Pay It Forward

By Crystal Chan | December 2, 2016


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There’s tremendous power in giving. When writer Crystal Chan was the beneficiary of kindness in an unlikely place – Chicago traffic – she found a way to repay that kindness by giving to someone else.

One day, I was driving in Chicago and was horribly lost. I had no smart phone, no map, and was on the south side of the city. There was nowhere to ask for directions. It was the beginning of rush hour, and I was desperate.

I came to a stop at a thick intersection: five lanes of cars were all stopped at the red light. I rolled down my window.

“Excuse me!” I shouted to the lady in the car next to me. She suspiciously rolled down her window. “How do I get to Highway 55?”

She gave me a look. “Highway 55? You’re going in the opposite direction!”

As she was giving me directions, the light turned green, and the long trail of cars crawled forward. I knew I was going to lose her – my lifeline.

“I’ll pull my car in front of you: follow behind me,” she shouted. “I’ll drive you there.”

My jaw fell open. I’d had people give me directions before, but never, ever had anyone been so kind as to actually drive me there.

But she did. She drove me over ten miles through rush hour traffic to help a stranger get to the right highway. She was black. I am not. That didn’t make a difference. The only thing that mattered was the kindness of the heart.

I was utterly floored and frustrated: I could never repay her for her kindness. So that day I decided that I would pay it forward – and an image popped into my mind of a group of teenagers at a restaurant. Not one teenager, not two: it had to be a group, and I decided I would pay their bill. I wasn’t sure when that would happen, but I was on the lookout.

Two months later, my mom and I were driving to Oshkosh on Highway 45. We stopped for breakfast in West Bend, and in the booth right behind us was a table of five teenagers. This is it, I thought. This is my opportunity. I flagged down their waitress and asked for their bill. The teens were talking and didn’t notice anything. About fifteen minutes later, their table got eerily quiet, and all five of them were peering around: Who was it?

One of the girls caught my eye, and I told them it was me. The five of them stared. “Why did you do that?” one asked.

“I have something to tell you,” I said, and I told them the story of my angel on the highway, of the woman who helped me out and her ridiculous kindness. Those teens listened, wide-eyed, their hearts open. The waitress stood next to me, listening to the story.

After they left, the waitress came up to me and said, “That was really nice what you did. I know those kids – they’re really rough, get into trouble a lot. I don’t know how you knew, but that was the perfect table for you to choose to do that to. The perfect story to tell.”

As the waitress spoke those words, my mom’s eyes welled with tears and so did mine. It was one of those rare moments that you get a glimpse of something bigger, some interconnectedness that is so much more intertwined that you could ever imagine.

As we were leaving, my mom told me she’d overheard one of the boys say to another, “Great. Now I’m going to have to be nice to someone.”

Mom and I both grinned.




Crystal Chan

Crystal Chan

Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has given talks and workshops across...
2018-01-19T17:53:08-06:00Tags: , , |

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