Drive Through Ditch

Photo by David Castillo Dominici,

Photo by David Castillo Dominici,

The golden rule has always seemed a little selfish to me.

I love to do things for other people in part because there’s a buzz I get when I do volunteer work, for example, that makes me feel good about myself. It’s not selfless at all. It’s intentional kindness and I always feel like I get just as much out of it when I volunteer or do something nice as the people I’m trying to help–maybe even more.

But this time I wanted to try to be randomly kind and anonymous.

I sometimes tell my son, it’s easy to do a nice thing when adults are watching, but you show your true character when you do a nice thing and no one’s watching. It was time for me to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, and do some nice things for other people without getting anything in return.

But what could I do? There are almost no parking meters for me to feed in my town and besides; I read somewhere that it’s illegal to put money in someone else’s parking meter. Go figure. When I helpfully tried to gather up the stray grocery carts in the Ralph’s Supermarket parking lot, the box boy on duty accused me of “trying to put him out of work.” So much for that idea.

This anonymous do-gooderness was getting to be frustrating. I couldn’t catch a break trying to give someone a break.

Then I saw this thing on the news, where the drive though Starbucks in Loveland, Colorado reported that a customer wanted to pay for her own drink and also buy one for the person in the car behind her. That person then passed on the gift to the next car and on and on, cycling through 109 cars in a row, each willing to pass on the freebie to the next person. Like ding dong ditch, only the opposite. Drive through ditch, where you leave something good for the next person instead of leaving a bag of dog poop on their doorstep. I loved that idea!

Unfortunately there’s no drive-through Starbuck’s where I live, and there’s always a line, so no chance for me to buy someone’s morning coffee anonymously. But we do have a drive through McDonald’s, so I decided to buy my coffee there the next day and drive through ditch the person behind me.

I looked nervously through my rear view mirror at the elderly man in the big white car. He looked sort of grumpy, but hopefully my gesture would put a smile on his face. The brown-capped McDonald’s girl who took my money looked confused–after all, it was 8 a.m. and she probably hadn’t had her coffee yet either–but she eventually understood me after I repeated myself three times and included some hand signals.

I drove away quickly, as I imagined the man in the white car with a smile on his face.

Later that day I drove through the Carl’s Junior line, this time for a Diet Coke, and I only had to tell the guy working twice that “I’m doing a drive through ditch” meant I wanted to buy the person behind me lunch. There was no one behind me yet, which confused him a bit, but I was less nervous that time, so I think I explained myself a little better.

Again, I drove away quickly, fantasizing about the harried mom or cash-strapped teenage boy who would drive through next and receive my drive through ditch gift.

I got my caffeine fixes–and my drive through kindness attempts–a few more times that week at various drive through windows, always anonymously.

It was a slow news week, and every morning I half expected to see a headline about the random acts of kindness that were popping up at drive through windows around town. Nope, nada, nothing. Not even a passed on story from a friend about how some nice person had treated her to coffee in the drive through.

By my tenth attempt at a random act of kindness in the drive through line I started to wonder–how could this not be catching on? Were the people in snowy Loveland, Colorado more gracious than those in my sunny hometown of Santa Barbara, California? It was hard for me to believe. Still I continued with my drive through ditches in the lines at In and Out Burger, Jack and the Box and even Burger King. Still, it didn’t seem to be catching on.

I swore off fast food for a while and had almost forgotten about my drive through ditches until this week, when I found myself in a drive through line once again. I pulled out a twenty and told the guy to buy the person behind me lunch with the change. This time I didn’t even glance in the rear view mirror to check out who would be the recipient this time. I drove away smiling and teary-eyed and feeling better than I had in a long time. Who cares if drive through ditches aren’t catching on the way I thought they would? It’s a nice thing to do anyway, and wasn’t that the point?

Later that day when I picked up my son from school, one of the moms had a big grin on her face. She told me a story about how someone had treated her to coffee that morning in the drive through line. “What a great idea,” I said, with a great big, anonymous, not-so-selfless smile on my face. “I’ll have to do that for someone sometime.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on November 28, 2008.