Cuando 100 extrañas me compraron un café.

Proof that both adventure and kindness can be found on the street

As soon as I set foot in New York City, I sensed how different it is from any other metropolis. On the surface, it’s just like all other major cities— skyscrapers crowd the horizon; taxis whiz by; trains rumble below; horns honk; locals rush, tourists dawdle; pedestrians chat, shout, laugh…

The energy there is more intense than anywhere else in the U.S., though.

New York is frenetic. Faster paced. Volume “turned up to 11.” Life is lived at such a chaotic speed that apparently most people don’t even have time to make eye contact or include a greeting in their interactions, let alone find a trash can.

So when someone drops a coin there, it seems no one bothers to pick it up — because bending down in the middle of the pedestrian highway is bound to get you run over, and possibly cursed at. (Plus, how much are 5 cents really worth in one of the most expensive cities in the country?)

Because of this, the filthy streets of Manhattan are noticeably lined with pocket change.

A few days into my residency there, I wondered how much money I could amass if I were to pick up every single coin I saw laying on the ground.

I put a Ziploc bag in my purse for precisely this reason. It received a new addition at least every couple of days.

I hadn’t planned for my time in New York to be over so quickly. After a little more than a year, in May 2019, I moved back overseas—literally. (I returned to my work on cruise ships.)

My days of scrounging the sidewalks were over, and the bag was quickly forgotten in the abyss of my purse.

In October of the same year, my ship contract ended right back in Manhattan, in an extreme coincidence. I wheeled my life off the gangway and into a taxi, and was reminded of my personal project when I spotted a loose penny on the ground. I realized I’d never actually counted my pocket change.

I dug through my purse, opened the bag of coins, added the penny, and tallied them all up. I had $1.27.

What could I possibly buy with such a miniscule amount, in one of the country’s costliest places? I tried to ponder this as I stared out the window, while also maintaining a friendly conversation with my driver.

The next morning, I strolled past one of the city’s infamous breakfast carts. I checked the prices, and was shocked to discover the smallest cup of coffee was only $1.25.

I approached the gentleman inside, and started our interaction with eye contact, a smile, and a cordial greeting. (Normally, such a move is met with extreme suspicion in New York City. Nobody is that nice. In fact, a New Yorker’s way of being polite is either to completely ignore you, or to deal with you as expediently as possible. I always refused to assimilate in this regard.)

“Hi, good morning!” I said.

He returned my eye contact, smiled back, and actually responded. How beautiful!

I continued, now feeling quite at ease to proceed with a request that was likely to inconvenience this stranger.

“I’m wondering if I could pay you in change. I know that’s unusual, but there’s an important reason,” I giggled.

In a pleasant tone, he responded that paying in coins wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Discerning that this person appreciated friendly interaction—which is all too rare in the Big Apple—I probed to see whether he’d like to hear the whole story.

“Do you wanna hear why?!” I asked, unable to hide my childlike enthusiasm, which I get the sense I’m known for amongst my circle of friends.

“Sure!” he exclaimed.

Wow, this was already a great day!

“Well,” I said as I rifled through my purse. “I’ve been collecting these coins for more than a year.” I showed him the bag. “It’s all the pocket change I’ve found laying around on the sidewalks here. Today I counted it, and it’s $1.27. Your coffee is pretty much the only thing I can buy with it!”

“Wow!” He said. “That’s pretty cool!”

I was delighted for someone else to find this project as fascinating and fun as I had.

“Yes, thank you! It is cool! And do you know who’s paying for this? A bunch of anonymous New Yorkers!”

He smiled with his whole face, quite endeared by the notion. “That’s amazing!” he replied.

We exchanged a few more pleasantries as he poured my coffee and handed me the quintessential blue amphora cup. I asked if I could have an extra one to keep as a souvenir. He smiled again, obliged my request, and then wished me a great day.

I thanked him through an enormous smile, and chuckled as I told him to keep the change. It was a drop in the bucket as far as his tips for the day, but what was I going to do with two pennies? Throw them back on the ground?

I practically skipped down the street, with a huge goofy smile that I was both unable and unwilling to wipe off my face. I didn’t care if I looked silly, smiling to no one. I deserved a moment of uncontrollable happiness upon the fruition of a laborious, menial project — and as the recipient of a lengthy act of kindness from about a hundred strangers I’ll never know anything about.

I took a seat across from the Flatiron Building, glanced up at the buildings I had once called my skyline, then returned my gaze to the warm blue cup in my hands. I raised it to the sky.

“Cheers!” I said aloud before sipping through my smile.

I’ve sampled coffee all over the world. It’s one of my favorite ways to experience a new place. But this cheap, roasted flavor embodying the warm, delicious bitterness of New York itself instantly became my all-time favorite cup of coffee. Thank you, strangers.

wrote a piece in response to this, from the perspective of Breakfast Cart Man. It’s hilarious! Go take a peek.

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