Thankful and Paying it Forward

I begin this post in a local library during my lunch break on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2017.  While my coworkers are enjoying their lunches at local restaurants and in our Village Hall’s break room, I decided to write some words rather than walk like I sometimes do or read, which is both a blessing and a curse to me.

Upon reflecting on my final accounting for my 2017 resolutions while I simultaneously work on crafting my 2018 resolutions and publishing an eBook about them, I hereby confess that I have fallen off of the book wagon, and hard.

I have fallen off the book wagon of late.

One of my resolutions was to net minus fifty books from my considerable hoard this year.  This seemed like a breeze four months ago, as I had already donated ninety-one and only purchased an additional thirty-eight through the end of July.  I had already accomplished my goal for the year and had five months to go.  As you can see by my notes, I amended the goal to net minus seventy-five, which I thought was too low of a goal when I wrote it, even noting that I “expect to exceed this,” but wanted to play it safe just in case.

Notice that I have not updated the numbers since the end of August, a month when I purchased five additional books and did not donate any.  I could tell you that I am plus ten or a dozen since the beginning of September, but that would be untruthful.  I have probably acquired thirty or more books since September 1st, and have only moved a handful along since that time.  My wife has noticed used books that I purchase once or twice per week starting to pile up again, and I have a dozen more in a box in my office and another twenty or so new ones in my car.  I know, I have a book problem.

That does not stop me from once again resolving to net minus fifty in 2018 and again in the following years.  The one caveat is that should I ever succeed in creating a new, significant and sustainable source of additional income, I would still like to purchase a bigger home for me and my family including room for more bookshelves.  I know, I know.  This contradicts all the anti-clutter and simplify your life advice out there, but what can I say?  I have recently reached the prime age of forty-seven and must acknowledge that one of my greatest weaknesses is my fondness for books.

As my wife has said a few times upon my admitting that, it is better than being an alcoholic, drug addict, gambler, abusive husband or father or having affairs.  There is certainly some truth to that, although I am thinking of seeking out a storage unit simply to house my growing book collection.

So here we are with Thanksgiving this week and I was thinking about things that I should be thankful for.

It’s not just all about stress and anxiety about my job, money and family.  Looking at things from another perspective, I and my family have much to be thankful for.

First of all, I remain gainfully employed, thus allowing me to continue supporting my family and I am also thankful that I earn twenty paid vacation days per year, conferred upon employees with my municipality upon their ten year anniversary, which I achieved two and a half years ago.

With payday tomorrow, I will be at home helping prepare for Thanksgiving and will be taking only my twelfth vacation day of the year.  I originally planned to take at least eighteen or perhaps twenty vacation days, but my new work assignment has rendered that not possible.  With tomorrow’s paycheck, I will be hitting the thirty-nine vacation day number which actually compels me to either take one or to cash one out.

At my place of employment, we are permitted to “carry” twice the amount of vacation days that we accumulate in a year.  Thus, I cannot accumulate more than forty.  I could “sell” days back to the City for the amount of around three hundred dollars and some change per day, but at this point in my life, I value the time off more than I value the extra cash.  I recognize that could change, and my family could very much use some multiple of $300 with the super-expensive holiday season that we have lined up, but for the time being, I could use the day off for mental health purposes.

Anyway, as I embark on five days off in a row, I am thankful that I will be picking our son up from his college tonight.  His one last professor canceled his 9:00 a.m. class Wednesday morning so he, too, can enjoy an extra night sleeping in his own bed and an additional day with his family.  Even though we have many family gatherings scheduled for this weekend beyond our Thanksgiving dinner, it will be enjoyable and relaxing nonetheless.

Our family’s Thanksgiving gathering is always at my wealthy and successful aunt and uncle’s million dollar home with ample room for everyone and an abundance of food and drink.  I should note that my uncle made millions through his professional endeavors as a financial executive for a software firm, while my aunt was and remains the ultimate homemaker, doting mother and most incredible chef that I know of.

I am not only thankful to be able to spend three days with my aunt, uncle and cousins who we mostly only see for Thanksgiving and perhaps Hanukkah, but my brother and his children will be in town from Ohio, as will my sister, her husband and their two children from New Orleans.  I am extremely thankful for that.

While I dream and aspire to become an Infopreneur and begin generating income above and beyond my day job, I am thankful for my job.  Even though every day is a challenge and I have been unwillingly transferred to a new, young and inexperienced boss and new department four months ago, I am very thankful to remain gainfully employed.

Our family’s middle class suburban lifestyle is not cheap, and without this steady job with the accompanying steady income, we would not be able to enjoy the middle class lifestyle that we do.  Also note that, while our lifestyle may approach upper middle class status in some regards, our income does not reach the top twenty percent.  We are knocking on the door, but we are not there.  If you saw my car, my phone and our TVs, you would consider us very much working class, but remember that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Speaking of judging a book by its cover, I have not written much about how very expensive it is to have a daughter on a varsity poms squad at a high school that caters to many upper income families.  As it so happens, without reviewing every family’s financial documents, I strongly suspect that ours is the lowest income family out of the twenty poms girls, with the possible exception of our daughter’s closest friend on the squad.

