Goodwill Toward Shoppers

A supermarket checkout line. Cheesy holiday music is playing overhead. Not the fun kind of cheesy music, but the kind once heard in Kmart á la 1973.

There is an old man at the head of our long checkout line, standing at the register. He digs through his pockets, but keeps coming up empty handed.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he says to the cashier. “I must’ve left my wallet at home.”

He is embarrassed, and the young cashier is unsure about what to do.

I am watching this entire exchange closely because I am a columnist who writes human interest stories.

We columnists must keep our observational reflexes honed as sharp as wiffle-ball bats. We have to stay ready because we are not real writers.

Writers are inspired artists and poets. Columnists are factory-line workers who take whatever stories they can get.

Your big-time writer is a person with incredibly poignant things to say about life and the profundity of the human condition; they have grand ambitions of someday winning a major literary award, and possibly having a “New York Times” best-smeller.

A columnist’s highest aspiration is for someone to cut his or her column out of the paper and hang it on the refrigerator.

So columnists have to work harder than true writers because we can’t rely on inspiration. Besides, our job is not to be inspired, but to constantly find new stories. This is not simple work. Therefore, most of the time you find me writing about key social issues such as, say, my dogs.

But the beauty of all this is, every once in a while a column will actually fall into your lap.

This is a rare thing indeed, and one of the most precious things that can happen to a stringer of words. Your task as a columnist is to be mindful enough to notice this pivotal moment is occurring, then to ignore it and keep writing about your dogs.

So anyway, after the old man in the cashier lane realizes he doesn’t have enough money, the old woman behind him in line does something remarkable.

She says, “You know what? Let me pay for it.”

I’m expecting the woman to lay down the exact amount of change to make up the difference the old man owes. Instead she surprises everyone by whipping out her Mastercard and paying his entire grocery bill.

“Merry Christmas,” she says.

Everyone in line is now smiling at each other. I’m smiling, too, because this column just wrote itself.

Now it’s the old lady’s turn to pay for her own groceries. But the guy in line behind HER steps forward and shoves his Amex into the card slot and pays HER bill.

“Just paying it forward,” he says. “Merry Christmas.”

This column has just graduated into a refrigerator-hanger

Next in line. When the cashier is scanning the next guy’s items, there is a young father behind him with a cart full of screaming babies and groceries.

Young Dad digs into his wallet and hands the cashier a gift card. The cashier scans the card. “Let’s keep this going,” says Young Dad, who has just bought a stranger’s groceries.

“Merry Christmas,” says Young Dad.

They shake hands, then slap each other’s backs for a man-hug.

I am going to win a Pulitzer.

The cashier says, “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me in my whole life. This is awesome. People are so kind.”

The young father blushes and says, “Well, I just didn’t want to break the chain. You know?”

After she scans his groceries, the cashier gives the total to Young Dad. At this point I am now stepping forward to offer to pay for this man’s items since (a) I am next in line, and (b) this will make a great ending to the column.

But the cashier beats me to it.

“No, wait!” the cashier says, excitedly plucking a debit card from her purse. “I wanna pay for your groceries, sir.”

So she pays for Young Dad’s groceries. They exchange handshakes and hearty Merry Christmases. And this is the most beautiful Yuletide moment I’ve seen in maybe my entire life. Say what you will about our species, but humankind will floor you with its goodwill.

Then it’s my turn at the register.

There is nobody behind me in line, nobody ahead of me. Nobody offers to pay for my stuff. The cashier merely rings up my groceries then clears her throat loudly at me.

I’m sort of looking around, but the room is fresh out of Samaritans.

Oh, well, I’m thinking to myself.

So I move to pay for my groceries by swiping my card. The computer immediately makes a violent buzzing noise and the screen reads CARD DECLINED.

And now you know what it feels like to be a columnist.


  1. Ed (Bear) - December 18, 2021 9:51 am

    You are extraordinary Sean of the South! And a much loved writer! I’ve had my credit card declined also. In today’s free world that is akin to being disinherited from society. My card information has been stolen three times. Such a hassle especially if you autopay bills with it. But stolen is arguably better than maxed out!

  2. Ed (Bear) - December 18, 2021 10:11 am

    I very much enjoy your writings and that they’re about extraordinary “ordinary” people. So I had to post twice today. Your stories inspire me and I love reading them. It’s uplifting to hear of people doing good and doing good things! The news has the bad stories well in tow so good news like yours is appreciated light amid the darknesses.

