Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Boy and a Dollar

He was small, with a pale freckly face, messy straw-colored hair, and dark circles under his eyes. He was wearing a coat that was a little too big for him, maybe a hand-me-down from an older brother. It was stringy-ragged-soggy on one side of the collar, from days of anxious chewing.

He was only tall enough to smile up at me over the edge of the counter. There was nobody in line behind him.

I greeted him, and rang up the small toy he'd put on the turntable. The total was $1.69.

He worked his hand inside his big pocket, pulled out handful of crumpled money, and handed it to me. It was folded up in a way that gave me hope it was enough. But when I unfolded it and smoothed it out, it was only a single $1.00 bill.

"Is it enough?" said the kid.

I started to get that feeling that I got the first time I ever went to an animal shelter.

"You'll need a little more," I said, trying to sound encouraging. "Do you have a few more cents?"

He felt around in his pocket, and bit his lip.

"No..." he said.

Oh... kid...

"Is your mom around?"

He shook his head. Dangit. Sometimes you can count on the mom to help their kids out with the extra. But mom wasn't there. He'd probably walked to the grocery store. I was glad it was a semi-nice day, that there was no snow and that the wind was calmer than normal.

Thing is, a couple days before, the same kid had come through my line with a $10.00 bill and this ecstatic look on his face.

"It's my birthday!" he said. "It's my birthday and I got TEN DOLLARS!"

He'd bought a couple of toys then. They were cheap toys, grocery store toys, but when you're a kid, grocery store toys are awesome. 

I was probably the one who'd given him that dollar bill in change, wishing him a happy birthday.

So here's this kid, quiet little smiley kid, with a raggedy-collared coat, looking up at me with these eyes like a puppy in a cardboard box. Sixty nine cents short of this toy that he'd probably thought about a couple of days before, and hoped he could come back for.

I wanted to help him. I wanted to just reach into my pocket, yank out a dollar bill, take care of it, let him go on his way. He had to be younger than my youngest brother. He didn't understand taxes, he probably was still at the level where you only see the first number on the price tag and think that's all there is to it. 

"Do you have some more at home?" I asked him, hoping that he would say yes. He'd walked to the store, obviously - parental non-presence testifying to that. Maybe he could walk home and get it. It probably wasn't far.

He kind of shrugged. "Yeah... I could... I could get it."

I couldn't tell if he really did have it at home, or if he was just saying that. Adults do the same thing - we ring up their groceries, they slide their card. Transaction denied, 'oh, well, darn, I left my other card at home... I'll be back in five minutes, okay?' and then we wait, and wait, and finally the manager says 'Take the milk back to the cooler at least...' and we wait some more... and finally, we just put back all their groceries, because we know that they aren't coming back.

But, that doesn't happen every time. And you gotta trust people. Sometimes people really did forget their other card.

"Do you want to go and get it?" I asked. "I could hold this for you."

"Yeah..." he said.

I set aside the toy, safe in my checkstand. Nobody would be putting it away until I was darn sure the kid wasn't coming back.

The kid hadn't moved.

"I think I'll..." he said. "I'll... can I just, not get it? Get something else? Is that okay?"

I nodded. "Yep, that's okay, if you want to do that instead."

"Is that okay?"

"Yeah, bud. That's okay."

If it had been food... or if it had just been a few cents from sales tax... or if he hadn't come through my check stand before with that ten dollars... I would have made up the difference for him then. I had way more than enough cash on me. He didn't have the money at home. Who was I kidding?

But... I wanted to do more for him than just hand him money. And something just didn't feel right about tossing money at this kid, who probably wouldn't have much money tossed at him in his life.

He took the toy he'd brought up and walked over to the toy section, which is right next to the cash registers, right where little kids will see it when their moms are checking out of the store. I watched him as he looked them over again.

He came back. "What's 69 plus 69?"

"138," I said. $1.38.That still wasn't enough, even without sales tax. I tried to explain it to him.

"Well, what, what can I buy?" he asked.

A couple people set their items on the checkstand.

"Tell you what," I said, looking him in the eye. "Let me help these people, and I'll come and help you."

He nodded.

I quickly rang up the people's purchases. They were smiling at the boy. They probably had kids too. Probably remembered their own experiences being a little kid with a little money.

After they paid and left, he and I walked over to the toy section. He was chewing on his jacket collar. I had my hands in my apron pockets.

There were a couple of other kids there by now, picking out toys. Their mom was nearby.

I tried to explain sales tax, and how much a dollar was. Just facts. Not anything deep, nothing like the lectures my dad used to give about money whenever we went shopping with him. Just the mathematics, one or two principles of purchase. There wasn't time for more, and it wasn't my place to try to fill in for his dad. Only to be a friend for a little bit, a friendly, twenty-something cashier, who isn't even that good with his own money.

He ended up settling with a box of poppers, those little things twisted in thin paper that you throw at the ground to make them snap and spark. He didn't even know what they were, but he knew that they were less than a dollar.

I think, maybe, that he just wanted to spend the money for the thrill of spending it. :) You know how it is. But it was his own money he was spending.

I rang it up for him. I was glad to hand him change. A quarter and three pennies, which he took along with the receipt.

"Take care, okay bud?" I said, wishing I could walk him home, make sure he made it okay.

"Thank you," he said.

Nice kid.

"You're welcome," I said.

I watched him go, and wondered if I did the right thing. 

I hope that his walk to the grocery store was a short one, and I hope that maybe he has a bike, or better yet that his mom will - or maybe can - go with him next time, because it's a nasty, cold world out there for a little kid with only a dollar in his pocket.

I have no idea if he internalized any of the experience. He likely won't remember any of it. In the grand scheme of things, what I did - or didn't do - probably won't matter. It was only a toy.

What I wanted to do, on the other hand... well, maybe that mattered.

I don't know. Something to think about.


  1. So often, we adults see a kid who can't do something because of lack of money or some other reason. Sure, we could just give them the money, but what they really need is the learning experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Timothy. :) Sometimes grown-ups need that experience too.