Paying it forward: The most fun a hundred bucks can buy
Aspen, CO ColoradoHere you go, sir. Twenty bucks. Really. Take it! Ma’am, you’ll never guess what I’m giving away today. Yes, it’s a $20. Enjoy!So that’s how it feels. Handing out free money in the drizzle a few days back, I could finally see why Larry Stewart, a.k.a. the Secret Santa, spent the past 26 years giving away $1.3 million to strangers on the street. It’s an absolutely perfect way to spend an afternoon – and, if you’ve got it – a fortune.Stewart can’t give his away anymore – at least, not physically. He died Jan. 12 from complications of esophageal cancer, at age 58.On his website, the Kansas City cable TV and long-distance phone service entrepreneur recalled how he had been so poor and hungry as a young man that in 1971 he went into a diner and ate a huge breakfast he had no way to pay for. The diner owner leaned down and said, “Son, you must have dropped this.” It was a $20.Only later did Stewart realize: No one had dropped that money. It was a gift. And later still, he decided to start gifting in his own right. By the time he made his first million, in 1982, he was handing out $100 bills to astonished strangers.Stewart’s example inspired a lot of people to try his particular random act of kindness – including me, a gal normally so cheap I buy the off-brand Rice Krispies, which are so hard they hurt my kids’ teeth.But inspiration is inspiration.”I’m excited!” exclaimed Emilio Vuchev, my recipient No. 1. He’d been handing out flyers for a pizza parlor when, suddenly, here he was in possession of a $20 bill! And what would he spend it on?”A present for my mother.”They still make guys like this?”Flowers,” he said. “And something sweet, like chocolate.””Hey!” I floated away, thinking. “I just, albeit indirectly, surprised someone’s mom!” But the lady I approached next brought me back down, fast.”What is this for?” she frowned.”For you. For anything you like. Really.” (Did this happen to Larry Stewart, too?)”Well, I’ll put it in the collection plate,” she sighed.You have a nice day, too.Walking around with money you’re going to give away is a strange, secret feeling. Only you know you are about to change someone’s day. That must have been what Stewart found so fun. That also probably explains why he remained doggedly anonymous until last fall, outing himself only because he thought a tabloid was about to do it.With the tingling, however, comes the tug of responsibility: Whose day aren’t you going to change? I was just about to cheer up a chilly looking hat vendor when a man limped by. His belt was a sock.”Here’s a 20.””Oh God, really? Thanks!”He ran off as fast as his limp could take him and I – even though you’re not really supposed to worry about where the money is going – ran off right behind him.Where would he go? A bar? A betting parlor? A drug dealer? He looked so desperate.But no. He ducked into a little luncheonette. I asked the cashier what he’d bought.”Coffee and Tylenol,” she replied.At a tiny candy stand where Spanish music blared from a not-so-tiny boom box, I gave the proprietor my second-to-last $20. “I look at this as a recompensation,” he said happily.For?”This year I spent over $400 on Christmas presents for kids I don’t even know. We had them delivered to my mom’s house and she hands them out to a lot of kids: ‘Here, honey, here’s a toy!’ Do it every year.”And I was congratulating myself for handing out $100?”You should give a $20 to my friend Lance in there,” said the candyman, Frankie G., pointing to an ancient shoeshine man in the shop next door, sound asleep on his stool. “He hasn’t had any business all day.”Lance was going to use the cash to get something to eat. He looked delighted at the prospect. But first, he had a serious job to do.”Get up here.”I climbed onto the shoeshine throne, a place I’d never been.”He’s the best,” said Frankie. “He shined a pair of boots for me one time so well that when I went home I walked like this” – he pantomimed a tip-toe – “not to get them dirty. I haven’t worn them since because I just like looking at them.”I like looking at mine now, too. Because if you look real close, you can see Larry Stewart smiling back up.Lenore Skenazy is a contributing editor at the New York Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com.