Paying it forward

My wife tells me I don’t like MacDonald’s burgers, so I never, ever, eat at MacDonald’s. But just before Christmas I was driving back home from the Great Metropolis that is Milton Keynes, and after being stuck in traffic for about five hours, I pulled off at a service station for a comfort break.

Once my call of nature had been attended to, I returned to my car, all set to rejoin the 200 mile long car park which, for that day, was the M6. Approaching the exit, I noticed the MacDonald’s, and also noticed that it had a drive through.

On impulse, I slowed down and joined the queue for the window. I have no idea why; eating a MacDonald’s burger is a balancing act at the best of times; the so-called “salad” is so covered in oil and animal waste that you have to hold the bun just-so to avoid the contents slipping out and landing on your lap. While driving on the motorway it would be a serious challenge. But join the queue I did.

After a wait of around thirty minutes – after the first ten of which I was regretting joining the queue, and wondering whether it would be possible to reverse out past the people-carrier that had pulled in behind me, I arrived at the order window.

“Just a Big Mac, please,” I said.

“You want fries with that?” the skinny, rather bored looking teenage girl asked.

“Umm, yeah, ok; yes, please,” I said. Heck, why not? If I’m going to be juggling a slippery burger, I might as well add to the fun by fiddling with flaccid strips of potato as well.

“Pay at the next window,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t drive on, because I was almost bumper to bumper with the Volvo in front; the owner of which apparently owned another car which was, of course, a Porsche. At least, that’s according to the cheap vinyl sticker attached to the Volvo’s boot – whose real purpose, it appeared to me, was to cover the paint scratches over a large dent. If I’d been in a better mood I might have chuckled. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

Gradually my patience was rewarded by being able to move forward, foot by mind-numbing foot until, some twenty minutes later, I arrived at the second window. The occupant was somewhat older, a forty-something chap with Brylcreemed hair (I didn’t know they still sold Brylcreem) and a very cheery smile.

“How’s it going?” he asked, handing me a paper bag which I presumed (correctly, as it turned out on further inspection) contained my tea.

“Yeah, not bad,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”

“Well, there’s the funny thing,” he said. “The guy who was just here paid for your order.”

I considered this for a moment. Volvo/Porsche guy had paid for my burger and chips? Why?

I asked.

“It’s been going on all day,” Brylcreem guy replied. “Started about 2:30. A lady paid for her meal, and also paid for the car behind her.”

I’d never heard of anything like that before. “Why did she do that?” I said.

“I dunno, really,” Brylcreem said. “She said it was ‘The season of Good Will’ and that she wanted to ‘Pay something forward’.”

“How nice of her,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he said. “But then it just went on and on. Everyone has paid for the next person in line. It’s amazing; it’s been going on for the last six hours.”

“Wow,” I said. It was genuinely heart-warming, and I felt my heart being, actually, warmed. People paying for complete stranger’s meals. That fundamental human need – food – being paid for – nay, provided – by a complete stranger who they will never even meet. It made me realise that people are, when it comes down to it, basically good.

“I guess I should do the same,” I said. “What’s the guy behind me having?”

“Two secs,” my new friend said, and did something on his MacDonald’s machine.

“Two Quarter-pounder’s Deluxe with fries; three Chicken Nuggets, fries of course – one large; one Strawberry shake; Two chocolate shakes; two large Coke’s with ice.”

“That all?” I asked.

“Two M&M McFlurry’s, an apple pie, and a chocolate chip cookie.”

“Ok. What’s that come to?”

“Twenty-five seventy-three.”

I dug into my pocket, came up with a small handful of coin; must have totalled about 37p.

“This is for you,” I said. “Put it in the Tip Jar.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want to pay for the next guy’s meal?”

I turned around in my seat, gave a cheery smile and a wave to the occupants of the People Carrier behind, which was returned by the rather overweight child in the front passenger seat, but not by the hacked-off looking lady in the driver’s seat.

I looked up at the window to see Brylcreem’s expectant smile.

I smiled back. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Hope you have a good one. I’d best be on my way.”

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