Last Saturday, Dec. 5th, something startling and wonderful happened at The Aramingo Diner in Port Richmond.
The 52-year-old landmark restaurant at 3356 Aramingo Ave. is open 24 hours a day, so it's always a-bustle. But the place really hops during weekend breakfast and lunch time. Last Saturday was no different, and both wings of the diner - the booth area and the bigger dining room - were lively.
The manager on duty, Linda (who asked that I not mention her last name here, for reasons I can't get into but let's just say everything worked out okay...), tells me that a couple in their 30s paid their check at the register, then asked the cashier to let them secretly pay the check of another couple in the dining room - a couple they didn't know.
"They just wanted to do it," she said. "They thought it would be a nice thing to do."
When the unsuspecting patrons went to pay their check, they were floored to find out that strangers had picked up their tab. So they asked the cashier to let them pay another table's check, also anonymously.
When that table's patrons approached the register, they, too, decided to pay the favor forward for yet another table of unsuspecting strangers.
You know where this is going, right?
For two hours, delighted customer after delighted customer continued to pay the favor forward. And a buzz began to grow. Not among patrons, who had no inkling what was going down at the register, but among the dining-room wait staff - Marvin, Rosie, Jasmine and Lynn - and other Aramingo workers moving in and out of the room.
"We were amazed," says Linda, adding that neither she nor her staffers that day recognized any of the participating patrons as regulars. "Nobody knew each other. But once they found out someone paid their check, they got excited and wanted to do the same thing for another table."
The checks weren't huge, says Linda. They varied between about twelve bucks and $30 (many of the sneaky do-gooders even included tip money in the gift).
But the impact made an out-sized impression on the staff, who marveled at how that initial, single act of generosity kept repeating itself.
Says Linda, "In thirty years working here, I've never seen anything like it. You might have someone pick up a check for another table, but usually it's because they know them."
All in all, about 20 checks were "paid forward" (a term coined by author Catherine Ryan Hyde, whose 2000 book, Pay It Forward was made into an earnestly schmaltzy Hollywood movie).
The lovely cycle finally ended, two hours after it began, when a lone diner, clearly unacquainted with the "pay it forward" concept, seemed befuddled that someone had picked up his check. He simply accepted the favor, grunted, and left.
Notes Linda, "He didn't even leave a tip."
Which didn't diminish the day's sweetness, which has lingered among the Aramingo staff. Linda herself decided to pay the lesson forward a few days later, when she was standing in line at the Wawa.
"There was a cop behind me. I said to the guy at the register, 'See what's in his hands, and charge me and not him.' It was a cup of coffee. I told the guy not to tell the cop I paid for it. I didn't want it to look like a bribe."
The cop figured things out, though, and gave Linda a wave and a smile when he got outside, which made her feel good.
Says Linda, "It was a nice thing to be part of."
So, on the off-chance that the first pay-it-forward couple at the Aramingo Diner is reading this, please know that your gesture of kindness didn't end when you walked out the door.
It morphed into hours of additional kindnesses. And who knows what kindnesses those gestures prompted?