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Frank Gray


Runaway pay-it-forward frenzies seem self-serving

Last week, a story came out about how the people in a drive-thru at a Florida Starbucks spontaneously broke into a pay-it-forward frenzy.

One person, who was apparently having a good day, offered to pay for the order of the stranger in the car next in line.

The subject of that act of kindness, maybe feeling guilty, maybe feeling a need to do something nice for someone in response, paid for the order of the next person in line.

And on and on it went. Whatever you ordered you got for free, but you got stuck paying the tab of the guy behind you.

By the time it was over, more than 400 people had paid it forward until one customer declined to keep the chain unbroken and went ahead and paid her tab, which, when you think about it, means that Starbucks came out ahead because the shop got paid twice for her cup of coffee.

How cute, I thought, but at the same time, that’s crazy.

Sure, it’s a kind gesture to, on impulse, buy someone breakfast or lunch. But I can’t help but wonder, who benefited? There were doubtlessly some people who got their order for a bargain price and others who had to pay a lot more than their order cost.

But did anyone come away with something they needed that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?

That’s what strikes me as almost frivolous about that particular outbreak of runaway generosity. Does anyone in the drive-thru at a Starbucks really need charity?

This is where paying it forward, to me, becomes a way to feel as though you are accomplishing something when, if you stop and think about it, you really aren’t.

Have you ever had someone tap on your window while you’re in line at a drive-thru and ask for money? It’s scary. It’s also irritating when it happens before you’ve even had your morning coffee.

Or have you ever had anyone ask you to buy them something to eat or a cup of coffee as you are walking into a fast-food restaurant? It infuriates some, and the management will chase these people away as soon as they realize it’s happening.

Most of us dismiss these people out of hand. People don’t seem to like it when people ask for help. In part that’s because people don’t want to be suckered. No one wants to give a couple of bucks to someone for a sandwich when they know it might for a bottle of wine or booze.

That’s why I’ve actually toyed with the idea of buying cheap gift cards to fast-food restaurants so when someone asks for coffee or a sandwich, I can just flip them one of those. I’ve only done it once, a long time ago, but if I ever feel the need to feel generous, I can always do it again.

But the notion of runaway pay-it-forward lines strikes me as ridiculous. To me, it’s just a way for people to feel good about themselves without having to actually deal with real people who would appreciate a little help.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about getting caught in one of these pay-it-forward frenzies. I don’t use drive-thru windows. It wastes gas.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.