  3. Billy - December 18, 2021 10:28 am

    Well, I always wondered about these folks who reply in the middle of the night. Now I know! Apparently I am the first reply and I am now past four am. I got a real kick out of this column. I was along on this glorious ride, feeling teary-eyed at all the “goodwill toward men” and then life interrupted! Oh well, Sean, hang in there. You make my day each morning. I just don’t tell you like the ladies–and I love the ladies comments. They add greatly to the column’s appeal. Keep on keeping on!

  4. Michele G - December 18, 2021 11:18 am

    You have such a gift to move us with your writing into what the character Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “my favorite emotion —laughter through tears.” Thank you for the morning treat in my inbox.

  5. Leigh Amiot - December 18, 2021 11:26 am

    Sean, long ago when my kids were small, a server informed us someone was paying for our dinner at a locally owned Mexican restaurant. We were so surprised and happy—then the same server came back shortly and apologized, he had sprung the news to the wrong party. So I know what it’s like to be treated and to be declined. 😂
    Thank you for bringing us stories of generosity and goodwill! Merry Christmas to you and yours and all the Sean daily readers!

  6. Norma+Den🇿🇦 - December 18, 2021 11:35 am

    Well done to that line of excellent people. Goodwill to all men & women. I admit to occasionally paying a bill for a pensioner having a coffee & cake ( forget I’m also a pensioner, but as Grandma always said, I’m still 17 on the inside). A few months back I had to take my husband to the bank to sign some essential papers. We stopped for coffee & shared a giant muffin. Imagine my surprise when the bill came with PAID stamped on it. A total stranger had paid for us. She made my day, in fact my month. Doesn’t cost much to be kind to strangers. Sean you need to realise how your columns affect & encourage others, more than any Shakespeare or Steinbeck. To quote another famous writer: Today you are you, there is no-one alive that I’d youer than you. Dr Seuss

    • Rich - December 18, 2021 2:23 pm

      As I once heard, “I may have to grow up but I NEVER have to grow old!”

  7. Norma+Den🇿🇦 - December 18, 2021 11:36 am

    Ooops. No-one alive who IS YOUER THAN YOU.

  8. Darlene - December 18, 2021 12:13 pm

    Baaaaaahahaha! You’re adorable. Merry Christmas, Sean & Jamie!

  9. Joy Jacobs - December 18, 2021 1:26 pm

    As usual I’m crying and laughing at the same time. I’m not cutting your column out and putting it on my wall but I will (as usual) share it with my friends on Facebook. We all need some Christmas cheer. 🎄

  10. Suzanne DeBoer - December 18, 2021 1:29 pm

    A dear friend of mine sends me your offerings each day – along with commentary about what you have written as well as questions about how my life is going. It is a rich moment of my day – that combo of your thoughts and a friend’s loving responses provides me with thoughtful joy.
    In today’s writing, you called yourself a “stringer of words.” That string makes a connection that surpasses a simple message in that it also has allowed two friends to have a deeper bond. Thank you.

  11. Peyton+Lingle - December 18, 2021 1:36 pm

    Here is a little Christmas humor: When I hear this song on the radio, it brings back a memory from our visit to the Seattle area many years ago….

    My wife Sissy and I were in the Sears department store in nearby Redmond one evening.

    As we were walking through the store together, these words were being layed over the sound system:

    Sleigh bells ring, are you listening👂?
    In the lane, snow is glistening
    A beautiful sight👀
    We’re happy tonight😁
    Walking in a winter wonderland

    Thinking Sissy was behind me I substituted this phrase:

    Walking in women’s underwear

    To my embarrassment, I looked around and saw the person walking behind me was not Sissy but an elderly woman.

    Thankfully, she was amused and chuckled as she passed me by.

    Now this memory is stirred up every Christmas season….😁

  12. Penn Wells - December 18, 2021 1:53 pm

    There is a smallish burger chain in Oregon called Burgerville. My youngest son-in-law does some legal work for them. Last December, one of their executives told him that 53 consecutive cars at the drive-thru in their Newberg, OR, store paid it forward. There is hope someone will break the record this year. I don’t go through burger drive thru’s anymore. I do occasionally go to Starbucks and I do this. 😊

  13. Lifetime Chicago - December 18, 2021 2:01 pm

    This is the best!

