I used to drink a lot of coffee, and if there’s one thing that a coffee drinker knows, it’s that you never buy a cup late in the day from the counter at a 7-11, Circle K , or any other gas station/convenience store type place. Once the early rush passes, those pots sit on the burners too long. The stuff inside gets so hot it scorches. The color shifts to a brackish burnt brown and a bitter taste takes over. A real coffee drinker can smell it from a distance.
So even at the height of my coffee-holic days, I wouldn’t have considered getting in line for a cup the other night when my husband Mike stopped in at Turkey Hill for a Coke. He had worked a long day without lunch. The night air carried a chill and he pulled his leather jacket around him, slammed the car door and stepped up to the curb. He was eager to get back in the car and head home; the drive would take at least an hour, and even a fast food drive through would slow him down. Just a Coke would have to do the trick for now.
It was then he noticed the woman approaching from his left.
“Excuse me,” she called out. “Do you know how much a regular coffee costs in there?”
“Sorry, no,” he replied. Mike isn’t a coffee drinker either. “But they’ll tell you inside.”
He noticed then that she didn’t carry a purse, and her hands were bare. She didn’t look homeless, really, but he sensed her tension and knew she must be cold.
“Probably down and out” was how he described her later on. “Normal, really. In her 40’s.”
He held the door open for her.
Once inside, Mike rounded the corner toward the soft drinks. As he reached for his Coke, he glanced briefly toward the coffee counter.
The woman looked pale under the fluorescent lights. She studied the overhead menu of coffees, fountain drinks, and slushees. The red and green display touted gingerbread cappuccino as the flavor of the month for December.
She opened her hand, and Mike saw that she clutched a handful of coins. He watched as she counted them, and counted them again.
He watched her shoulders sag slightly. He watched her head drop forward, and her eyes close. He almost heard her sigh. He saw her fingers curl around the coins until the knuckles turned white. He knew without a doubt what she had just discovered – she didn’t have enough.
The counter clerk sat on a stool and leafed through People magazine. Mike approached to pay for his Coke.
The woman, meanwhile, had drifted to the candy aisle. She stood back from the display of Kit Kats and Butterfingers, deep in thought. Mike wondered if she had decided to opt for candy instead of the coffee, but his instincts told him otherwise. He noticed her posture, her position in the aisle, her hand still gripping the precious coins.
Then he knew.
She wasn’t looking at candy bars.
Her eyes scanned the floor. She was looking for a dime, a quarter, or a few pennies someone may have dropped.
He knew that she hoped against hope that she might still be able to buy a cup of coffee before the night got much colder.
He took two steps toward her. “Did you get your coffee?”
“Nah. It’s a dollar thirty five.” She didn’t have to say she didn’t have enough.
Mike reached out and placed two dollar bills in her hand. “Here you go,” he said.
The woman handed a single dollar back. “I only need one. I have the rest. I was just looking to see if someone had dropped some change. Sometimes people drop their change along here.”
“I know. We’ve all been there. But you can get your coffee now. It’s cold out. Maybe you can even get two.”
She hesitated, then accepted the second dollar. She placed her hand on Mike’s arm.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I won’t get two. I think I’ll just get the large.”
Mike shrugs off this story, assuring me that I would have done the same thing. And I like to think I would extend kindness to a stranger on a cold night. But as I listened to him talk about the woman at Turkey Hill, I had to admit that in the same situation, I would likely have just gotten my Coke and rushed back to the car.
I’m not proud to say that I wouldn’t have noticed her standing at the counter, or clutching her coins, or studying the floor near the candy bars.
I’m not proud to say that for all the cliches I know about “being present,” for all I know about the value of giving, for all I know about paying attention….the moment – and the opportunity – would very likely have passed me by.