We spend hundreds per month keeping up with the Joneses on the poms squad, purchasing new outfits for various events that they do, paying for a Disney World trip in February for the UDA competition, giving our daughter twenty-five bucks a pop for food at all-day competitions and for going out with the girls after games and more.

Again, you cannot judge a book by its cover, but the other families are all dressed impeccably when we see them, they drive new imported luxury vehicles, their homes dwarf ours, they fly to Florida or Las Vegas or Mexico for long weekends, some of them casually mention going to their second homes and they basically exude wealth compared with us.  All of their daughters attend private dance studios, while our daughter and her best friend on the squad came up through the local park districts.

Which brings me to the part about paying it forward.

Our daughter found out last Thursday night at around 10:00 p.m. that she would be expected to wear a dress to school the next day to represent the poms squad prior to their competition.  Of course, the two poms “coaches” never told the freshmen girls; the other girls did via their messaging system.

My wife and I were getting ready for bed, but due to our daughter’s distress, I agreed to take her dress shopping at that late hour.

Not being a guy who has ever gone dress shopping, let alone late on a Thursday night under duress, I figured that I would take her to Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and a store that is open 24/7.

The staff at the Walmart basically laughed at us when my obviously beautiful and striking daughter asked if they carry dresses.  They had them on the Walmart website, but the store only had one, which my daughter dismissed as an “old lady dress,” and she was right.

So right that an older lady standing near us agreed.  I chat up people frequently in public, much to my children’s dismay, and I told the lady that I was taking my daughter out to do emergency dress shopping, having just learned of her need for a dress at ten o’clock that night.  It was about ten thirty at the time.

Witnessing our ridicule by the Walmart staff when my daughter asked where the dresses are, the kindly woman told us that, if we hurry, we can make it to a nearby Kohl’s that would be closing at eleven.

Duh!  Nearly every single thing that we wear comes from Kohl’s, so I should have thought of that first.  Plus, the Kohl’s is closer to our house than the Walmart.

So we made it to Kohl’s at about 10:40ish.  My daughter scrambled as fast as a high school freshman could, trying out four or five dresses in a matter of minutes as a woman announced the store’s imminent closing over the intercom.  In case we did not hear that, a woman working in the women’s clothing section made sure to tell us a few times.

We were both desperate for a decent dress at a few minutes before eleven as the stressed out and tired employees looked at their watches.  I certainly could not blame them.  Working at a Kohl’s until eleven at night is one of the last things that I would want to do.

Another woman, this one quite a bit younger than myself, perhaps halfway in age between my daughter (fourteen) and me (forty-seven), which would make her thirty-and-a-half years old, sensed our distress.  She was a petite Asian woman, probably half my weight, which remains exactly 200 pounds.

I smiled to her as my daughter tried on what ultimately became one of the two dresses that she selected, trying to convey that I was not some dirty older guy standing outside a women’s dressing room at 11:00 P.M.  I was sincerely trying not to creep her out.

She approached me tentatively and I instinctively moved out of her way, hoping that in my frayed state I was not standing in front of a dress that she had interest in.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but are you a Kohl’s member?” she asked me.  I noticed that her diction and vocabulary was more proper than most native English speakers.  I am not assuming that she was not brought up in the U.S., but her accent hinted at a foreign upbringing.

“I’m not,” I replied.  “My wife is, though,” I added, wanting to convey that, despite my haggard appearance, a woman agreed to marry me at some point and remains married to me.

“Here, well maybe you can access her account and use this,” she explained as she handed me one of the coveted thirty percent off coupons that you get every third time that Kohl’s mails a sales flyer to your home.

I explained that I am not on the account with my wife, but thanked her and told her that I would try to use it.

Right at eleven, I asked one of the cashiers if I could use the thirty percent coupon because my wife has had a Kohl’s account for over twenty years.  They explained that unless I am also already on the account, that I could not use it.  I could instantly apply for a card of my own, which I declined.  I would rather pay thirty percent more than have a Kohl’s card.

The young Asian woman observed me speaking to the cashier and again came to my aid.  I handed the coupon back to her, telling her that she should use it for herself.  At that time, she handed me two slips of paper “Kohl’s cash” and insisted that I take them.

I know what Kohl’s cash is, since my wife often uses it when we all go clothes shopping together.  Basically, at certain sales, Kohl’s hands you “Kohl’s cash” in ten dollar increments based on every fifty dollars that you spend.  Thus, if you spend a hundred bucks there at certain times, they will give you twenty bucks in Kohl’s cash.

I told the young lady that I appreciated her very generous offer, but that she should use the Kohl’s cash herself.  As I handed it back to her, she shook me off, explaining that she does not mind giving it to us to assist me in purchasing a dress for my daughter.

I did not really know what to say to this besides “thank you.”

We got behind the young lady in the checkout line and my daughter had picked two dresses, both “marked down” from forty dollars to twenty each, plus a cute scarf that cost about three dollars, “marked down” from eight.

After handing the cashier the two Kohl’s cash vouchers, the total of nearly forty-five dollars was down to less than five.  I handed the cashier a five spot and got some change back.