  14. Rich - December 18, 2021 2:30 pm

    I disagree with your definition of “columnists”, Sean. Columnists are the “photography” writers of the world. As the husband of a former Walton Sun columnist/reporter and I as the lone staff photographer of the same rag, I was constantly on the lookout for the next front page photo spread. I was also on the lookout for subject matter for the reporters especially for my wife.
    Just so you know, Lewis Grizzard is looking down and smiling this morning on this column.

  15. Jan - December 18, 2021 2:38 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly …Lewis Grizzard, one of the best writers of all time, loves this column and your work!

  16. Stacey Wallace - December 18, 2021 2:46 pm

    Sean, my husband and I wish we could have paid for your groceries. Thanks for making my day. This retired English teacher says you are a REAL WRITER. Love you.

  17. Bkr - December 18, 2021 3:09 pm

    Ha!! I’m sorry but I laughed out loud!! This just cracked me up. Thank you!! Needed that laugh!

  18. Ruth Mitchell - December 18, 2021 3:49 pm

    This is just too good! I was ready for a sentimental boo-hoo, but it got swallowed by a hearty ha-ha! You are truly a great writer!

  19. Shelton A. - December 18, 2021 4:02 pm

    Great story of the spirit of Christmas and the joy of paying it forward. It is better to give than to receive! Thank you for sharing this special outbreak of kindness with us. If I’m ever behind you in a grocery store line, I’ve got you covered. Merry Christmas, and the spirit of giving it brings, to all.

  20. Ernie - December 18, 2021 4:08 pm

    Amazing column. It was timely, informative (I learned the difference between a writer and a columnist 😉), poignant, and as usual – sidesplittingly funny. How can your mini fans buy groceries for you and Jamie? This column alone is worth at least that. Many blessings and thank you.

  21. Joey - December 18, 2021 4:21 pm

    That ending came out of nowhere!!

    (The comments this morning are some of the best. Loved reading them as well ❤️)

  22. Nancy Crews - December 18, 2021 4:59 pm

    ❤your writing. The decline sound is not a good sound. Merry Christmas!

  23. Linda Moon - December 18, 2021 5:32 pm

    So, I thought of a cheesy comment real fast: “I like cheese and cheesy food at supermarkets, but not the kind of cheesy music you described in this human interest story.” This column may have just written itself, and you’ll be ready for your Pulitzer or close-up, Mr. DeSouth, when it’s made into a Hallmark Christmas movie. Oh, and I feel good while reading your columns and listening to Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime!

  24. Cynthia Russell - December 18, 2021 7:39 pm

    Because we are blessed every day.. every second… God lives within us to see beauty & love… It is a wonderful thing we get to behold it ALWAYS!!
    Thank You again Sean & Merry Christmas to Jamie & YOU!!
    keep on writing please & always!!

  25. Jean - December 18, 2021 7:58 pm

    Bless your heart! I would have paid for your groceries in a heartbeat!! Merry Christmas !!

  26. AlaRedClayGirl - December 18, 2021 8:35 pm

    Awww, what a heartwarming story right up to the end. Then it was just plain funny! Sorry, Sean, but we all needed that laugh. Sorry it was at your expense.

  27. Karen Snyder - December 19, 2021 4:53 am

    Writer? Columnist? Semantics‼️ Call yourself whatever you choose, but a rose by any other name . . . I was really feeling the warm fuzzies all the way through this, and then, then I think I snorted! 🤣 I hope the matter was easily sorted out.

  28. MAM - December 19, 2021 7:51 pm

    Too bad there were no Good Samaritans in line behind you, but I’m sure you managed to get your groceries paid for. I, too, was feeling good, and then I’m afraid I laughed, but more of an I’m so sorry you got yourself in this pickle while trying to mentally write your story. Love your stories, Sean, keep them coming!

  29. Jan Werbish - December 20, 2021 4:58 am

    I’d say your a writer, as your books are excellent , I hope your working on another book!! Merry Christmas!

  30. Patricia+Schwindt - December 20, 2021 1:26 pm

    Awesome! I didn’t see it coming.

  31. Larry Wall - December 20, 2021 11:22 pm

    Sean, this was your Christmas gift to all of us, your readers. I had tears in my eyes at the end, only it was for the uproarious laughter of the CARD DECLINED surprise. I honestly just broke out laughing again. Given that lots of good things occur at this time of year because of our joyful feelings, I can’t determine how much of this Pulitzer actually happened and how much is your clever mind being active.
    A belated happy anniversary to you and Jamie and a Very Merry Christmas.


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