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The Price of a Freebie at Starbucks

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Earlier this week, after months of 100-plus-degree temps, the crisp fall air inspired me to get more dressed up than usual for the office. I exchanged my uniform of t-shirt and ragged blue jeans, for a new pair of jeans and a leopard print form-fitting blazer, something I would never have worn in my pre 50 days. On my way to work, I stopped at a Starbucks drive-thru for a hot green tea. The weather was so good, my windows were open and my A/C was off, something that rarely happens in Texas, and I was taking it all in - the birds in flight, the clean air, the people on the street, their conversations, the songs on the radio, all of it. That's when I noticed the car in front of me -- a very clean black Luxus SUV with a silver-haired gentleman at the wheel who appeared to be checking me out in his rear-view mirror. As the Lexus pulled forward and I made my way to the pick-up window, the young Starbucks employee informed me with a smile that my drink was paid for by the guy in the car in front of me.

"What?" I said, watching him drive away.

"The guy in front of you paid for your tea," she repeated loudly, smiling, as if I were hard of hearing.

I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror and thought I've got to get dressed up more often. Then I waited a beat for her to tell me he'd asked for my phone number and of course I'd have to break it to him gently that I was married for 20 years but appreciated his interest.

But she didn't.

Awkward pause.

"How come he bought it for me?" I asked.

"Because he always pays for whatever the person behind him orders," she said.

"Even if they order 10 cups of coffee and 10 pieces of cake?" I asked.

"I've never had that happen," she answered. "But he probably would."

Another awkward pause.

"So," she said.

"So," I said.

"Do you want to do the same for the person behind you?" she asked.

I glanced back. A silver-haired woman was waiting her turn in another black Lexus SUV.

"I was probably supposed to think of that," I said.

"No problem," she said. "Her order is $5.86."

I suddenly felt as if I were being asked by Monty Hall if I wanted what was behind curtain #1 or curtain #2. Truthfully, I just wanted my tea and have it be free.

"Does this kind of thing happen very often?" I asked. "I mean besides the one guy?"

"Oh yes," she said cheerily, "all the time."

"It's never happened to you?" she asked.

"Never," I answered.

"Well," she said, "it's your lucky day!"

"Yeah," I said.

Seconds seemed like hours.

"If it's okay, I think I'll just accept the gift today. But maybe next time," I told her.

She stared at me. The cheer left her cheerfulness.

"Have a nice day," she said, handing me my tea.

I drove away. It was a nice day. A stranger gave me an unexpected gift. What a novel idea. So why didn't I do the right thing and pay for the woman behind me? Because her order cost more than mine, that's why.

God, I'm cheap. And a terrible role model for that young girl.

And why can't I stop thinking about strategy - about how the key is to pull up to a drive-thru where there is someone ahead of you but nobody behind you for miles. I wonder how many drive-thrus I can try this at? How fun would that be?

Now I can never go back there - that girl will always remember the woman in the leopard print jacket who broke the chain.

That's what it is, right? A chain? And I broke the chain.

Two miles up the road, while stopped at a light, I reached for the tab attached to the string attached to the tea bag so I could remove it from the hot water, the same way I have countless times before - only this time, the tab broke off.

So I grabbed the string instead. And when I did, the string broke off.

Just the tea bag remained -- unchained, floating, in a cup of very hot water.

I pulled into a nearby parking lot and fished out the bag, the hot water burning my fingertips.

I got the message.

So what would you have done?