Real Change

How does this always happen, I thought. I was second in line at my favorite fast food establishment. Unfortunately, the other two lines briskly moved while I just stood behind only one person hunched over the counter paying. I started every time another cashier indicated they were ready, but neither I nor my co-worker had the heart to force our way into one of the other lines. So we waited on ours even as those behind us abandoned it.We chose that particular line because there was only two people in front of us and the first was already walking away. When the woman in front of us chose to pay cash, I thought we would order quickly. I was wrong.

She bent over the counter and her hands made odd shuffling gestures. It occurred to me that it looked as if it might take longer than usual, but I stayed in line, as did my co-worker. Even after the man behind us gave up and moved to another line, we still stayed put. Part of the reason is that we both are the type to politely wait. We’re not pushovers, but neither of us wanted to call more attention to the slow line.

We weren’t sure what took so long, but the employee kept reassuring the customer it was okay each time she muttered an apology. I eventually understood that the woman was having difficulty paying. Oh, she had plenty of money, but she had difficulty with the actual process of paying. I finally determined the source of the difficulty about five minutes into the ordeal.

I noticed the odd shuffling gestures were because she was counting coins. She paid for the meal with change, completely with change. She was well dressed and arrived in a car, so it didn’t seem as if she needed to count out coins, but I gathered she was, uh, frugal and prone to such behavior.

It took several minutes (more than ten), but she finished counting out $11.08 i coins to pay for her and her husband’s meal. The figure is correct. I had a lot of time to notice details.

We both ordered without incident, though the employee did seem quite relieved when I used bills. We sat down to eat when my co-worker said the most unkind thing I’ve ever heard him say.

“I know it can take a while, but did she have to take so long?” Yes, he is a very nice guy.

“Well, she paid with change,” I said.


“Yeah, I had a lot of time to notice the details.”

As we talked, I remembered another incident about change that happened when I was 17. The main difference was that I was on the other side of the counter. It also involved an even larger pile of coins.

I worked at a cinnamon roll shop in the mall and it was my first job. My inexperience, combined with the natural haughty arrogance of a teenager, often got my into interesting situations. It didn’t hurt that, while I did my best to do a good job, I still didn’t censor myself much when speaking with the public.

“Maybe you should just get on roll with a regular Coke,” I once told a woman after she ordered three regular cinnamon rolls, a pecan caramel sticky bun, two cinnamon twists, and a large Diet Coke. My customer service skills have greatly improved since then.

Small moments such as that happened more frequently than I care to admit, but one night stands out as the type of thing you dream of doing, but never do because you don’t want to be fired.

A customer ordered one cinnamon roll and a cup of water. His total was less than three dollars. He opened his wallet to pay and I saw several singles as he said, “Can you break a hundred?”

I looked from the $100 bill back to the $1 bills clearly in his wallet. He was practically holding it open for me and I counted at least three dollars in ones.

“Are you sure you don’t have anything smaller, sir?” I asked.

“Nope, this is all I’ve got.”

“Are you sure about that?” I subtly gestured with my hand toward his wallet, which he quickly closed and held down below the counter.

He waved the hundred and said, “This is all I’ve got.”


I shouldn’t have let it get to me, but it did. I really shouldn’t have acted on my anger, but I was 17 and had poor impulse control. I took the offered bill and counted out his change. I used mostly actual change. I started with a couple of twenties, a few five, lots of ones, and finally went for the jugular. I took out a roll of dimes, broke it open, and poured its contents on the counter. His eyes went wide, but he didn’t say a word. Yet.

I did the same with another roll of dimes and a few rolls of nickels. Each time I took the neatly wrapped roll and opened it to add to the growing mound of coins. I finished off with one dollar worth of pennies. I reasoned that it was better than my original plan to use all pennies.

He stared at the pile of change between us and said, rather loudly, “You have got to be kidding me.” Well, that’s not exactly what he said. He had several other words thrown in. He also employed assonance to great effect.

My sort of, kind of, but not really supervisor (who was the only other employee there) looked up at his tirade. She walked up to the counter from the back and asked if there was a problem.

“A problem? Yeas there’s a problem,” he fumed. He waved his hand over the change and said, “This is the problem!”

My sort of, kind of, but not really supervisor looked at me for a moment, back at him, then to the change. She did this at least twice. The realization that maybe, just possibly I shouldn’t have done it slowly crept into my consciousness.

“Is this the wrong amount, sir? Did he not count out enough?”

The man was beside himself. I, too, stood mouth agape. Neither of us expected that.

“No,” he said as he recovered, “it’s the correct amount, but look at this. How am I supposed to carry this?”

“Ah, yes sir,” she said as she nodded her head, “I understand. I’ll take care of this.” She turned and addressed me, “This is unacceptable.” I hung my head as the man smirked.

“Completely unacceptable,” she continued, “How could he possibly carry this? What were you thinking?”

I didn’t answer. I was wrong and I knew it. It felt good a moment before, but no longer did. She let me stew for just a second before she said, “Now get a bag so this gentleman can carry his change.”

His smirk vanished and I struggled to mask my unbounded glee. I quickly procured a bag and handed it to him. He glowered at me as he filled it. As he jangled away,  my sort of, kind of, but not really supervisor said, “Please tell me he deserved it.”

Even though he did, I never did anything like that again. At least not at that job.

I shared that story with my co-worker and we had a nice laugh. We laughed about when I was 17, but we also laughed about standing in line for a ridiculous amount of time. Annoyances became amusements and anger aged to smiles.

Now here’s an interesting thing. What if we changed our perception and our attitudes about life’s annoyances, delays, and obstacles. What if we took a moment to take it all in and saw the potential for laughter in all of them. What if we learned our own missteps and mistakes, especially our missteps and mistakes, could produce laughter along with experience? We might just stop seeing the problems and downsides of those moments and instead view them as a story waiting to be told and enjoyed. We’d stop wallowing in misery and start enjoying our lives and that, my friends, would be real change, and worth far more than we could carry.

© Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Leighton Brown is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information, please see the Copyright page.

About leighton

I could be considered a true Renaissance Man after having a long and storied (seriously, people actually tell stories about it) college experience and varied careers. I am also a shameless self-promoter (who did you think was writing this anyway?) who is prone to flights of fancy, an abundance of passion on any given subject, ,obsessive behavior, spontaneous storytelling (whether anyone listens or not), and making parenthetical references. I would also be thrilled if I heard someone use the word "raconteur" to describe me.
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1 Response to Real Change

  1. george says:

    I don’t remember that.

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