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Not so long ago, I was driving with a friend from Berkeley to Marin County. I waited patiently to pay my toll; I'd let my FasTrak account expire, so I needed to pay cash, the old fashioned way.
As I pulled up at the booth and handed over the money, the toll taker waved my cash away. You don't need to pay, he said. Those people, in front of you, they paid for you.
Surely there was some mistake, I remonstrated. I wasn't driving in a caravan. There wasn't anybody up ahead of me who might have paid for me.
"Are you sure they paid for me?," I wondered to myself as I sat there. The toll taker was impatient and urged me to drive on.
My first thought was that someone I know must have passed me on the road and they were doing me a good turn, a nice way to say hello. I raced ahead, trying to figure out who it might have been. I peered carefully at each car, looking to see which of my friends or colleagues had kindly paid my toll for me. I started to feel a bit irritated. Why hadn't they slowed down so I could figure out to whom I owed my thanks?
Then I realized — my passenger was a woman. Surely someone was doing the automotive equivalent of buying her a drink.
But that didn't make any sense. She was in a car with me. And she wasn't driving. And, anyway, people don't buy strangers drinks without hoping at least for the chance of a smile and eye contact.
I was so wrapped up in my musings that I missed our exit and ended up driving a good 10 miles before I realized we were lost.
And that's when it hit me: A stranger had paid my toll for me.
And what's more, he or she had done it for no good reason. Or rather, she or he did it for no other reason than to, as the phrase goes, "pay it forward."
I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. Once the reality set in — that I'd been the target of a random act of kindness — I could not stop smiling. I felt so happy. So grateful. I felt blessed. I felt as if I were part of a community. A secret community of kind people. I'd been selected. I'd been inducted.
Some weeks later, I was driving with my boys and we approached the toll plaza at the Bay Bridge. Cars changed lines repeatedly, cutting each other off, jockeying for position. I formed an intention: If that mini-van behind us — a man and woman up front, two kids in the back — stays put in my lane, I'll pay their toll. I explained my plan to the kids. They were confused. Why would I do that? I explained what had happened to me. They were excited.
That's when I realized I'd made a mistake sharing my plan with the kids. I'd given myself an audience and that made my intentions somehow less pure. As if I were doing it so that I could feel good, or we could feel good, or, even worse, so that I'd look good in the eyes of my kids. What's more, now the kids couldn't stop looking back. After we went through — I paid the mini-van's toll as well as my own — my kids kept looking to the car to see their reaction to what we'd done.
So, now a toll was being exacted from the other vehicle after all. My kids and I were letting them know that we had done them a random act of kindness and we expected or hoped for or waited on their reaction. We took pleasure not in doing them a good turn but in, in effect, getting thanked for it. We intruded on their privacy.
What was so cool about my own experience on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is that my gift had been free. And if I'd incurred a debt, it wasn't to anyone. It was to everyone.
There have been long-stretches of pay-it-forward — like one in August when someone started an 11-hour-long chain of buying a drink for the car behind them at a Florida Starbucks drive-thru. The first act of kindness was random, though the others were inspired by the first.
I wonder how often random acts of kindness happen. Have you ever been the "victim" of an anonymous act of generosity?
You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe