, 2007 at 9:23:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am pretty damn sure the autistic people I work with know that we are all programmed monsters. They are very intuitive. I wish I wasn't a cog in a machine. Well, off to work!

August 9, 2007 at 1:08:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Caitlyn said...

Yeah, I'm with Sadielady on this one. Someone probably saw you and thought you were cute- I admit to having done that before. But I also think that we're sort of instilled with some desire to help people too. Like if you're walking through a door and an old woman is behind you, are you going to slam the door in her face? Well, you might. Bad example.

August 9, 2007 at 1:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger mm said...

Yay! Your magic is back!

August 9, 2007 at 10:07:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Stacy said...

This is completely off topic, but I just read an article about the 'male' panda, Jinzhu, that just gave birth to twin girls.
The 'experts' are blaming this little mix-up on the fact that the average panda penis is only 3 centimeter long.
3 CENTIMETERS?!? What? Maybe there is a reason for their endangered status. A little dose of Darwinism anyone?
Mrs. Panda must have a serious case of the 'why bothers' when it comes to gettin down with Mr. Panda. Lets face it, at 3 centimeters, size matters..... A lot.

August 9, 2007 at 12:06:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

They were probably from Delaware. People are nice in Delaware. Also, Haley Joel Osmet is creepy.

August 9, 2007 at 3:59:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan -

Remember Paige Ferrari? She's in J school in New York? I always thought you should get together with her.

August 9, 2007 at 4:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger 123-I-Love-You said...

I tried several times, but I can't possibly express to you how funny I found the following sentence:

"(I think Hume made the same argument, albeit to a much uglier group of friends.)"

That is all.

August 9, 2007 at 8:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jenni said...

Every Tuesday and Thrusday morning after my 5:45 Spin class my instructor reminds us to be "nice to people today."

I'm genuinely nice...For the most part. Except when I'm pissed. Then I'm a huge a-hole.

August 10, 2007 at 5:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I'm glad you got five bucks back from all the tipping you had to do for your "free" drinks. If you're anything like me, you tipped a buck each round, and you had 17 rounds, so you're only 12 in the hole!

August 11, 2007 at 1:25:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first thought was maybe toll booth lady paid your toll. Because really, who cares enough to look in the rear view mirror?

And on another note, dear god who would pay a $5 toll for someone else?? I mean that's 5 whole dollars! It's not leaving a paper towel sheet for the next person. Interstate admirers are plain creeeeepy. I distrust these "nice" people and their good deeds.

That said, I've never had anyone pay for my tolls so, this whole logic might be based on pure jealousy...oh well.

August 11, 2007 at 11:39:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So....since you threw the towel away, did you open the door with your bare hands? because I have witnessed people going to the bathroom and leaving without washing their hands.....

August 12, 2007 at 12:26:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Some Chick said...

So, Dan...are you saying you don't tip bartenders even if it is an open bar.
As a bartender that just came home from work and is reading your blog I am not happy about this. Not happy at all.
You realize when you do things like that you
A. get badly made drinks
and
B. you get bad karma---like getting hit by a bus or having your balls fall off.

I think I am finished reading your blog if you are stiffing bar/ restaurant people. If so, you suck.

August 12, 2007 at 6:30:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous libby said...

i believe good people pick up bad habits and can do stupid things...but that doesn't necessarily make them a bad person.

its all about being the change you want to see in the world - its hard, i have trouble being the bigger person when someone's being rude or inconsiderate...But it doesn't hurt to try.

August 12, 2007 at 2:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger faithstwin said...

I paid for some guys dinner in a drive-thru once. I didn't mean to. As I came to the window I had looked behind me and he struck me as a nice looking guy and I wanted to give him something to smile about. At the window I asked how much his order was (because if he was getting food for himself and 5 friends, no way was I following through), and it was a simple meal, so I paid. No pre-thoughts, no after-thoughts. I just hope it made him happy.

August 13, 2007 at 10:21:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Alison said...

The bird/car comment cracked me up.

This was a hilarious post, and as for the towels- that's weird.

August 13, 2007 at 11:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger BOB13 said...

At the risk of sounding like the class buzzkill...

What a bunch of overly ironic pessimists. I have it on good authority--i.e., personal experience--that most people are actually decent and kind. What a shame that acts of kindess and generosity are met with derision and doubt. I know it's all for the sake of comedy, but still...

Like someone said before me, "be the change you want to see in the world."

Let the heckling begin.

August 15, 2007 at 5:30:00 PM EDT  

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