12/21/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Price Check on Kindness, Lane Four, Please

With so many dark things on our minds these days, I feel it's helpful to look for tiny glints of light that illuminate the positive side of human nature. These rays of hope can come at the most unexpected times. Here's one that I recently encountered during an everyday food shopping trip.

It was a typical morning at my local Shaw's grocery store, with perhaps a little more hustle-bustle than usual because of the approaching holidays. After checking off the last item on my shopping list, I pushed my cart toward checkout lane number four, which looked promising. I wheeled into line and saw an elderly woman in the lead position. She slowly put each item from her cart onto the conveyor belt, mentally doing the math to be sure she could really afford the goods she'd gathered. I was in no hurry, so I stayed put. Besides, this would be a good opportunity to read the labels on the candy bars flanking the checkout lane.

I looked up now and then to monitor the progress of the line. The woman had placed the last of her items on the belt, reached into her purse, and handed the cashier a carefully assembled stack of bills organized by denomination. She clearly had the shopping trip well planned and was going to make every penny count. But the best-laid plans can go astray; a $10 bill slipped from her hand and floated to the ground. Upon learning from the cashier that she was $10 short, a mortified look swept across her face. She looked down and around for the errant bill. But there was no money in sight. That's because the gentleman in back of her had placed his foot over the bill, no doubt intending to pocket the dough on his way out. The woman frantically scanned the ground for another 30 seconds, then reached into her purse and pulled out 10 singles so she could pay for her food.

I was stunned and saddened at what I had just witnessed. I felt sorry for the victim and sorry for the perpetrator. At an earlier time, I might have gotten angry, exposed the cowardly act, and embarrassed the guy with the sticky shoes into doing the right thing. But as I stood contemplating my options, the incident jogged a memory trace that whisked me back many years, when I was a lad of 8. Suddenly I wasn't at Shaw's. I was standing in a little mom-and-pop corner store called Vitims, located in my hometown.

With its abundant supply of candy, snack food, and sugary beverages, Vitim's was the essential after-school stop. One of the biggest draws at the store was a bowl of hard candies. You took a candy, then dropped a penny in the tin next to the bowl. Candy out, penny in. Life was simple. That particular day, old man Vitim was restocking a shelf, so I was on the honor system. I'd always played by the rules and paid for my candy. But on that occasion, when I realized that I didn't have a penny, I slipped over to the dark side, popping a candy into my mouth and rattling the penny bowl so it sounded like I'd just added a coin.

My heart pounded with excitement at the thought of getting away with my first shoplifting exploit. Just as fast, guilt crept in, followed by terror as I realized that the customer in back of me, a guy in his 50s, had witnessed my moment of juvenile delinquency. Would he tell Mr. Vitim? Would Mr. Vitim tell my father? Would I be banned from Vitims forever? My God, what had I done?

To my surprise, the customer paid for his newspaper, flipped a penny in the bowl, and then walked out -- without so much as uttering a word to me or even looking at my face. I wanted to apologize, but nothing came out of my mouth. I just put my head down and briskly exited the store.

Back to Shaws, 2012. I knew what I needed to do. The elderly woman was about to leave with her bagged items, and the conveyor belt was moving. I quickly reached into my wallet, took out a 10-spot, squeezed past the man with the money under his foot, without looking at him, and touched the elderly woman on her arm. "Excuse me, ma'am, I think you dropped this." She was ecstatic and relieved, and thanked me profusely. I suspect that the loss of the 10 dollars was a major blow to her weekly finances.

My actions in the checkout aisle, it turns out, were only part one of the drama. Part two was coming. As I loaded my groceries in my car, I felt a tap on my back. I turned around, and there was the fellow who'd appropriated the woman's money. He handed me the $10 bill and said, "I'm sorry," before turning and brusquely walking off.

What to make of all of this? Aesop summed it up best centuries before: "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

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