Parking Meter
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Paying it Forward in a Post-Parking-Meter World

Recently I was running a particularly soul-sucking round of errands and parked my car in a metered spot. I paid for the meter's maximum amount of two hours, but my errand only took half an hour. Now, usually I would have been happy to leave a meter with time left in it and, particularly on a bothersome day, would even add quarters for the next person. It's largely selfish, really, because then the rest of my soul-sucking errands are cheered a bit by the thought that maybe I made someone else's soul-sucking errands a tiny bit less soul-sucking. But guess what?

My city has made the switch to muni-meters—those robotic-looking machines where you pay on a credit card and receive a receipt that you then place on your dashboard. Good news if you've run out of quarters, but terrible news for the parking meter pay-it-forward phenomenon. I actually hung around for a minute to see if someone else would park there so I could hand them my time-stamped receipt. Alas, no one did, and my extra $1.50 slipped right past would-be parkers and into the pocket of the city council—or whoever it is. This does nothing for my soul-sucking errands. Next stop, drug store. Sigh.

And you know what? It's the same on the freeway: I have a friend who used to always pay for the toll of the car behind her but admits that since she's switched to the automated E-ZPass, she's abandoned the practice, whizzing through as a laser anonymously zeeps her toll-paying pass. Not to get too Andy Rooney here, but these days, even doors open themselves! How's a person supposed to perform a daily act of paying it forward if the world's going to be so darn automated?

Well, here are a few ideas for performing small acts of kindness in today's world of the future: Or you could always do something crazy-analog like, I don't know, help a little old lady crossing the street.

Reason #437 to Love Complete Strangers: Kmart Layaway Angels

In December, in an effort to diversify our holiday-related vegging-out, my husband and I enjoyed that forgotten favorite, A Holiday Affair. In this curious film, an unemployed Robert Mitchum buys a widow's son a toy train, which turns out to be more than just a generous gesture, but indeed a true show of character.

I was reminded of this when I read about anonymous donors who paid off other peoples' Kmart layaway balances all across the country. According to an AP article, a mysterious woman paid off a struggling father's Christmas gifts at an Indianapolis Kmart. And Kmart customers across the Midwest received calls telling them someone had paid off their layaway balances, which meant they were able to take their purchases home before the holidays. "It was like an angel fell out of the sky and appeared in our store," said one 40-year-old Kmart employee. A nurse whose child's Christmas present were anonymously paid for said, "It made me believe in Christmas again."

Best of all, one recipient said she planned to pay it forward by taking care of someone else's layaway balance—keeping the cycle of giving. And that, as Robert Mitchum and Santa alike can attest, is the real spirit of the season.

Next: A 60-person chain of kidneys and kindness

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