In Which I Spit on your Random Act of Kindness

When my alarm went off this morning, as it usually does around 6:30, my first thought when I opened my eyes was, shit, I don’t have any milk for coffee.

For most coffee drinkers, a lack of available milk would be a minor annoyance, but not for me.  Milk is essential to the coffee-drinking experience.  And, since coffee is essential to the life-tolerating experience, I got showered and dressed as coherently as I could in my pre-caffeine state, got in the car, and made a beeline to the Starbucks drive-through where I ordered a venti pumpkin spice latte (because, since I’m here, why not?) and a breakfast sandwich.

And then something unusual happened.

When I pulled up to the window, $10 bill in hand, the green-aproned woman handed me my coffee and explained, “The person in front of you paid for your order, if you want to keep it going you can, but you don’t have to.”

I smiled.  “Wow, uh, yeah I will, but wait . . .”  Something occurred to me.  I’m all for “random acts of kindness,” but if the person in the car behind me ordered two gallons of coffee for his 8:00 AM meeting, plus a venti triple Americano for himself, and a grande hot chocolate for his carpool buddy, then that’s going to be a problem.  “What is the bill for the next guy?” I sheepishly asked.


Phew.  “Yeah, ok, I’ll pay for his.”   I handed over the $10 bill.

“It’ll be just a minute on your sandwich.”

While I waited, I smiled and thought to myself that the world really is a wonderful, kind, sunny place after all . . . and then there was one of those record screech sound effects in my head.  Something wasn’t quite right about the way the barrista said, “If you want to keep it going you can.”

Keep it going?

When she came back with my sandwich, I asked, “So how long has this chain been going?  Did the guy in front of me start it?”

“Actually, it’s been going on for a little while now.”  She told me.


As I drove off, sipping on my way-too-sweet pumpkin spice latte, I thought, What just happened?  Was this a beautiful example of a random act of kindness being payed forward (two Oprah phrases that I kind of hate) or something else?

Really, the only person who did anything especially kind was the first guy who decided it would be nice to buy a cup of coffee for the chick in line behind him.  That chick, having been unexpectedly relieved of paying the five bucks or so that she had already planned on spending, and perhaps feeling a bit awkward about accepting a gift from a stranger, decided she might as well spend that five bucks anyway on the person in line behind her.  And it continues, each person in this charitable drive-through line spending $5-$10 or so in a big caffeine-fueled circle jerk.

And one more thing.  This is not just any Starbucks.  This is a Starbucks in Loudoun County, Virginia.  A place where, according to the 2010 census, the median household income is around $115,000 per year.  It’s likely that the people in that drive-through didn’t really need a free cup of coffee.

This is all sounding very cynical.  All I’m trying to say is that, sometimes a “random act of kindness” doesn’t really accomplish anything, other than superficially making you feel good.  If you’ve got an extra five bucks to spend on coffee for a stranger, why not spend it on a sandwich for the homeless man outside, instead of the person who was already going to spend five bucks of their own?  If you want to provide a kindness, maybe you should take an hour and pop down to the Red Cross blood bank and give them a pint?  If you’ve got extra money that can be put to good use, perhaps you could loan it out at Kiva?

What happened at the Starbucks this morning, was a fascinating study in altruism and social pressure, not proof that humans are really and truly Good.  That proof lies elsewhere.


8 thoughts on “In Which I Spit on your Random Act of Kindness

  1. Cat

    I think the problem was the employee saying, “If you want to keep it going you can.” That ruins the act of kindness. It’s passive aggressive. I have been on the receiving end of such random acts at a restaurant and a coffee shop. I didn’t “pay it forward” at those times, and wasn’t pressured to–it would have ruined the moment–but I have spontaneously done so since then. I’d write that Starbucks a note. Send it on email via customer service feedback. (Next, as your loving aunt, I will suggest you reconsider the term circle jerk, unless you don’t mind burning the eyeballs off readers of a certain age.)

  2. mollymakesmusic Post author

    Cat, I’m speculating that the first recipient of the random free coffee, chose on her own to “pay it forward,” and that after the barrista saw that, began suggesting it. But I have no way of knowing.

    As far as “circle jerk” is concerned, I feel that, as a writer, it is my duty to find the most suitable term to communicate my thoughts. In this case, no other word or phrase would do. I’m sorry your eyeballs were burned out.

  3. Bill Morris

    Furthermore, what you did was not a random act of kindness. The first unsolicited offer to pay for the next guy was, maybe, but the subsequent payments were the results of an instant mini-culture of institutionalized giving enforced by the needs to be part of the group, to confirm to the barrista that probably you were at least as good a person as the strangers ahead of you, all driven by the implication that to break the chain would be wrong (“You don’t have to, but…”).


    So why do you assume, it was a dude who paid for a chick in the first act of kindness?

  5. Marje

    Look up Ted talks “first follower” — you might find it interesting and pertinent to this discussion. Great piece.

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