If you place an order at the Chick-fil-A drive-through off Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Texas, it's not unusual for the driver of the car in front of you to pay for your meal in the time it took you to holler into the intercom and pull around for pickup.
"The people ahead of you paid it forward," the cashier will chirp as she passes your food through the window.
Confused, you look ahead at the car — it could be a mud-splashed monster truck, Mercedes or minivan — which at this point is turning onto the highway. The cashier giggles, you take your food and unless your heart is irreparably rotted from cynicism and snark, you feel touched.
You could chalk it up to Southern hospitality or small town charm. But it's just as likely the preceding car will pick up your tab at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru in Detroit or a McDonald's drive-thru in Fargo, N.D. Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them.
This is taking place at a time when the nation's legislators can't speak a civil word unless reading from Dr. Seuss. "We really don't know why it's happening but if I had to guess, I'd say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging," said Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, which is based in Atlanta. "Paying it forward is a way to counteract that."
While confusing in the context of paying for the car behind you in a drive-through, "pay it forward" means to repay a kindness by being kind to someone else rather than the person who was kind to you. The expression was popularized by the best-selling novel "Pay It Forward" by Catherine Hyde Ryan, which was published in 1999 and was quickly adapted into a film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. The protagonist does three good deeds and asks the beneficiaries to do three good deeds and so on.
Whereas paying it forward in drive-thrus occurred maybe once or twice a year a decade ago, now fast-food operators said it might happen several times a day.
"This is an example of goodness gone viral," said Ryan, who since the publication of "Pay It Forward" has become somewhat of a clearinghouse for random acts of kindness. "People bring me their pay-it-forward stories, and I've been hearing about the drive-thru phenomenon a lot lately."
Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav'nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.
Serial pay-it-forward incidents involving between four and 24 cars have been reported at Wendy's, McDonald's, Starbucks, Del Taco, Taco Bell, KFC and Dunkin' Donuts locations in Maryland, Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, North Dakota, Michigan, North Carolina and Washington.
More typically, though, it's one customer acting alone and perhaps routinely. "We have a lady who always pays it forward in the drive-thru, every day," said Aaron Quinton, co-owner of Old School Bagel Cafe, in Tulsa, Okla. "I point at the person behind and she just nods."
The anonymity of the drive-thru makes it especially easy to pay it forward because it dispenses with any awkwardness and suspicion about motives. The payer pulls away before the next car pulls up and discovers a gift that is impossible to refuse.
"If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you," said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald's and Starbucks drive-thrus in Banning, Calif. "I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition."
Kelishes said her kindness stemmed from feeling blessed and wanting to share her good fortune. But others have told drive-through cashiers they wanted to pay it forward in gratitude to drivers who waved their car ahead of them in line or after noticing in the rearview mirror a woman weeping into her steering wheel, and wanting to make her smile. Cancer survivors have done it in appreciation of life, and new parents have done it to celebrate their baby.
But more often there is an expressed desire to do something good at a time when so much else in the world seems so dishearteningly bad. It's a stark contrast, and perhaps a backlash, to the seemingly unremitting reports of unkindness in the news — politicians shutting down the government, NSA spying, teenage suicides resulting from cyberbullying, vicious slayings at a mall in Kenya, gas attacks in Syria.
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"It's about giving and letting people see not everybody is bad and there are nice people out there and maybe we can turn it around," said Connie Herring, an optical technician in St. Pauls, N.C., who pays it forward at drive-thrus at least once a week.
But her generosity has its limits. "I don't do it at Starbucks because I did it there once and that one time ended up costing me 12 bucks," she said. "You can't pay it forward if you're broke."
Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.