I was seated in an upscale restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. The hostess seated a black man across from me and easily in my line of sight. I was able to monitor the situation without it being obvious, while I continued my interactions with friends who were having dinner with me.

The black man was quite modestly attired, had a scruffy beard, and was eating alone. I could see the entire restaurant and he was the only person of color that I could see. As it happened, it appeared that he ordered the same entree and sides that I was enjoying. It was delicious food and he and I enjoyed our meals.

As we were finishing up, I noticed that the waiter also brought his check to him. Some conversation ensued between the two of them and the waiter left briefly, returned, and there was more conversation. This happened one more time before the waiter left again. I could not overhear any of the conversations.

At that point, my tab was paid and we were about to depart. Before doing so, however, I went to the register where the wait-staff runs credit cards and otherwise closes out each customer transaction. I approached the waiter, who I recognized, and said that I had noticed that there was apparently some issue with the black patron when it came time for him to pay. I said I was not interested in knowing what the issue was; he had the same thing that I had had and enjoyed. I simply wanted to pay his tab, and I handed over my credit card. I also said that I did not want the man to know who I was, or that I had paid his obligation. I said that he should merely be told that everything was good and his tab had been “taken care of; come back again soon.”  

The waiter seemed in disbelief — and relieved — as if a difficult burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He expressed gratitude on behalf of the black patron, saying he’d never had a similar experience before. He would do as I requested.

I don’t know what the issue was. I didn’t know whether the black man was in the wrong, in the right, or running a scam. I didn’t know whether he was dissatisfied with the food or the service (I’d been quite satisfied with both), or simply didn’t have the money to pay the tab. For all I knew it was his backdoor way of applying for a job (to work off the obligation he’d incurred). It didn’t matter. I felt that the optics were simply awful if some level of confrontation were to have materialized, or the police would have been summoned. I had no interest in witnessing an incident where the only patron of color in the entire restaurant was confronted for whatever reason. Not when it was well within my capacity to avoid that outcome, period. I didn’t offer a “blank check;” he and I had ordered and consumed the same meal.

I have no idea who the man was or the specifics of his interactions with the wait-staff. Bad optics and a potentially charged situation were averted. I was “paying it forward.”  The day could certainly come when I will be the beneficiary of someone paying it forward, or not. No matter. It was not about potential repayment for a good deed; it was about doing a good deed. When it’s done, it’s done, and you walk away with an unmitigated good feeling (until another opportunity to pay it forward presents itself).

We can pay it forward in myriad ways, and I recommend it. Paying a stranger’s restaurant tab is one way. There are others. You can do similarly; you can pay someone’s tab at the grocery store; you can do snow removal for a neighbor; you can mow the neighbor’s lawn; you can take party leftovers in individual bags and deliver them to people living in homeless camps around town (which I have also done); you can give a fast-food coupon to someone panhandling (which I do occasionally); you can give transportation to someone in need of a ride to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. There are countless other opportunities if we’re paying attention to our surroundings and those around us. Each such act of paying it forward contributes to the greater good and to a better world. It is done without judging the recipient for decisions made that contributed to their circumstances. It’s no excuse to think they are able-bodied and can work, or that they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school, or that they shouldn’t have gotten pregnant, or that they should have sought counseling for their PTSD after serving in the military. Paying it forward is nonjudgmental.

I was the “winner” in the situation, believing as I do that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35) It certainly felt that way. And the beauty of it was that I felt like a “winner” without anyone else being a “loser.”  

You too can experience that wonderful feeling. Doing good for others without expectation of recompense is something tangible that each of us can do, without being asked and without obligation. I recommend that you pay it forward for a better world.