Saturday, December 10, 2011
A 75 cent random act of kindess can make for a Merry Christmas.
It had been years since I had been home to Orlando. My family gathers each year, the Saturday before Christmas, at a cousin's home north of my home town, but since I lived with my husband and children on the other side of the country, we were never able to make it to the annual family get together. When we moved back to the South, we decided one year to head to Central Florida to celebrate the holidays.
After driving all day through the rural South, we crossed the Florida border. How I'd missed the Live Oaks draped with eerie boas of Spanish Moss, stately palms with their crowns of fronds, the snouts and eyebrows of gators keeping cool just below the surface of the many lakes we'd cruise past before reaching my Grandmother's house where we would be staying.
By the time we were on the outskirts of The City Beautiful, however, I was feeling less welcome by the number of toll booths we were required to pass through just to use the highway, and even to exit when the time came. I had listened to my father complain for years, while I was growing up, that the tolls had been set up before I was born to pay for the extensive road system and that the tolls collected since the system's establishment could have paid for ten times the amount of concrete and steel that had been laid for their construction. Rather than the tolls being eliminated, the price to drive a vehicle on Central Florida expressways had gone up. The money paid by commuters and weary travelers was now only used to "line someone's pockets", as Dad put it. This made it more difficult for my husband to shell out that $.75 cents at each stop along the road that took me closer to home, albeit much quicker than it would have been to criss cross half of Florida on the small rural roads that lie beneath the toll roads.
We were nearing the end stretch, soon to be jettisoned off the ramp into the familiar territory that edged my home town, when we were forced to slow down for yet another toll booth. How much money did the toll system generate annually, anyway?! I imagined some pompous, overstuffed, politician sitting behind his desk somewhere in Tallahassee, smoking a fat cigar while adding up tolls on an old hand crank calculating machine.
Just as we neared the pavilion, a car shot past us to enter it before we could. This always makes my husband's day, impatient drivers who have to get one car ahead. What did it matter on a Friday evening? Hot date? Racing someone to the E.R., maybe?
When we pulled up to the toll booth window, the woman who would take our payment pointed down the road and said, "He got it for you." We were confused. She clarified, saying that the man in front of us had paid our toll. We sat there longer than it would have taken to pay the toll twice and be on our way, just staring at her. She smirked, seeing how surprised we were by such a random act of kindness, and said, "Merry Christmas." My husband thanked her and wished her a merry Christmas as well before continuing down the toll lane.
We were dumbfounded. It was only 75 cents, but such an unexpected gift. And to think that we were annoyed with the driver of that vehicle for speeding past us to reach the toll booth first. He was acting out of kindness, maybe because he saw that we had out of state plates, and it was the most welcoming gesture. He didn't know that we weren't just some tourists lost in a web of arcing highways and brightly lit toll booths on our way to Daytona Beach or our first trip to Disney World. Our kind benefactor wasn't aware that I would be sleeping that night tucked beneath sheets in a bed that rested in the upstairs portion of a home that my father designed and helped build when he was only 18 years of age. A home that sat beside the school I had grown up in, on property that bordered a forest where my other grandmother's home was built just after WWII when she immigrated with her Army sergeant husband. There is no way he could have known how lost I felt, having been away for so long, only to return and see so many changes had occurred.
I assume that he meant to say, "Welcome to Florida. Merry Christmas and have a great vacation!", by paying our toll for us, but what his act said to me was, "Welcome home. See? Things may have changed, but you are still welcome here. This is still your home." Or maybe it was a kind habit of his to do this all the time. Maybe he paid too much and was actually in a hurry and told the toll booth operator to keep the change and she paid our toll with it. I don't care. And I don't care that it was a gift of less than a dollar. It was worth millions to me and my family and I'll never forget it.
Posted by Small Town Hoe'r at 6:31 AM