The Tale of My Experience Paying it Forward in a Starbucks Drive-Through

I’ll admit it, I was in a foul mood. It was the day of the memorial for my father-in-law. Just being confined to categorizing him as a “father-in-law” demeans the actual relationship. He was my friend. He was the last grandparent to my children. He meant the world to my wife. He was an amazing man. And the world lost him quite suddenly.

I’ve lost both of my parents, I’ve lost a great friend, and I’ve been to far too many funerals for someone who is only 36. But, I must say, unequivocally, the worst part about the first few days of death is anticipating the show of the memorial.

Don’t get me wrong; memorials are essential. We must have a day during which we are all allowed to be as emotional as possible in public after we lose someone. It means a lot to let loose and make each others’ shoulders wet with tears. It means a ton to have permission to let down your guard and say to the world: “I am miserable because of this.” I feel bad when people decide not to have memorials. The catharsis is essential, and intentionally avoiding it feels to me to be akin to condemning the person who died for having died at all.

Nope. We must face it head on when someone dies. Talking about it and publicly acknowledging the loss is the first great step in healing.

But man, walking up to that first step is in and of itself a doozy.

Having someone close to you die is an experience that is miserable, awful, and indescribable. Everything you feel is unlike anything you have felt upon any other day, even if you have already lost someone near and dear to you before. Each death is a different sort of suffering; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But the worst part of death, in many ways, is talking to anyone else about the loss.

As soon as you lose someone that the rest of the public deems to be tragic to your story, no one knows what the hell to say. We just don’t. Death is almost embarrassing in America. No one talks about it, so when we are forced to, we either avoid it, or assault one another with a barrage of cliches: “I’m so sorry for your loss,” “I’m praying for you,” “You are in my heart and thoughts,” and, my personal favorite, “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”

Literally, saying you are sorry to hear about someone dying is saying that you are sorry for yourself for being told that someone else died.

But I don’t blame anyone for saying these things. It’s what we’re given. As a culture, Americans are fairly scripted when it comes to dealing with death. Instead of getting personal, we go scripted. And scripted is comfortable. And that’s okay. Because any real thought given when someone dies results in an inevitable outbreak in tears, snot, distorted facial expressions, and temporary misery.

But that’s what we’re going for when we have memorials. And perhaps that’s why many people avoid them entirely.

Wait…this has all been kinda serious. What in the hell happened to the Starbucks story I was baited into reading?

Ah, you’ve got a point there…

The reason for my rambling above is because my father-in-law, my friend, and just an amazing man had died, and I was busy getting everything together on the morning of his memorial. There was a lot to do. Memorials feels like shitty weddings. They take up the entire day and make you dress in ways you’d never choose to dress and get things together in a rambling, hurried fashion.

I spent the morning of my father-in-law’s memorial running errands and suppressing emotion while corralling my toddler and infant around town. I drank fairly heavily (especially considering the fact that I had decided not to drink several months earlier…something to be covered in future posts) the previous night, so I felt like shit, and the generalized anxiety of the day got to me like only a death in the family could.

As my children are only 3 and 1, they had no idea of the depth of sorrow I was juggling as we bounced around town, preparing everything. I was exhausted, both emotionally and physically, and the company I kept only had the setting of “go faster, daddy!”

So, it was time for Starbucks.

Well, it was time for coffee. Strong coffee. And it was not time to unstrap my children from their carseats and try to manage their curiosities by walking into a caffeine-distributing establishment, it was time to keep everyone in the car while some kind woman in a drive-through window delivered dada some fucking coffee.

So, it was time for Starbucks.

But, goddamn it all, Starbucks drive-through (thru? Is that actually a word now?) had a line that was ten fucking cars long. I decided that it didn’t matter. There was no hurry. It would be hours until the memorial, and I needed the drug, caffeine, delivered to me while I sat in an idle car. And that caffeine could be delivered in quadruple, nay quintuple strength, as long as I didn’t have to move anything other than the minimal flexion/extension capabilities of my right foot in order to get my car to that coveted window where they offer an overpriced chemical jump-start to my overworked and emotional personal constitution. I could wait forever if they had a coffee at the end of the line that I could obtain by using the absolute minimal physical effort.

Oh, and a blueberry muffin. There had to be one of those at the end, too, because my toddler daughter already has specific needs from a Starbucks.

As I waited in the hot sun and the carbon monoxide cloud of idling cars, I had entirely too much time to dwell upon the details swimming through my head about death and memorials, how much my father-in-law meant to me, and the unabridged version of everything I started talking about at the beginning of this post.

Long story short, I was not in a fucking good mood.

Then, a strange sort of magical line of thought began its invasion upon my fragile brain. I started associating a long line at a Starbucks drive-thru (through? Is that still a word?) with a positive aspect of humanity: the ability to give without expecting reciprocation.

Starbucks drive-thruoufhghs (however it’s spelled), earned their own place in popular culture several years ago when a trend of “pay it forward” chains began. I’m not going to treat this event with enough importance by providing exact dates or research as to how the mania started, but I will tell you all that I know about this anomaly of fast-food service on a personal level.

A few years ago, word got out that, if you paid for the car in line after you’s coffee at a Starbucks drive-throoo (sp?), then that person would “pay it forward” by paying for the car behind them, and so on. The hope was that the chain would go on for as long as possible.  Such chains of generosity generated a “phenomenon” for a while in the US, with some “pay it forward” lines lasting as long as nearly 1500 customers. Yup. White people are crazy.

