Working Christmas week for most of my three decades of newspapering, I've covered all sorts of kindnesses. But nothing like Kmart's Layaway Angels.
As best as anyone can tell, this viral beneficence began Dec. 6 at a store outside Grand Rapids, Mich. A woman walked in and paid off the balances three people owed on their holiday shopping.
That was a Tuesday. By week's end, stores in California were calling their counterparts in Michigan, wondering how to handle such unheard-of requests.
Three weeks later, Kmart officials are struggling to keep up with the kindness. Strangers, mostly anonymous, have allowed more than 1,000 customers to take home $420,000 worth of toys and clothes left on layaway.
The angels have come in all stripes. In Quakertown, a 41-year-old man who lost his marketing job in the pharmaceutical industry walked up to the layaway desk Tuesday and paid off nearly $500 worth of presents for three shoppers.
He asked that I not use his name but was happy to tell his story - "so others might do the same," he said. He said he'd read a story about the phenomenon on the Internet and called the store Monday to see whether anyone was in danger of losing presents bought on layaway.
So the next afternoon, he walked into the store about 4:30 p.m. and waited until there was no more line at the layaway desk.
Jim Brelsford, the store manager, was ready. The man was the 13th layaway angel to come in since this paying-it-forward phenomenon started.
The manager knew of three customers late on payments who were about to lose their layaways. Since the recession began, some retailers have brought back layaway policies, which allow customers to make small, regular payments.
At Kmart, the payment plans run for eight or 12 weeks. A shopper who is seven days late can lose between $15 to $30 in fees, and the merchandise winds up back on shelves.
Layaways allow people to avoid running up credit, a Kmart spokeswoman said, but the former Big Pharma angel called it "a double whammy if they miss their payments" - money lost, no presents.
His largesse allowed the store manager to call three women to let them know their debts of $81, $227, and $181 had been paid.
"Some people aren't very happy with me when I have to let them know their layaways have been canceled," Brelsford said. The calls he's been able to make for the last two weeks have been a pleasure.
One of the women he reached Tuesday started apologizing as soon as she heard who was calling.
"She went, 'Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, I won't be able to pick up by Friday.' And I said, 'Oh, no, ma'am,' and I told her what had happened."
Ruth Beers got the good news Tuesday. Another angel had settled her bill. She's a 52-year-old assistant in a Lansdale hospital kitchen. Her husband fell a few weeks ago and punctured a lung. On top of that, he's lost his company car, and her 1999 van was too rusted to pass inspection.
"This couldn't have come at a better time," she said, holding back tears.
Her angel had settled her account for $77. "That doesn't sound like a lot," she said. "But it is."
Now one of her granddaughters will receive a Littlest Pet Shop from Beers. Another granddaughter will get the camera she asked for. Beers' daughter can expect a Seal-a-Meal system for when her hunter husband brings home deer.
"It's wonderful to know there are still people out there who care and understand what people are going through," she said. "If I could do it for someone else, I would. What goes around comes around. It's karma."
As for the Big Pharma angel, he said what he did made him feel better about what he's been going through. He drove to the Kmart right after finishing a phone interview for a job. He didn't want to go before the interview, he said, "because I didn't want to cry."
"I'm in pretty good shape," he said. "I'm not in financial desperation. I don't have a job and I can't find one, but I'm OK. But people are hurting."
Until recently, this viral goodwill had been fairly specific, hitting Kmarts, spilling over to a few Wal-Marts and other retailers.
On Tuesday, it spread in the biggest way yet. Hundreds of shoppers who'd bought clothes on layaway at the Burlington Coat Factory in Cheltenham learned congregants from the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church had paid their tabs - all $68,000 of them.