By Justin Rossow
Of course the hood on his sweatshirt is up: the young African American man in the Walgreens line in front of me looks like he is doing his best to fit a stereotype. Late teens, early twenties; jeans below the hip; six inches of stylish boxers showing above a wide, leather belt; gold-capped tooth; impatiently playing with a dollar bill and a handful of loose change; hood pulled up.
Everything about him makes my brain say, “Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger.”
I hate that about my brain.
Maybe that’s why, when the white man in front of us finally gets his question answered and wanders back toward aisle three, I ask if I can add the thug’s only item, a 16 oz. Coke, to my bill.
Or maybe he seems like he’s in a hurry and I am, too, and checking out one customer is twice as fast as checking out two.
Or maybe it’s the Spirit of Jesus.
Or maybe all of the above.
“Can I buy your Coke?” I ask as he approaches the cashier.
“Sure!” He smiles from behind the hood, showing off the gold.
But he doesn’t take the large drink and go away, like I expect. He shuffles around a little bit and pulls something out of his pocket. I change my mind: he’s closer to 17 than 21.
The young man smiles almost timidly at the cashier and at me and shakes his head: “I just bought this,” he says. He shows us both a bright red clown nose; a charity fundraiser.
He’s amused at the thought: “It was the same price as the Coke. I just bought this for charity. And then you buy my Coke.” He smiles and shakes his head again. “Pay it forward.”
He takes the bright red Coke can and slips it into the front pocket of his sweatshirt along with the bright red clown nose.
But he doesn’t leave. He hovers at the head of the line as I produce my wallet and credit card, and the cashier rings me out, and I swipe and sign, and the receipt gets printed, torn, and stuffed into the nearest bag.
It’s almost awkward. What’s he waiting for?
Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger.
With a bright red clown nose for charity?
He moves to walk out with me, but we stop just in front of the bright red automatic Walgreens doors. He steps in front of me and, turning, looks me in the eye for the first time.
He offers me his hand, which I shake. His palm is smooth and cool; his fingers are long and thin; his grip is firm, but almost tender.
I was wrong. He can’t be any older than 17. Maybe even 16. He’s probably in high school. My daughter starts high school in the fall.
“Thank you,” he says simply. We shake on a Coke and a promise of hope for the future and a world in which you give and receive generously and freely.
And then my friend turns and disappears out the automatic doors.
I’m standing in a Walgreens 7.7 miles from Ferguson, MO, holding a bag of decongestant. And the world is changed.