Carol

Last Saturday, I was standing in line to buy a Powerball ticket at a local Kroger — I’m stupid that way — squinting down at my phone reading about a protest in Boston. There, just at the edge of my myopia, I saw someone trying to creep into line ahead of me.

I, of course, reacted just like any red-blooded American with a slightly territorial and superstitious nature would in that situation. I inched up in line, closing the gap and making sure this lottery interloper didn’t snag the winning ticket just ahead of me.

Could you imagine? That’d be just my luck, you know?

The line lurched, and I lurched in synch, lifting my head this time to make sure this line-cutter knew I was onto him. No cutting in front of me, dammit. Not with $550 million at stake.

Well, it turns out the line-cutter was not a him after all, but a middle-aged African-American woman trying to sidle up to her daughter, who was in the queue just in front of me. I looked at Mom, she looked at me and I immediately, of course, crumbled like a piece of extra-dry Gorgonzola.

“Please,” I said, waving my arm to usher her into line. ‘Cause I’m stupid that way.

She, one-upping me, declined my invitation and waved me forward. We went back and forth like that until she finally, mercifully, gave in. She stepped into line to buy her ticket, the one with MY numbers on it, and we joked about meeting back at the Kroger service desk later when one of us won. “Remember me,” she said, “I’m the one with the colorful stripes on my shirt.”

After she was done, she stepped away from the clerk and, smiling at me, pressed a dollar bill into my hands. She all but insisted it on me.

I tried to give it back. She wouldn’t budge. She told me good luck.

She left. I was stuck.

As fate and a crowded grocery on a Saturday afternoon would have it, I saw her at the front of the store a few minutes later. I showed her the dollar bill, still in my hand. I told her that I was going to use it to do some good, to pay it forward.

She laughed and told me that at her church, they had a group that helped others, that paid it forward, called The Daughters of Sarah.

“It’s all about loving one another,” she said, looking me straight in the eye, “and taking care of each other.”

There we were, a middle-aged African-American woman and a quickly graying white dude in the age of Trump — this a week or so after Charlottesville — staring at each other, connecting, right there near the gift-card kiosk.

I’m not sure why, but I told her what I had just read in line, that in Boston, a group of 100 neo-Nazi types were trapped inside a bandstand on the Boston Commons while 20,000 counter-protesters celebrated. “One hundred haters,” I said, “and 20,000 people saying no to hate.”

She pointed up, past the Kroger offices upstairs, through the big glass windows, somewhere higher. She looked at me.

“I’m Carol,” she said.

“I’m John.”

We shook hands.

“Let me give you a hug, John,” Carol said.

So, right there in front of register 9 at the Kroger on Windward Parkway, I got a big hug from a complete stranger.

I hugged back.

***

They say that we in America are as divided as we’ve ever been. They say that race is a flashpoint for a society that is about to blow. There’s the alt-right and the alt-left, skinheads and neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, the KKK and Antifa.

Look at the news. It’s all over. We’re in trouble.

But you know what? I may be naive — there’s a better chance at that than I had at Powerball, for sure — but I believe that the people we saw fighting in the streets of Charlottesville, that the quick-fingered rogue cops and the cop killers in the news, that the persistent David Dukes and the occasional Dylann Roofs of this country do not represent us. They sure as hell don’t represent me.

They may be a small slice of America. They may even be part of a larger, more sinister bit.

But I still believe that the largest bit of this American pie — the people you meet at Kroger, or in a truck stop in Kansas or on the streets of New York City — are looking for peace, not for a fight. They’re looking for a common ground, not protecting theirs at all cost. We’re looking to build, not to tear things down.

Corny? Maybe. Pollyannish? Perhaps. But I believe it.

***

The Powerball drawing was held last Saturday night. I didn’t win. And I’m sorry to say that Carol didn’t either. Nobody did that night.

But last night, a woman in Massachusetts cashed in. She was the lone winner. The pot was $758.7 million.

Still … my $2 was totally worth it. It’s maybe the best $2 I ever spent.

I hope I see Carol again soon so I can thank her.

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