What Goes Around Comes Around

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted


The truck driver approached the tollbooths on the Bay Bridge, laboring to maneuver his big five-axle rig into an open lane. Heavy traffic made it a tough job.

An elderly couple approaching the toll lanes behind him saw his predicament and slowed, waving the trucker into their lane, directly in front of them.

Catherine Noone, toll collection manager at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, has seen many people pay it forward — backward, to the car behind them. 

When the grateful trucker paid his toll, he asked the tollbooth operator, Catherine Noone, to keep the change and use it to pay the toll for the car in line behind him. He added “please thank them for letting me in.”

“When I told the gentleman driving the car that the trucker had paid his toll, he smiled and said being nice does pay off,” recalls Noone. “He told me to remember that. I said I sure will.”

An American Tradition

Spreading the wealth. Creating good karma. Doing unto others. Paying it forward. No matter what you call it, a random act of kindness may not bring world peace, but it’s pretty certain to bring a smile to both the giver and the give-ee. The premise is simple: Return a favor — not by paying it back but by paying it forward.

Everyman’s favorite patriot, Benjamin Franklin, was a documented believer in the practice. In a letter dated April 22, 1784, he directed a Mr. Benjamin Webb to repay a loan by paying it forward.

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.

A hundred years later, American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up the practice in his 1841 essay Compensation:

In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.

The concept became part of modern culture in 2000 when Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay It Forward was made into a movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joe Osment. A box-office success, the movie revolves around Osment’s character, a 12-year-old boy who carries out a social studies assignment by starting a pay-it-forward movement. He does something nice for three people, asking them to return the favor by doing something nice for another three people and so on. In the movie, the young philanthropist puts in motion a chain of events that changes the lives of his family and an “ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him.”

Following the success of the movie adaptation of her book, author Hyde established the Pay It Forward Foundation as a tool for educators to inspire students to “realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so.”

On last year’s national Pay It Forward Day, Blythe DeClerck of Lusby and her two-year-old son Matthew were on the receiving end of a stranger’s generosity when the person in front of them at a McDonald’s drive-thru paid for their meals.

On April 28, 2011, the idea jumps from the classroom and goes global with the fourth annual Pay It Forward Day, when we’re all encouraged to participate in the cycle of good deeds — if only for one day. Last year, 28 countries including the U.S. recognized the day, with an estimated 235,000 people performing at least one random act of kindness, according to the foundation. 

On last year’s national Pay It Forward Day, Blythe DeClerck of Lusby and her two-year-old son Matthew were on the receiving end of a stranger’s generosity. 

“I stopped by the McDonald’s in Lexington Park for lunch,” DeClerck tells Bay Weekly. “When I got up to the drive-thru window, I was told that my order had been paid for by the person in front of me.” 

Keeping with the spirit of the day, DeClerck paid for the next customer’s lunch.

She heard that the chain went on all day with only a couple of breaks.

Pay It Forward Day good deeds ranged from buying a burger to taking on a chore for an elderly or ill neighbor to dropping coins in an expired parking meter to paying the road toll for the stranger next in line.

Flourishing in Chesapeake Country

Back on the Bay Bridge, every day is Pay It Forward Day. The generosity of bridge travelers delights tollbooth operators.

“It happens a lot during the holiday season,” says Noone, who has worked her way up from a tollbooth operator to toll collection manager.

But paying it forward is more than seasonal goodwill. It goes on year-round. Nor is there a particular type of driver who tends toward the charitable.

“It runs the gamut,” says Noone. “From young, old, car drivers and truck drivers. One time I had three people in a row pay it forward. It really brightened my day.”

This toll-sharing goodness is appreciated not just by the drivers next in line but also by the toll collectors, who get to pass on the good word.

“We get to deliver the surprise, so we’re a part of all the happiness,” says Noone. “It’s fun to watch the drivers’ faces when we tell them. At first it’s kind of stunned huh? Then it washes over them that somebody was nice, and it’s all smiles. Collectors talk about how good it makes them feel. They’ll say I had a feel-good one today. It really brightens the day.”

Jeff Klapper of Prince Fredrick is one of those drivers who brings smiles to the faces of tollbooth collectors and fellow drivers.

“I was driving a vehicle with an EZ pass installed — of which I was ignorant,” Klapper recalls. “When I approached the tollbooth, money in hand, the light turned green, and I realized in a flash of recognition what that object attached to the windshield was. It was Christmas week, so I pulled up to the attendant, gave her the money, said Merry Christmas and drove off. The expression on her face was one of astonished disbelief.”

The Bay Bridge tollbooths are but one outpost of the movement.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped into the Prince Frederick Starbuck’s for a caffeinated pick-me-up. When I went to pay for my latte, the cashier smiled and told me “The lady in front of you took care of it with the balance left on one of her gift cards.”

That lady was Mary Scanlon, but she declined to be interviewed for this story. She says she was just paying it forward. Her simple generosity left me smiling all day and evolved into my New Year’s resolution. I resolve to never pass up a chance to do the same for the next person in line.

Pay It Forward

Even if you don’t make it your New Year’s resolution, consider performing your own occasional feel-good deed. You don’t have to wait for April’s official Pay It Forward Day. You can start now.

One way is probably sitting in your wallet in the form of a gift card or two stuffed in your holiday stocking. After you’ve made your purchase, instead of hanging onto a card with just a couple of dollars balance, eventually forgetting about it, leave the card with the cashier with the instruction to apply whatever’s left to their next customer’s purchase.

Tell us about other examples you’ve encountered of paying it forward: [email protected].