A Randomly Kind Sort of Highwayman

Several years ago, I read an essay on these pages about "Practicing the Art of Guerrilla Goodness," which made reference to author Anne Herbert's phrase "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker.

One random kind act the essay's author suggested was to pay for another's toll.

So, for several years I've occasionally done just that. Pulling up to the tollbooth, I'll tell the collector, "I'd like to pay for the car behind me."

It's fun to look in the rearview mirror and see the toll collector waving the free ride through like a presidential motorcade. Sometimes, though, the recipient of my kindness refuses to budge and lingers in the lane. Is the driver debating with the toll-taker? Demanding to pay? Is a van filled with commuters unable to pass "go" unless its toll credit card is swiped?

I told a friend about this, and he said, "I'd like to be behind you!" One toll collector reacted to my request by exclaiming, "You've got to be kidding!" a smile wrapped around his Jamaican lilt. I've received thumbs-up from businessmen.

Once I paid a woman's toll. By the time I reached the next booth, she had maneuvered her car to slip in ahead of me and pay mine.

An aspect of humility is to do something for someone else and not take credit. So most times I'll pay the toll and go my merry way, not looking to my left as the recipients of my small largess pass me on the highway.

One time, despite repeated honks and waving from a passing Volvo, I refused to look. Some 30 minutes later, I was parking in front of my studio when the Volvo's owner jumped out of her car. "Thank you for paying my toll!" she exclaimed, eyes sparkling, as several strapped-in kids watched from her idling auto. "That was really nice. I know that whatever you do with your life, you are going to go far."

Sometimes I'd be brimming with kindness and slow down into my toll chute but no car would pull in behind me. Another time, I pulled in, saw a car approaching in my rearview mirror, and casually told the taker, "I'd like to pay for the car behind me." He gave me a "Sure, pal, whatever you say, " look.

Accelerating out of the gate, I wondered about the possible deleterious effects of working in a space twice the size of a phone booth. To my chagrin, a glance in the rearview mirror revealed that my intended recipient had swerved to another lane. No wonder the guy had thought I was nuts: There was no one behind me!

ONE morning, the driver in front of me had no money. I surmised this from the delay and the exchange of paperwork, the driver signing a solemn pledge to send in 50 cents. I pulled up and gave a cheery, "I'd like to pay for the car behind me."

"What about the car in front of you?" growled the teed-off toll-taker. I've since wondered which driver's toll I paid for.

The toll collectors often want a reason for my action. One might say "Oh, yeah - happy Friday!" Or another, "Oh, I see - happy holiday!" on Memorial Day, for instance. I have felt compelled by the toll-takers' implied question to give a rationale for what I do. So I've strayed from my reasonless request and used one of the collectors' suggestions.

A few months back, however, I reverted to my original statement: "I'd like to pay for the car behind me."

"Oh," the toll collector said, "practicing a random act of kindness?" Her question is my cue that I need to find a new form of kindness to randomly act upon. Or perhaps I need to figure out how to create senseless beauty. Any ideas?

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