My American Life – Sharing Stories of Generosity

Jun 12, 2020 | In the world

Post # 4: I can pay for that

Weekday evenings were hard. After a tiring day in the lab, I had a long commute from Baltimore to Bethesda. Our suburban neighborhood was a stone’s throw from the prestigious NIH but it wasn’t very practical to eat often at the fancy restaurants in the vicinity. Like all Americans, we were on the lookout for cheap fast food. But being vegetarian made it difficult. 

It was the era in which McDonald’s had just switched to using oil for french fries instead of beef tallow. Long before the vegan revolution, a veggie burger meant a bun with limp lettuce and lots of ketchup. Burger King and KFC were out of the question. Subway and Taco Bell were the only outlets that listed fresh vegetables on their menus which could be customised into sandwiches or tacos, and therefore, ideal for us. 

One evening, we decided to grab some nachos and burritos at the Taco Bell down the street. Since we didn’t need to drive, we walked in and placed our orders. The bill was about $8 but we had no money with us, having left our wallets and car keys behind. We looked sheepishly at each other and at the cashier while the line behind us grew.

An astute young woman who had observed our nonverbal exchange figured out the situation. Perhaps she could see how exhausted we were, how reluctant to leave behind the food we had ordered. 

“I can pay for that,” she offered, striding to the counter. Like us, she was in her twenties, most likely a student or a scientist at NIH. Her casual clothes gave no indication of her motivation or ability to pay for a meal for others. 

We looked at her, shocked. Why would a perfect stranger would offer to pay for a meal for a couple of Indian people unknown to her? We didn’t really look impoverished, just tired and hungry. 

“No. That’s not necessary,” I said. 

“It’s not a problem,” she insisted, overruling our objections. She paid for her meal and ours. We took our places around a table and spoke with her, offering to mail her a cheque for the meal. She refused outright.

Over dinner she confided that she was between jobs. She described her qualifications and the kind of work she was looking for. 

I didn’t ever find out what happened to her, it wasn’t easy to keep in touch with people in the years before cell phones became ubiquitous and social media, all pervasive. 

I am sure she found a job. I am convinced that she would have continued being generous to those who crossed her path. 

Many years later, a young American man approached us on Christmas Day in Milford Sound, in a remote part of New Zealand. Having trekked all day, he had arrived at the cafe moments after it closed. At our picnic table, four adults and four children had just finished eating the last of the sandwiches and chips we had bought minutes earlier. Two large slices of red velvet cake remained. We handed over the cake to him, refusing to accept any money in return. 

“When I call my mom tonight, I will tell her that a lovely family gave me their cake,” he said.

I thought about the generous woman in Bethesda that day. Perhaps the loop was now complete.

Post # 5: George the second

At my workplace in Palo Alto, we often had vendors setting up displays of items in their catalogs; glassware, chemicals and consumables that we routinely used in our laboratories.

Sometimes they gave away freebies like pens or post-it notes with their company logo.

One spring morning, I stopped by a display, attracted by the stack of little beanie monkeys dressed in a blue t-shirt bearing the company name. As a mother of a toddler who didn’t particularly care for large stuffed toys but preferred these palm-sized animal-shaped toys filled with plastic pellets (beans), I was tempted to get one for her.

My boss, Bill, also had a little girl, about four years old at the time. At the booth, we picked one monkey each, as a surprise gift for our daughters. My daughter loved books and was particularly fond of Curious George, the naughty little monkey. We named our new beanie monkey, George, who quickly became her favorite toy. She took him everywhere including a family trip to London. 

During a busy week of sightseeing, managing a stroller, diaper bag and other accessories, we lost George, most likely at a restaurant one evening. We called the next day to enquire but they were not able to locate the toy. The child was distraught and it was time for us to leave.

Upon our return, I told Bill about the incident and how disappointed she was to lose a favorite toy. 

“Oh. Did she really like it so much? My daughter was not too thrilled. It sits with her other toys but is not amongst her special ones.”

“For us it was different. George was her favorite,” I replied.

The next day, Bill brought the other identical monkey that he had picked up at the booth months ago. His daughter had not minded and he felt it would make a bigger difference to me. I was moved by his kind gesture, another reason for me to appreciate Bill not just for being a good boss, but for being a good human being.

That’s how George The Second came into our lives. My daughter believed that her beloved George was back and played with him with no lasting effects of the trauma of having lost the first one.

While other toys have come and gone over the years, George The Second has travelled with us from the US to India and now lives with us in Singapore. The child in question will graduate from college next month. 

Photo from Ranjani’s archives

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