Here’s an audio version of this post
Last night, I was part of a group of a dozen or so who got together for the noble purpose of an all-you-can-eat ribs special at a downtown bar and grill. The carnage was well underway, beginning to subside in fact: jokes flew, ideas got passed around, beer flowed, people wandered up and down the table to talk to friends. Around the time when bills might start to appear, our server told us that two gentlemen from another table had, just before leaving, paid the tab for our entire table. 12 Out of the 13 people at our table were blind or visually impaired, which had to be the catalyst for this shocking act of generosity. An extremely rough calculation suggests to me that these fellows must have laid down around $700; they’d included the gratuity as well.
We all sat in stunned silence. What do you do with a random act of anonymous generosity that you can neither politely decline, nor graciously offer thanks for? Of course the simple answer we all agreed on was: pass it on, and we will. You may be familiar with the phenomenon of paying for the order of the person behind you in a drive-through line as an anonymous act of kindness. I’ve experienced this before, and love the concept. This was different though, both in scale and motive. Everyone at our table is employed, or in school with good employment prospects. Obviously we could afford the extravagance of an all-you-can-eat meat fest or we wouldn’t have been there. I know that, in that moment of stunned silence, each of us thought, “That’s huge, but I don’t really need charity because I’m blind.”
Most blind people I know have, at least once, been confronted with the stranger on the street who wants to give us money. I’ve learned to offer only token resistance to this. To us, blindness is just ho-hum, everyday life, but I get that for some people it’s an unimaginable prison, or at least a terrifying devastation. They want to offer compassion, make a connection, or alleviate the stab of conscience they feel for being able-bodied, and for sometimes finding their own lives burdensome. Money is a symbol. It’s also extremely useful. Statistically, blind people are shockingly under-employed, and we rate near the bottom of the income scale relative to other disabilities. I’ve always barely scraped by, so if someone’s conscience is alleviated by giving me money I’ll take it. The only time it really bothers me is when it’s done wordlessly: money thrust into my hand by someone who’s so afraid of me and my life that they can’t even make the human connection of talking to me; but I’m not so fastidious that I refuse.
What happened last night was more complex. These gentlemen could see that we could afford a dinner out. They could see that we were just a bunch of friends having a good time, out for food and a few drinks. Why then, did they drop roughly $350 each? Given the anonymity of the gesture, we could only guess. I took it not as charity, but as admiration. Maybe, with the eminently practical symbol of money, they were trying to say how glad they were that, despite a serious disability, a dozen or so friends could get together for a not inexpensive meal, some drinks, and lots of laughs. Maybe the paths of the lives that got us all there were so enigmatic or awe-inspiring to them that they really needed some way to say so, but didn’t want to patronize us with awkward expressions of admiration that would just have made everybody uncomfortable.
I wonder so much about the conversation at their table. Maybe seeing the challenges we had obviously overcome in order to be there laughing and enjoying ourselves with friends put some things in their lives into perspective for them. Maybe it was a dare. Maybe they just won $20000 at the race track and were feeling benevolent. Maybe they’d just cheated someone in a shady business deal and were feeling slightly guilty. Maybe they’re worse off than we are, and went into debt on their credit cards because it really mattered to them to do something spectacularly generous for people who, regardless of our normal lives, do have to work harder than most people for most things. We’ll never know. All we can do is not forget it, and try to spread it around. Thanks, whoever you are, it was an incredible thing to do, and you turned a fun night with friends into something even nicer: a memory of anonymous generosity.