Dress purchase success!

We drove home just after closing, marveling at the generosity of the young woman for having given us forty dollars worth of Kohl’s cash, considering that she rang up a hundred dollar purchase of her own right before we checked out, discounted down to about seventy with her coupon, that she could have just paid thirty for had she not given me the vouchers.

“Why did she give us that?” my daughter asked while we began our drive home.

“I don’t know,” I honestly replied.  “Perhaps she is very wealthy and thought that we needed it more than she did or maybe she isn’t wealthy and just did something very generous for us.  Whatever her reason was, I’m glad that she did it.”

As we walked back into our house around eleven thirty, both of us dog tired from a long and stressful day, my daughter and I were laughing pretty hard.  So hard that we woke up my wife.

“What are you two laughing so much about?” she asked.

I explained that the after striking out at Walmart, we made it to Kohl’s where a young Asian woman had given us her forty dollars in Kohl’s cash, essentially purchasing two dresses for our daughter since she could not decide between two.  Moreover, my daughter had suggested that because I was so haggard looking late that night, wearing my favorite well-worn plaid shirt, my tattered jeans, my twenty-five-year-old Bears hat and my “garbage taking out and gardening shoes” inherited from my late father, that I looked like a bum.

In the past I might have found that observation insulting, but I told my daughter that while she was trying on dresses, I was looking at myself in the full-length mirror and thinking the same thing.  That if I did not know any better, I would have thought myself a down-and-out bum judging by my appearance.  Again, I may be a pauper compared to many people who I know, but you should not judge a book by its cover.  I would hardly miss another forty-five bucks out of the twelve grand or so that we’ll probably spend this month.

My daughter told her mother that I looked like a poor single father trying to buy his teenage daughter a dress for the first time late at night, which is partly truthful except that I am decidedly middle class and married.  I reminded our daughter that I told the woman that my wife is a Kohl’s member, but she still noted that my appearance probably led her to give us the Kohl’s cash.

My mother did not raise any dummies and I learned never to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I was and remain grateful for the young woman’s generosity.

My wife agreed that it was an extremely generous gesture and suggested that I seek out an opportunity to pay it forward.  Then we went to sleep, her instantly and me hours later as I dreamed of ways to make more money and wondered about the young lady who gave us the forty dollars.

Four days later, I found myself among a group of six economic development professionals spending an afternoon in an executive conference room interviewing local marketing and branding firms to hire for a joint corridor initiative.  Back in my element and dressed in business casual, the young woman might have had second thoughts about giving me Kohl’s cash had she seen me Monday afternoon.

While driving home from another community’s City Hall, I found myself driving past my family’s favorite donut shop after stopping by Walgreens to purchase several bottles of Martinelli’s for our Thanksgiving party.

There was an older African American gentleman who allowed me to step in front of him to purchase a dozen donuts.  I was very decisive – three pumpkin spice donuts, three apple cider, two coconuts, two mint chocolates and two sour creams.

The total was eleven and some change.  Breaking fifty dollar bills daily now in anticipation of accumulating cash to give my family for their Disney World trip next month, I paid with a fifty and received nearly forty dollars back in change.

I looked at the man who had let me go in front of him for a few moments, wondering what he was doing exactly.  I did not want to be intrusive or offensive in any way, but I did hover about.

After I was given my change, he approached the cashier and asked her to run his card again.  I watched for a few seconds as he tried handing the cashier a BMO Harris Bank debit MasterCard with the Chicago Bulls logo on it.

“I already tried that card,” the cashier explained.

I shook my head, thinking how rough that must be to have your plastic rejected at a donut shop.  That’s when it struck me.

“Excuse me,” I said to the cashier.  “But I’d like to buy this guy his donuts.”

Dumbfounded, like maybe she had never encountered such a situation, she told me that it is the same price as mine, eleven and some change.  I told her that’s fine and handed her a twenty as I noticed that the guy had a cup of coffee and an additional bag with some cookies in it.

“Add the coffee and whatever’s in the bag,” I told her.  She rang it up at $13.65, and I waited for my change.

Like I felt at the Kohl’s late Thursday night, the recipient of the donuts, cookies and coffee was nearly speechless.  He thanked me sincerely and shook my hand with both of his hands and I could feel his deep gratitude at this unexpected generosity.

I shrugged it off, said “enjoy” and headed to my car as if I do something like that every day.  Doing that not only made my day.  It made my entire week.

I imagined him telling his own wife or coworkers or whoever he was sharing the donuts with about how some random guy paid for his purchase on a Monday afternoon after his MasterCard did not work.  Perhaps he’ll hand a few bucks to someone who needs it more than he does soon.

I realize that I am still twenty-six bucks ahead when it comes to random generosity this past week, but there is no statute of limitations on me helping someone out with more cash here and there as opportunities arise.

I just wish that I would have thought of paying for a stranger’s baked goods without that young lady having paid for my daughter’s dresses.  But her generosity is something that definitely took me by surprise and that I will not soon forget and that has now been memorialized on the Middle Class Guy blog.

May we both remember to give thanks and look for those opportunities to pay it forward.



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