The kindness of strangers

This summer, I spent a lot of time going back and forth between Ashland and the coast because I picked up a part-time job there. It was a lot of time on the road, and very few hours relaxing on the beach.

Mostly it was an exercise in trying to find my favorite affordable hotel on the Southern Oregon coast and then holing up there to do piles of paperwork with "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" playing in the background. Once I ate Chex Mix in bed, that turned out to be a crumb-filled mistake.

On my final trip back, I decided I wouldn't have lunch before leaving the coast. I wasn't very hungry; I'd be back in town soon and having dinner with my family. That feeling lasted about 10 miles. Midway through the redwoods, I could hardly concentrate because all I could think about was food. I thought about burgers and milkshakes and my sad, left-behind bag of Chex Mix.

By the time I reached Hiouchi, a little town on the California side of the Redwood Highway, I was scouring the signs looking for a restaurant, any restaurant, though preferably one with a nice, clean restroom (after all, I had only peed three times in the past 30 minutes, a clue as to why people desperately avoid taking road trips with me). I spotted The Hiouchi Cafe, felt the call of its open sign, and headed in.

The bathrooms were lovely and clean and smelled like potpourri (if a bathroom is going to smell like anything, I'd like that scent to be one of dried flowers). I settled down to order a hamburger and water, because the fear of overgrowing my pants in a single seating stopped me from ordering a milkshake. I probably wasn't the most inconspicuous of customers. I changed tables three times, deciding that the first was too big, the second too small and the last one just right. After I finished my Goldilocks routine, I pulled out my giant, hot-pink bag full of papers and settled in to get some work done while waiting for my food.

I finished my burger, sipped my water and spent some time trying to imagine it was a chocolate milkshake. Not hard to do because I have a very active fantasy life. I frequently pretend that I am in Hawaii or doing chores or being an effective disciplinarian of my slightly spoiled child.

Eventually the waitress came up to me and told me not to worry about the bill, that the couple who had left earlier had already paid for my food. I was totally taken aback. I had noticed, during my table-hopping period before lunch, that there were other diners in the restaurant, but I hadn't taken very much notice of them.

I'm not usually a girl who's on the receiving end of free items. I once won a free book in a drawing at a department store, and a couple times at work people have brought me a coffee. But in general I don't get drinks bought for me at bars, and most of my dating life has been spent splitting bills. I think I don't have the smile and eye-batting method perfected, or even attempted. I should probably practice in front of a mirror.

But this one day, in Hiouchi, strangers bought my cheeseburger. I don't know who these people were or what their reason was for paying for my lunch, but I will always be very grateful. It was an incredibly bright spot in my day, my belly was full, the weather was beautiful, and someone noticed me enough to do something nice for me.

By the time I finished my lunch, the cafe was empty and I wasn't able to pass on the favor, but now I am on the lookout to do so. I hope that I have the chance to make someone feel happy and special and noticed on a day that they think is just going to be full of paperwork and long decisions about seating choices.

Zoe Abel learned that once in a great while there is such a thing as a free lunch. You can contact her at

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