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Random act

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It was the middle of my workday and I was running errands at lunchtime. I stopped by the drugstore to pick up a prescription, hoping to cross off one more "to do" item from my list. There were a lot of people ahead of me at the pharmacy.

As I stood in line, I realized it was not that there were so many people in front of me as much as one man. One small, old man who took up a lot of space. He looked diminutive and fragile. Hunched over, his long shocks of gray hair fell down his back. His mismatched and patched clothes drew attention from his weathered face. His odor kept everyone around him at a distance.

But it was the fact that he was straddling his blue bike that caught my attention. He had brought his bike into the store and clung to it for dear life. I started in with the assumptions: He must be homeless; he can't afford a bike lock; maybe he's off balance mentally. Homeless and crazy, I thought, and braced for a scene.

The cashier came to the counter and told him his prescription was ready. "That will be $9, please." The old man gave him all the money he had in his hand. I could see it was only $3. The cashier came back with, "That will be $9." The old man did not understand.

The cashier tried another approach. "I need six more dollars." The old man shook his head. He did not understand.

One of the pharmacists busily sorting drugs looked up from her perch, took a $10 bill out of her pocket and handed it to the cashier. No words were exchanged. The pharmacists shared a private glance and the old man was oblivious. He was handed his medicine, mumbled belligerently about needing a bag, and then he rode off.

Did they know him? Was he a regular customer? Did they have some secret knowledge about his prescription—a life or death matter, perhaps? Or was this simply an act of kindness?

I came home from work that night and told my children the events of the day. I expected them to be pleased that I had an interesting story to tell. They, too, surprised me. "Mom, why didn't you pay for the man yourself?"

The truth is I had never considered it. I had never considered that this would be anything more than a difficult scene with a homeless man, ending with yelling, craziness and security guards.

I was wrong. I now realize that the details of what happened don't matter. What matters is that I did witness this unexpected moment and it upset all of my assumptions and shook me out of the comfort zone of my busy day. Its extraordinariness was, for me, a random act of kindness.

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