So…it would seem that a nice little string of charity occasionally happens at your local Starbucks drive-thrououough, and, despite the reasons to be skeptical of the actual involvement of generosity in paying for someone else’s drinks/food behind you, as it would be +/- maybe ten dollars of what you actually purchased, and the purchase would inevitably be non-essential (that is, unless you are dealing with enormous emotions surrounding a funeral), it is, essentially, a nice thing to do.

That is, as long as you are the one to start the line of generosity. Only at the beginning of the “pay-it-forward” line is the person being actually altruistic. After the first person, everyone in line is either taking a gain or a loss when the ultimate gift to another stranger is, most likely, a drug to keep them awake.

So…starting a “pay it forward” line at a Starbucks drive-thruuuuugh is akin to charity, yes?

And that’s what I decided, in all of my grieving glory, to do with my bad mood, in order to spin everything I felt into what would ultimately be a positive upon the world.

Actual footage of me helping

I remember the person at the drive-thruph window telling me my total, and when I asked the person’s total behind me, she smiled broadly and said “Their total is $8.35. Are you paying it forward?” Reluctantly, I said, “yes,” and gave her my card.

I remember looking into my rearview mirror at the person in the car behind me, seeing her fiddling with her makeup, and assuming in all my acute grief she had the best life in the world. I assumed that whatever her day was doing to her was most likely a million times better than what was happening in mine. For all I knew, she was enjoying a Starbucks before she went to donate one of her kidneys to a homeless person, but somehow I doubted it. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t have assumed that her day was fine.

I did so anyway. I was in a foul mood, and I had no intention of doing anything other than expressing my foul mood, and somehow buying this woman’s Starbucks made her an easy target for my malice, despite the generosity I had just extended toward her.

I’ll admit, buying her coffee made me feel good. At first.

Then I realized the fact that the only reason I did it was because of the pretentiousness involved in a “pay it forward” chain at a fast food service providing a drug to the masses.

So, despite the warm fuzzies I felt in doing something nice for a stranger, I still felt conflicted. I was still in mourning, having extreme anxiety, and generally feeling like I needed to express myself in a more forward manner than buying the coffee of the stranger in a car behind me at a Starbucks.

But, I will admit, I felt good as I drove away having spent nearly $10 more than I had to on coffee products. Yet, I knew that feeling would be temporary, and I needed a happiness that would last longer.

Lucky for me, the exit line for this particular Starbucks snaked around in such a manner that the person who just exited the drive-threw line can look straight at the next person at the window before they exit.

I watched the woman behind me as I pulled away, essential coffee in hand. I saw her hand her card to the cashier in the window. I watched as she pulled her card away a few inches as it was explained that I had paid for her order. I even saw the cashier point at my car as she said as much. I can only assume that the cashier asked the woman if she wanted to pay for the car behind her and keep the chain going.

I will tell you that she probably did not. How do I know this? Because I remember my mother. I remember comedy. I used the instinct of my heritage and I did the only thing I could do to cheer me up in the face of trying to drug myself into acceptance of how shitty a day I was about to have.

I saw the cashier point to my car to let the driver know who paid for their order.

I watched as the driver turned to me and smiled and waved.

I watched as, I swear it was somehow involuntary, my left hand moved upward in a fist…and extended a middle finger toward the woman whose Starbucks I had just paid for. I did it with an ear-to-ear smile, just like my mother would have a stranger.

Yup, I paid for a woman’s Starbucks and then flipped her off with an ear-to-ear smile.

In truth, I felt no malice toward the woman behind me in line, obviously. I swear I saw her nervously laugh after I gave her the finger. It was the irony of the situation that allowed flipping the bird to have any humor at all. We were in a line in our cars, waiting for premium coffee. We all owned or leased cars. Anyone in a drive-thrrreough line at a Starbucks should naturally feel as though life hasn’t been so bad to them, which is why it is ridiculous that the most famous “pay-it-forward” line is at such an establishment. I mean, literally no one idles their car in a Starbucks drive-froo worrying about what they can afford or what tomorrow will bring.

So, in an effort to feel generous to counteract my foul mood, I tried to start a “pay it forward” chain at a Starbucks on the day of my father-in-law’s memorial. In order to accurately express my true emotions, I flipped off the person whose order I paid for, but I did so with the biggest smile I could, and my children in the backseat couldn’t see what I did at all.

blissfully unaware.

And though I saw the woman’s smile at knowing I had bought her order fall into the dropped-jaw state of being unexpectedly flipped off with a grin by the same person, I somehow know that life will go on, despite evil people like me being out there, dealing with their grief in such strangely cathartic ways.

Apologies if you are the woman who received the middle finger in question. I swear I only did it to make myself laugh, and never once thought anything poorly about you at all.

And apologies to the person in line after her. You might have gotten free Starbucks, but I (although I didn’t plan it this way) paid for the right to flip off the person ahead of you. Under normal circumstances without grief involved, you might have had your order paid for, and perhaps would have felt compelled to pay for whatever macchiatos were ordered by the occupants of the SUV behind you.

Long story short, I started and then promptly fucked up a “pay it forward” Starbucks line. It doesn’t really mean anything.

But it definitely means that, the next time I find out the person ahead of me in a Starbucks drive-throughough paid for my order, I can feel free to keep that gift and not pay for the person behind me. I started one of those once, and although I gave the finger to the person I paid for, that still gives me the right to finish the “pay it forward” line the next time it happens to me.

Yes, I will be that guy.

I am the resistance. Fear me.


  1. I can say that someone once paid for mine and it made my day. That Trenta Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew Coffee was the best coffee I had ever tasted. I did pay for the person behind me too, making myself feel like I made a difference. I made a difference on the struggling driver in the Starbucks line.

    Liked by 1 person

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